John Baldessari at Marian Goodman Gallery
John Baldessari at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, during his recent show ‘Installation Works, 1987-89’ © Bryan Derballa

In an age when contemporary art is very big business, and works by even living artists can command eight-figure prices at auction, John Baldessari is unafraid to poke a little fun at the art-industrial complex. The California-based conceptual master’s most recently completed body of work – a send-up of art history’s canon – takes a jab at the art world’s appetite for household names and easily identifiable visuals.

There is, for instance, an image of a soup can, a classic Warhol motif, but done in blue instead of Campbell’s red, without the label’s familiar logo, emphasising instead the can’s clean, minimalist, geometric shapes favoured by Sol LeWitt, whose name is printed underneath. Another piece takes a detail of a Jackson Pollock gestural abstraction but renders it in Matisse’s trademark yellow and blue and labels it with the latter artist’s name.

“I was getting mildly irritated by artists getting branded – ‘This is a Warhol’, ‘This is a de Kooning’ – and you don’t even look. It just has to look like a brand,” says Baldessari, in fine fettle at 82 years old, on a warm summer afternoon at Marian Goodman Gallery, his New York dealer. “And I said, I wonder if I can slow that down.”

Baldessari has also made versions juxtaposing works from famous artists with titles from film noir and popular music. It is, he says, playing a kind of parlour game with the viewer, “under the assumption that a spectator will try to find a connection” between image and text. The artist, who at six-and-a-half feet tall with white shaggy hair and beard resembles a giant Muppet, lets out a guffaw: “I doubt anybody could figure out what was on MY mind!”

Roughly 40 works will be shown together for the first time this month at collector Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Also on view in Gorky Park will be two billboards riffing on the “Double” series. The exhibition, 1+1=1, is Baldessari’s first in Russia.

It’s a debut that Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of the show’s curators, says is long overdue. “He’s one of the greatest artists of our time,” Obrist declares simply. “He’s a serial inventor. He’s now in his early eighties and continues to invent.”

Nevertheless, the irony is not lost on Baldessari that he is heavily associated with one series from the 1980s: a collection of found black-and-white glossy photographs on which he placed large coloured dots over the subjects’ faces, obscuring all but the archetypal gestures and poses, such as a handshake. “That’s what people, when they think about me, think,” he admits. “I only did it for a few years, but it sticks. What are you going to do?”

John Baldessari's ‘Double Vision: Lewitt (Green)’
‘Double Vision: Lewitt (Green)’, 2011 © Courtesy of the Ringier Collection

His artistic practice has, in fact, been a broad one. “I guess I get bored easily, and thank God,” Baldessari says. “I don’t want to all my life pound only the same key, although some artists do it very effectively. I’m not trying to denigrate anybody.”

Baldessari’s reputation has built steadily for decades, culminating in his acclaimed retrospective, Pure Beauty, which kicked off at Tate Modern in 2009, and he now enjoys a stature reserved for a select few. Yet he still seems surprised that he’s even able to make a living in the field.

“When I went to art school, I was just having fun,” he says. “I realised that was the last chance I had, and then I would have to get a job.” He returned to his home town of National City, California, and became a public school art teacher, expecting to stay there the rest of his life.

He painted on weekends until the 1960s, when his thinking shifted. Baldessari was tiring of abstract expressionism. He was also eager to explore something beyond painting and sculpture. Looking around his studio – an empty movie house owned by his immigrant father – Baldessari decided there was no point in keeping the scores of canvases, which he had no hope of selling anyway.

“The painting was the act of doing it,” he explains. “I had the experience in my head. There was no reason to own them.”

John Baldesarri's ‘Double Vision: Warhol (Orange & Blue)'
‘Double Vision: Warhol (Orange & Blue)’, 2011 © Courtesy of the Ringier Collection

In 1970 he decided to burn them. With a nod to Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return”, Baldessari thought he would return the materials he’d used to the earth. He found a crematorium, put a legal notice in a newspaper that he was giving up painting and turned the whole thing into a highly unorthodox art project. (Some of the ashes were saved in an urn; others were baked into cookies.)

By then he had begun experimenting widely. He commissioned other artists to paint selected images for him, then had a sign painter write their names on the pieces; he photographed the back of every truck he passed driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara; he appropriated old B-movie film stills of everything from cowboys to kissing lovers; he sang Sol LeWitt’s “35 Sentences on Conceptual Art” a cappella. One piece, “A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation”, is an ongoing listing of the work’s exhibition history. Another, “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell”, advises commercially minded artists to choose such subjects as “Madonna and Child”, “Flower Paintings” and “Still Lifes (Free of Morbid Props – Dead Birds, etc)”.

Baldessari did not hesitate to needle some of his peers, and they in turn sometimes dismissed him as a jokester. His irreverent wit, though, is one of the factors that have made him what Kate Fowle, chief curator of the Garage, calls “central” to younger artists. “I think humour is important to John,” says Fowle, who organised the Moscow show with Obrist. “It starts there. He takes his work very seriously, but he’s doing it with a humour that has kept him sane.”

John Baldesarri's ‘Double Feature: Sudden Fear’
‘Double Feature: Sudden Fear’, 2011 © Courtesy of Sprueth Magers, Berlin

Baldessari says: “I’m not being purposely humorous. I do think the world is absurd.”

Abandoning painting was not entirely easy. Baldessari acknowledges that when, for instance, he commissioned others to do the painting for him, he missed having his own hand in it. More recently, he says, he stopped having an assistant paint into photographs for him. “I said, ‘No, no, I have to put my hand in there …It has to be me.’”

As he became better known in the growing southern Californian art scene, Baldessari made the rare leap to teaching at college level, and in 1970 he moved to Santa Monica and joined the faculty of CalArts, where his students included David Salle, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler. He later switched to rival UCLA and retired a few years ago. His philosophy was to “make my teaching as much like art as I can”, and he is still revered as a teacher.

But Baldessari lays no claim to nobility. First he taught for the steady income. Then he taught for what he saw as a dialogue with his students, not a monologue delivered to them. “Students are the first to tell you you’re full of shit,” he says. “I like that kind of feedback.”

For a 1971 exhibition, Baldessari instructed students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to write “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” on the wall again and again, as if they were being punished in grade school. It has become arguably his most famous work and his most oft-quoted line.

Asked if he has lived up to the pledge himself, he smiles: “Every now and then an old student will remind me that I’m not, which is, you know, good. It’s nice to have a goal.”

‘John Baldessari: 1+1=1’ Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, September 21-November 24

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