If you’ve ever been a student of John Baldessari’s--when he was a member of the original faculty of UC San Diego’s art department more than 30 years ago, or during his 20 years at the California Institute of the Arts, or now that he’s a part-timer at UCLA--chances are you’ve had assignments returned to you with his rubber-stamped responses imploring you to “Learn to Think” or “Learn to Dream.”
If you’re a UCSD student now, or ever will be, you’ll be greeted by Baldessari’s blunt challenges every time you set foot in the campus library. The words “Read/Write/Think/Dream” run bold as commandments over the Geisel Library’s front doors. The stark concrete and glass entry has been transformed by Baldessari into a provocative threshold of words and images, translucent overlays and crisp descriptions. His installation recently became the 15th work in UCSD’s acclaimed Stuart Collection of sculpture.
Some might read Baldessari’s words as inspiring, others as intimidating. It was the artist himself, however, who felt daunted situating a work in such an auspicious campus setting.
“Students can be very critical,” he noted, sitting by as hundreds filtered past his work just after it was installed in mid-July. Many smiled. Some stopped and looked briefly pensive.
“I know students are ruthless--which is why I like to teach. Otherwise, you can start taking yourself seriously. So it’s a good thing to subject yourself to that. Keeps you humble.”
Baldessari, the drollest of a generation of Conceptual artists to have emerged in the 1960s, was nothing if not humble when Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe approached him in 1994 to consider doing a piece for the campus. Well-established for making photo-based paintings that test conventional assumptions about art but that, nevertheless, hang conventionally on the wall, Baldessari hesitated about his appropriateness for the commission.
“My first answer to her was, ‘Mary, I’m not a sculptor.’ When she said that it doesn’t matter, she had me stumped, and I had to deal with that for a while. She’s an amazing person in terms of her patience and persistence.”
Beebe and Baldessari had known each other since her previous position at the Portland Center for Visual Arts, so this courtship began casually, when the two crossed paths at social occasions. Long gestations, though, are common for works in the collection, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. Most works have taken several years to come to fruition, and Beebe is undeterred by artists who initially resist because they don’t identify themselves as sculptors. Elizabeth Murray’s “Red Shoe,” installed here in 1996, was the artist’s first freestanding sculpture. William Wegman worked primarily in photography and video before creating his parody of a scenic overlook in 1988.
“A lot of the time,” Beebe explained, “we approach artists who have not done traditional sculpture. We’re more interested in how they think than in what they’ve done.”
That has led to an evolving collection that transcends traditional norms for sculpture and also defies the sanctity of an enclosed sculpture garden, meshing with the 2,000-acre campus environment. Some pieces incorporate sound, and several function architecturally. Alexis Smith’s 560-foot-long, tiled “Snake Path” (1992) winds its way up a slope to the Geisel Library, past her huge granite rendition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and around a precious Edenic garden, both reminders of the tenuous relationship between innocence and knowledge. Jenny Holzer’s granite table, also from 1992, stands in a shaded courtyard, its densely incised truisms--"Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” “Action causes more trouble than thought"--inviting provocative discussion to continue outside the classroom. Other works, by artists including Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen, Niki de Saint Phalle and now Baldessari, resonate with the everyday activities of their sites.
“Read/Write/Think/Dream” features, on either side of the library’s central doors, photographic portraits of students bonded to the glass. On the building’s facade, they are standing. On a smaller glass wall inside, others are seated.
“After thinking about this idea and that idea, it seemed the one thing, in terms of content, that really wasn’t addressed by all the existing pieces [in the Stuart Collection] was the students,” recalled Baldessari, a tall, unassuming man of 70, dressed much like the students around him, in T-shirt and khakis.
“And it seemed to me, having taught so much, that schools lose sight of them. Students seem to be there sometimes for the sake of the buildings and the instructors. So I wanted to foreground them. Once I had that in place, it became almost a formal issue of using them architecturally, like columns.”
On glass panels beneath the students, serving as both a physical and metaphorical foundation, is a long row of books. The placement, Baldessari points out, is meant to suggest that the students have mastered the books, “rather than the tail wagging the dog.”
Baldessari also replaced the clear glass of the automatic front doors with translucent panes of yellow, blue and a reddish-pink so that when the doors slide open, the colors mix and become an animated color chart.
On one interior side wall is a photo-mural of pens and pencils in a neat row, each a different color, aligned according to their sequence in the color spectrum. These tools, neatly ordered, and the students, gathered in a row like carefully collected types, reflect Baldessari’s deep-seated interest in sorting and systems of organization. Though he had these photographs made for him by a graduate student at UCSD, typically he draws his imagery from his own visual library of film stills and appropriated images that he files according to category of subject or action.
Choosing the library for a site seems a natural, considering Baldessari’s methodical, archival instincts. But libraries appeal to him not just as places of order, but as places of refuge.
“As a kid, I used to live in the library,” he said, mentioning National City, the town south of San Diego where he was born. “I felt more normal there, I think. Both my parents were immigrants [his father from northern Italy, his mother from Denmark], so somehow I felt more normal in the library, less weird.”
After graduating from college with a degree in art, Baldessari taught throughout San Diego, from preschool kids at museums to juvenile delinquents, and, from 1968 to 1970, art students at UCSD.
Though he’s made a point of stating that art can’t be taught, he also openly admits to being most comfortable in a teaching environment. Baldessari’s influence on legions of students over three decades has been profound--and widespread. Cousins to his coy yet straight-faced, concept-driven art fill L.A.'s galleries, and the impact he’s made announces itself, it seems, daily. At lunch on campus, a man jumped up from his table nearby to identify Baldessari as his art teacher in seventh grade, and again in college.
National City, where Baldessari remained until moving north to teach at Cal Arts in 1970, was the wrong place to launch an art career--unless, as he did, you intentionally center your approach on being wrong.
From the start, Baldessari has flaunted the banality of his own work. In a spirit of defiant curiosity, he answers all of the traditional “shoulds” of art with a playful, “and what if I don’t?”
A good work of art, Baldessari has said, should make you change your mind about something, keep you off balance. The installation “Read/Write/Think/Dream,” less elusive than much of his work, leaves him shaking his head, unable to gauge how it might pique its audience.
“I don’t know,” he repeated a few times. “Looking back on my own history, works that I think are going to change the course of the world fall on their face, and something I thought was just not very interesting at all is talked about constantly. You don’t ever know what kind of triggers you’re going to pull. I think this is kind of ordinary, myself.”
He laughs, realizing that it sounds like he just insulted his own work, that he said something wrong. But as so often with Baldessari, wrong is just what he meant.
“I like ordinary things. It’s a good word.”