Artist Spotlight: John Baldessari

October 3, 2019

John Baldessari: Early Paintings

Born in National City, California in 1931, John Baldessari would go on to become one of the most important artists of the Conceptual art movement. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from San Diego State College in 1953, Baldessari pursued post-graduate work at UC Berkeley, UCLA, the Otis Art Institute, and the Chouinard Art Institute. Upon returning to the San Diego area, Baldessari found the environment initially dismissive of any intention to pursue a serious career as an artist. Having expressed an early interest in art criticism, and having previously worked towards a degree in art history while at Berkeley, Baldessari set his sights on arts education with an emphasis on art history and critical writing. “I thought I would live in National City forever,” he recalled, “teach, maybe have a family, and do my art on the weekends.” Though initially a compromise, this launched a teaching career that would last nearly thirty years. After working briefly in Los Angeles, he found the “brawny, pugnacious L.A. art scene” unconducive for his practice. Baldessari soon became involved with the art department of the newly established Southwestern College in Chula Vista after returning to the “more congenial” group of artists working in San Diego. 

In November and December of 1961, Baldessari’s non-representational paintings and drawings were featured in the inaugural exhibition of the school’s gallery, which was spearheaded by one of the Southwestern College’s original hires in the art department, artist Robert Matheny, to whom lot 159, Sketch for Fragment (1966), formerly belonged. This show was credited with setting the “controversial” tone of the gallery program and the school’s art department. By 1965, Baldessari had been brought on as a full-time faculty member. During his tenure there, the line between making art and teaching started to blur. “I found it very much the same,” he said, “I am getting essentially the same message out, I hope.” 

In 1970, Baldessari ceremoniously “cremated” all of the works in his possession that he created between May of 1953, when his college graduation absolved his “obligation to make art,” and March of 1966, when he abandoned non-representational painting in favor of conceptual work. Sketch for Fragment was painted in September 1966, and thus just barely escaped this fate. Baldessari claimed that he was tired of being cast as an Abstract Expressionist and that the genre lacked potential, and works such as Sketch for Fragment (1966) show the beginnings of his breakthrough transition to text and photo-text based painting. 

Sketch for Fragment, specifically, occupies an interesting temporal place in Baldessari’s development as an artist. As the spring of 1966 bookended the pre-breakthrough phase of Baldessari’s career, this work shows the artist’s evolving attitudes towards his practice. Inspired by the visual and literary achievements of Dadaism and Surrealism, Baldessari found fragments “of more interest than the whole.” He made a habit of extracting snippets of overheard conversations for later use in his works, understanding these slivers as a Saussurean type of raw material. Before enacting this text-based method however, Baldessari seems to have experimented with the visual application of this ‘extraction’ in Sketch for Fragment. At the same time, the artist was becoming increasingly interested in “what was outside the depicted image.” He seems to have approached this inquiry, which would lead to his “Art Lesson” series in 1967, in his deliberate representation of the debris of his artistic process. In addition to featuring the unfinished outline of its color field, Sketch for Fragment maintains a more intimate tone through the precursory nature of its title. Baldessari noted that as a “closet formalist” he resisted signing his work in order to avoid it “becoming part of the composition.” Here, however, Baldessari loosens the work’s posture and his signature captions the image. These traces of the image’s creation, what some would define as the characteristics of a meta-image, are intentionally exposed to the viewer for their consideration. As a great majority of the works produced in this period were destroyed at Baldessari’s own hand, Sketch for Fragment offers a rare look at the artist’s burgeoning voice on the precipice of his conceptual revolution. 

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. “The Boring And The Beautiful.” Artnet, 12 Dec. 2008,
Matheny, Bob. “Southwestern College: The First Decade (More or Less).ObjectsUSA, Jan. 2007,
Pardo, Patrick, and Robert Dean. “The Making of John Baldessari’s Cremation Project.Yale University Press Blog, 25 Feb. 2016,
Tomkins, Calvin. “No More Boring Art.” The New Yorker, 18 Oct. 2010.
Tucker, Marcia, and Robert Pincus-Witten. John Baldessari. The New Museum, New York, 1981.
Wright, Karen. “John Baldessari.” Art in America, 23 Oct. 2009

Lot Information:

Lot 159
John Baldessari
Sketch for Fragment
Acrylic on canvas
Signed, titled, and dated “9-16-66” upper center edge of canvas
12.125″ x 12.25″; (31 x 31 cm)

Provenance:  Robert Matheny, San Diego, California (acquired directly from the artist); Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; Dranoff Fine Art, New York, New York; Private Collection, Los Angeles, California

Exhibited:  “Southwestern College Faculty Art Exhibit,” Southwestern College, Chula Vista, October 3-28, 1966; “John Baldessari and Robert Matheny: Wholes & A Sum of Parts,” Purcell Art Gallery, Chapman College, Santa Ana, February 21-March 16, 1968; “San Diego and the Origins of Conceptual Art in California,” Cardwell Jimmerson Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, February 24-April 11, 2009

Illustrated:  “Baldessari: Knowledge is Fragmentary.” A. Kietzmann. San Diego Union. Apr. 10, 1966. E7.; John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné Volume One: 1956-1974. R. Dean and P. Pardo, eds. 2012. #1966.6.

Estimate: $90,000–120,000
October 20, 2019 Modern Art & Design Auction

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