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John Baldessari: Can’t Take National City Out Of The Boy

John Baldessari in his studio, Venice, California, 2005. Photograph by Cather...

Above: John Baldessari in his studio, Venice, California, 2005. Photograph by Catherine Opie.

How important is your hometown to who you are today? For artist John Baldessari, spending his youth in National City still impacts the way he sees the world. A new exhibit of work by the pioneering artist has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

As far as famous sons go, National City hit the jackpot…twice.

Singer songwriter Tom Waits was born there, and so was one of his fans, the revered conceptual artist John Baldessari.

“If you just listen to his music and read his lyrics, that will tell you a lot about me," Baldessari said. "My favorite song title of his is 'Eggs and Sausage.' I just love that.”

The 80-year-old artist has managed to fold his 6-foot-8-inch frame into a chair at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Baldessari laughs a lot, and since much of his work has a clever, even mischievous quality to it, he’s become known for his humor. That makes him uncomfortable.

"You know it always makes me shudder for some reason because I don’t regard myself as an artist who does humorous work," he said. "I have a great sense of the absurd. It’s one of the ways that helps me get through life and understand the world. I’m very serious about that, but for other people they see that as being humorous."

Baldessari has been making art for over five decades. Some of his most recognizable works are plain white canvasses with black text. One reads, "Pure Beauty." Another says, "Everything has been purged from this painting but art. No ideas entered this work."

He once instructed students in Nova Scotia to write the phrase “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” all over the walls of a gallery, spawning a legendary story in the art world and a series of popular prints.

In 1972, he made a video of himself singing comments artist Sol Le Witt made about the nature of art. This work, titled "Baldessari sings Sol Le Witt" is in the exhibit as MCASD.

Baldessari also likes ears, noses and eyebrows, all of which appear in his work. In the print retrospective on view at the museum, there’s a series of toes. For Baldessari, inspiration can come from the most prosaic places.

"Every night taking my shoes off, I guess maybe not cutting my nails, I always wore through my stocking with my big toe and I’m taking it off and looking down at it. And I thought that’s really an abstract kind of shape."

This observation eventually led to six prints, each of a different foot, which is blacked out so only the toe is showing. The six toes belong to his studio assistants.

Baldessari says he’s always trying to avoid being tasteful in his work.

"All my waking hours I’m thinking about art and matters of taste," he said. "And doing it, so I’m getting more expert at it. And more and more tasteful, and I don’t want to do that."

Baldessari deliberately avoids beauty in making art.

He offers an example: "I would put a camera on a tripod and frame a beautiful shot and then I would pick up the camera and move it, then click the shutter and not even look at what I was getting."

Before working with photographs and text, before anyone in the art world knew who he was, Baldessari was a painter. He had a studio in National City in the 1950s, and he painted a lot. And as the paintings piled up, it got him thinking.

"I thought, you know I’m young," he said. "At this point I’m going to be inundated with paintings. No one is ever going to buy them. The pleasure for me was doing them, so I don’t have to own them."

So he had hundreds of his paintings cremated in Logan Heights.

"There was a crematorium there and they said yeah they would do it, but only at night," he explained. "So it got even more macabre. And then, even better, the guy that did the cremating had studied art in college and he really got into it."

Those paintings would be extremely valuable today. A photograph he took in National City in the 1960s recently sold at auction for almost $300,000.

Baldessari says though he felt isolated living and making art in National City, it was liberating.

"Because no one was looking my shoulder," he said. "I never would have done those text things anywhere else. Who cares but me? I can do anything I want!"

Baldessari says it took him a long time to call himself an artist. Once he thought of it as an occupation, like a plumber or a carpenter, it was easier to accept. What’s even harder for him to accept is how famous he’s become.

"I still read about myself and say, who is this person?" he said. "You can take the boy out of National City, but you can’t take National City out of the boy."

John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation will be on view at MCASD La Jolla through May 13, 2012.

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