John Baldessari’s former students share memories

It’s not surprising to find industry talent among John Baldessari’s former students, along with various sculptors, painters, photographers, conceptual artists and installation artists. Some artist-teachers are famous for inspiring students who advance their own medium, like Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Dusseldorf photographers who followed them. Baldessari, who tends to mix mediums, is the opposite.

For this reason, it would be extremely difficult to identify any “school” of Baldessari. But it is easy to find grateful students. Here, five of them share campus and off-campus memories.

Jim Welling, B.F.A. CalArts, 1972, and M.F.A. CalArts, 1974:

John was on leave when I arrived at CalArts, but I took his post-studio class as soon as I could. The main thing I remember about the class is that John would have this old, funky suitcase spray-painted black, full of art catalogs from Europe. He would spread them out so we could look at them.

I remember seeing the Documenta 5 catalog, the one where Ed Ruscha did this images of flies [loosely forming the number 5] on the cover. Or this magazine from Germany that Benjamin Buchloh edited called Interfunktionen, which had some really important articles on photography. Matt Mullican and I were fascinated. At the time I was really hungry for what was going on beyond Artnews and Artforum and what was happening in Europe.

Now it’s something I do for my students [at UCLA]: laying out books by different photographers on the table, a kind of Russian roulette or musical chairs. That’s essentially John’s teaching method: Here’s a pile of things, find something that you can use.

Tony Oursler, B.F.A. CalArts 1979:

I did an independent study with John, and he had the best suggestions, very poetic but also very pragmatic. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it, but he actually suggested that I do my first video projection.

I was making a lot of videos, combining painting, collage, performance and sound. So John and I were talking about scale — he’s a master at playing with scale in his own work — and he had this idea: Why don’t you project some videos? It was like asking me why don’t you go build an airplane in the backyard, because it was so hard to get your hands on a projector back then. I don’t know that I had even seen a video projection at that time.

I made a whole series of videos involving very small things meant to be projected — like toys and birds and fish moving around the frame, sort of a fish tank effect. That’s the great thing about John: He’s always planting seeds.

Meg Cranston, M.F.A. CalArts 1986:

John did a lot of studio visits, and I remember one where I had just done a painting of Tom Petty. John admired the paint handling and so forth, but the way he would teach was to ask: Why this and why not that? He was interested in the internal logic of the work. Why Petty and not Madonna, or Chopin? It was always a line of questioning, like a therapist, never suggesting what you should do but asking a lot of questions. I really couldn’t answer him at the time: Why Tom Petty? Because, because I painted him.

What I would answer John today is: Does it really matter if it’s Tom Petty or Madonna? Art is about idiotic things — Monet is not a great painter because of his haystacks. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, but that’s what John does, he sets up a question that you can work through for years.

In my second year I worked as his teaching assistant. CalArts had no grades, but we did have pass, high pass or fail. John’s system was if we went down the roster and could remember the person, we passed them. If we could remember the person and the work, it was a high pass. If we couldn’t remember them, we failed them, but if they came back and argued for another grade, they would pass. It was a brilliant system that could never work today.

Elliott Hundley, M.F.A. UCLA 2005:

As comical as it sounds, before I studied with John I think that I thought of “critique” as a competitive sport like fencing or debate club. But there was this moment in my first group “crit” with him, with over 20 students, when our discussion of a student’s work became really intense. It was over something really focused, like whether or not an abstract element in a representational painting belonged there.

It seemed like everyone got involved, and when the discussion became particularly heated and polemic, I remember he just casually interjected, “There you have it! Half say this, and half say that.”

He simply and gracefully reminded us that the artist was more important than the classroom.

Analia Saban, M.F.A. UCLA 2005

During my last year at UCLA, John wasn’t teaching, but he came to my studio one day and said, “I have an incredible opportunity for you; maybe you can work for me.” And I thought, how fantastic, he’s asking me to work in the studio. Then he said, “I have this dog, maybe you can walk him.”

I didn’t really want to do it — to drive to Santa Monica just to walk his dog, Giotto, but I asked a friend at school and he said: Whatever John wants, say yes. So I called John back and told him I have no experience walking dogs, but I’ll try.

Walking the dog was a way of seeing John every day. I was really struggling with some work then, so he gave me an assignment: Every Monday bring me something you’re working on and we’ll talk about it.

During that time John kept reminding me that you could do anything as an artist. Anything. For my final show at UCLA I did a fun project that got some attention: I bought 100 paintings from all different sources, artists or second-hand shops, and unraveled the canvases until it was thread — then I made a big ball of all the paintings. Of course we think of painting as so precious, something that can be worth $90 million, but this was a way to step out of that. Looking back, I think that work really came out of my conversations with John.

Now I still meet with John every day, and we talk about all the projects going on his studio. I don’t get paid for walking the dog anymore, but I do use John’s old studio space.