My friend Josh’s dad grew up on the same street as Tom Waits in National City, a suburb of my native San Diego, California, around the same time Waits did. That meant that Tom Wait’s friend, artist John Baldessari, might have also spent time there. My friend and I navigated cul-de-sacs like a tour van with a Hollywood Stars map looking for his dad’s old house so that we could pinpoint the spot where Waits and Baldessari might’ve hung out. It was a speculative hunt, but San Diego was sleepy when it came to arts and culture and any claim we could lay to a well-known artist was somehow important.
“There it is,” said my friend from his position in the driver’s seat of his rusted truck, pointing past me on the passenger’s side. There it was, a rounded chunk of cement curb. We got out of the truck and inspected the corner, bathed in the golden light of a California winter sunset. “They must’ve sat right there, talking about whatever.” The portion of curb Waits and his buddy Baldessari, also a San Diego native, might have taken up in National City, was roughly four feet wide and offered no view other than the houses on the cul-de-sac. But to my friend Josh and I, the spot was monumental. Prosaic sure, but monumental. We pictured Waits and Baldessari, not yet famous, sitting together in the suburbs, mulling around San Diego making art and waiting for something to happen, just like we did. We approached the curb with the reverence of a pilgrimage site, like it was a celebrity star on the Walk of Fame.
In my twenties at the time, in the mid-aughts when the Recession hit the hardest, I fancied myself a curator. I worked endless, unpaid hours organizing art shows and visiting studios. I wrote for free and sent hundreds of emails and messages to get people to show up to art events. San Diego had a very small, spit-and-duct-tape art scene, and my friends and I composed most of it. (Famously, Baldessari once said that he was the only participant of National City’s art scene. We could relate.) During the day, I worked for minimum wage at the front desk of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego where I explained the museum’s collection to the public and watched the art professionals I was obsessed with walk past me to the offices on the second floor. Art was the most important force in my life and studying it, as I did, in my community college exhibition design program became my most important task. I was never more hungry than I was then. And Baldessari was an artist I could understand and explain back to myself and to others—this to me was a gift.
I learned of Baldessari through my artist friends. J stuck blank, circular price stickers over images of people’s faces in National Geographic magazine, inspired by Baldessari’s signature motif of placing large painted circles over photographs. John made an image of an impossibly tall palm tree from a grainy photograph he took at a local beach after Wrong (1967) and Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees (Near) (1975). Ida recreated Throwing Three Balls in the Air (Best of 36 Attempts) (1973) at a tennis club in the desert. For a bunch of kids in San Diego, Baldessari was a gateway drug into art. He made an elitist and intimidating world accessible to a newcomer like myself who was desperate to learn the language well enough to run in the circles I worked so hard to enter, to have those conversations I overheard other people having.
Baldessari’s tone indicated a weariness with all that; his work was wryly tongue-in-cheek yet maintained the earnestness of a student. His maverick series What is Painting? (1966-68) was instructional to me, and shepherded my thinking toward the ironies in the self-serious world of painting. In the series, which features a succession of statements about art from Baldessari hand-painted by a professional sign-painter onto canvas, the artist broke open, in plain language, the mystification that surrounded modern and contemporary art. Each adage and list dismantled art-historical gatekeeping with the speed and levity of a wisecrack. One in particular, in thin black letters at the center of a large untreated canvas struck me: EVERYTHING IS PURGED FROM THE PAINTING BUT ART, NO IDEAS HAVE ENTERED THIS WORK. It’s difficult to make art funny and Baldessari did so effortlessly. The magnitude of modern and contemporary’s theoretical conceit collapsed by a single pithy declaration.
“I’ve always been attracted to anyone that can blatantly say what art is. I just like that kind of audacity, or ignorance, one or the other,” said Baldessari. I felt the same. And while I waited to learn the art world, I comforted myself with Baldessari’s art. If I didn’t have those conversations, I at least had Baldessari.
Baldessari’s early visual language was distinctly southern Californian: the palm trees, the post-war suburbs, the single-story stucco auto shops painted in dusty pastels. Wrong (1967) was photographed in National City and shunned the rules of “good photography” outright. The result is a xeroxed self-portrait of Baldessari standing on a sidewalk in front of a house (perhaps on the same block my friend and I visited?) with the length of a palm tree’s trunk emerging directly from the center of his head. The composition is wrong, the angles are bad, but the image, with huge block text reading “WRONG” at the bottom, is delightful. He took absurdism very seriously.
Mischievous and unintentionally funny, at 6 feet 8 inches tall Baldessari held up an abnormally large middle finger to the conventions and highfalutin modes of the art world. I saw those hands once. When he attended a gala at the museum, I checked him and his friends in from behind the front desk. Even though he was likely the most famous artist in California at the time, the father of conceptual art on the west coast, he was nicer to me in passing that one night—giving me eye contact and a smile—than the director who saw me everyday but could never remember my name, or the curator who ignored me as they sped past me in stress.
Looking back, I realize now that Baldessari’s work encouraged me to trust myself and my own thinking and feelings about art, to feel confident in experimenting in the way my friends and I had been. The conversations I yearned to have were no more important than the ones I was already having as we lounged on crates in sweltering art studios, hung out late into the night with beers in hand at an opening in a decrepit warehouse, or sat on the curb of a cul-de-sac, just as Waits and Baldessari had done decades earlier. Rather than the market or the facade people built around it, art was the moments of failure and camaraderie shared between friends, the pioneering spirit of building your own art scene. Art was about being wrong. And, as Baldessari seemed to say, what a pleasure it was to be wrong all along.
Angella d’Avignon (Class of 2020) is the Managing Editor of Degree Critical. She has written for Real Life Mag, The Baffler, Hyperallergic, GARAGE and others.