There are reasons why John Baldessari has always seemed a little like god. For one, the L.A.-based artist resembles popular visions of the man upstairs. He's a formidably tall fellow 6 feet, 7 inches with white hair and beard, and he exudes an unflappably calm, wise demeanor, characteristics that figure in his role as an influential professor for almost three decades at Calarts and UCLA. In Seven Days in the Art World, the dishy 2008 book-length look at the pre-downturn contemporary art scene, author Sarah Thornton describes Baldessari as "a hippie version of Michelangelo's representation of the grand old man in the Sistine Chapel." It wouldn't be hyperbolic to suggest that he makes art that you can faith in, if not always completely decipher.
At 78, Baldessari has amassed quite a body of work, even though he pared things down as one of his important early gestures, famously cremating his paintings to start afresh as a conceptualist. "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art" was the ironic mantra that fueled a 1971 video and his first print, in which he wrote the phrase repeatedly as if a punishment. Since that time, he has well managed to steer clear of boredom, his own and that of his viewers, with works that playfully address mediated culture and the making of art.
Baldessari received a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award at the current Venice Biennale, and he'll be honored with a retrospective at London's Tate Modern this fall. In San Francisco, a thorough selection of his prints is on view at the Legion of Honor. While screenprints and lithographs aren't usually considered primary works, Baldessari's approach is so connected to mechanical reproduction he relies on found images, text, and photography that the exhibition's 100-plus examples, all from the collection of Jordan Schnitzer, an Oregon-based Baldessari devotee, comprise a very satisfying survey.
Baldessari's art is seductive, though surprisingly difficult to parse. His works can play like engaging rebuses that are thwarted by his frequent use of bold, primary-colored dots placed over faces and objects, seriously throwing their meaning into question. Just as often, however, a Baldessari can have a succinct visual/conceptual punch line, like his 1973 Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts), which in classic conceptual art fashion, is just what the title describes. That early work also exemplifies the sense of playfulness and pleasure often present in Baldessari's art. It shouldn't seem surprising that his prints can evoke Matisse's buoyantly colorful Jazz cut-outs.
"I'm glad you saw that, he's a huge influence on me," Baldessari says when I mention the Matisse connection during a recent interview. At the Venice Biennale award ceremony, he acknowledged his indebtedness to Giotto, Goya, Duchamp, and especially Sol LeWitt, the latter two being similarly playful conceptualists who played with systems to rejigger the way we think about life and art. Baldessari's mode of operation involves breaking down mass-produced images until they take on new meanings. He has long collected 8 x 10 glossies from forgotten films, advertising campaigns, or various other commercial images that he reconfigures, crops, and/or paints over. Like Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills from the postmodern late 1970s, Baldessari's sources are coded with meaning and narrative, but are emphatically anonymous.