Sprüth Magers is honored to announce the global representation of the Estate of John Baldessari (1931–2020), extending the gallery’s decades-long relationship with the celebrated and beloved conceptual artist.
As Philomene Magers remarks, “Monika and I had the unique pleasure of working with John since the late 1980s, and his work has remained a cornerstone of Sprüth Magers’ presentations of cutting-edge international artists for over thirty years, cementing his crucial importance both to our work and to global audiences. As we established our Berlin, London and Los Angeles galleries, we regularly presented his ever-evolving and inventive projects.” Over the past several decades Baldessari has had numerous exhibitions at the gallery including group shows in 1988, 1991 and 1993 and solo exhibitions in 1995, 1997 and 1999. Over a dozen solo and group exhibitions across the gallery’s international locations have followed.
The Estate will also continue to work with John Baldessari’s long-term galleries Mai 36 in Zurich and Galerie Greta Meert in Brussels.
“I think words and images have equal weight. They do the same thing in different ways.” –John Baldessari (2005)
Born in 1931 in National City, California, Baldessari received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Diego State College, with additional coursework in art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and in studio art at Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles. After producing largely abstract, gestural canvases in the 1950s and early 1960s—the dominant approach in the US in the wake of Abstract Expressionism—Baldessari made a series of radical departures in an effort to produce “a kind of non-aesthetic art” that privileged ideas over self-expression. His paintings from 1966 onward incorporated photographs printed onto the canvas’ surface; or they featured only wry texts referencing contemporary art theory and practice; while others employed the hands of commissioned painters rather than the artist’s own. These conceptual gestures proved both groundbreaking and extraordinarily influential.
The 1970s also signaled Baldessari’s turn to a wider range of mediums, including photography, video and printmaking, where he continued to push at the bounds and conventions of each. His videos, which often take the form of lessons and instructions, demonstrate his deadpan, wry humor and his ability to cut to the core of questions surrounding artistic representation and perception despite their simple, straightforward means. Baldessari’s photographs, in turn, exploit the format of the sequence as they study the potential for meaning-making, knowledge and beauty within even the most mundane moments and repetitive actions.
In the 1980s, Baldessari began to incorporate found imagery into his work, private snapshots or film stills from forgotten movies that he encountered at stores and swap meets around Southern California. The anonymity of these images brought the gestures, poses and archetypes within them to the fore—content that Baldessari mined both for its narrative and compositional potential. His multi-panel works from the 1980s and 1990s are iconic for their ability to direct the viewer’s gaze to what they might normally overlook, as well as for what became a signature element of his work: brightly colored dots placed strategically over figures’ faces, which at once mask and draw attention to the images’ protagonists and their body language.
“What I discovered about images from the movies . . . was that people carry them around in their head. Sometimes they even control the person’s behavior. I can use that image bank that people have and begin to tweak it and change the meaning.” –John Baldessari (2009)
Moving into the twenty-first century, Baldessari regularly featured body parts, isolated and highlighted from their original source imagery, in paintings, sculptures and large-scale installations. Noses, ears and other appendages float amid fields of color, calling forth a range of sensory and cultural connotations and bringing the viewer’s body into dialogue with those on display. Fragmentation had always played a role in Baldessari’s work, but here it became fodder for evermore clever and fruitful combinations of image and text, whether in the artist’s evocative titles or in captions below.
Art historical references also proliferated in the artist’s later canvases, juxtaposing fragments from other artists’ paintings with captions of single words or lines excised from movie scripts. At times these texts appear to relate to the imagery above them; elsewhere their association feels tenuous, but viewers’ minds still attempt to connect word to image, unable to quiet the urge to find meaning or narrative between them.
“I think the easiest way to understand my work, or for me to understand myself, is that I’ve often said that I think of myself as a writer, but instead of using words I’m using images.” –John Baldessari (2009)
Both Baldessari’s and Sprüth Magers’ entwined histories with Los Angeles came together in February 2016, when the gallery inaugurated its Los Angeles space on Wilshire Boulevard with a solo exhibition of his recent work. A show of his inventive emoji paintings followed in 2017, and on June 12, 2021, the Los Angeles gallery will premiere Baldessari’s final painting series, The Space Between, completed in the months before his death in January 2020 at the age of 88. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue co-published by Walther König and Franz König.
Baldessari had over two hundred solo exhibitions of his work in his lifetime, and over one thousand group exhibitions worldwide. Major traveling retrospectives include Pure Beauty, which opened at Tate, London in 2009 and traveled to Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was also featured in Documenta V (1972) and VII (1982), Carnegie International (1985–86), Whitney Biennial (1983 and 2009), and the 47th Venice Biennial (1997) and 53rd Venice Biennial (2009), where he was honored with the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. In 2012 he was awarded the Kaiserring Goslar, and in 2015 he received the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts. His works are housed in the collections of public institutions worldwide, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven and Yokohama Museum of Art.
John Baldessari’s legacy is unparalleled for its impact on generations of artists, art historians and thinkers, not only through his wide-ranging work but also his many years of teaching and mentorship. The gallery looks forward to extending that legacy alongside the Estate in the years to come.