Artist Spotlight: John Baldessari
Before assuming his identities as legendary conceptual artist, instigator, and educator, John Baldessari (1931-2020) did what many emerging artists do: he scoured the discipline of painting for its possibilities. After roughly a decade of painting in various styles — his earliest extant work is an expressionistic still-life canvas completed in 1956 — by the mid-1960s, Baldessari began to shift his focus by “questioning the authorial notion of what an artwork could be.” This line of inquiry culminated with the artist’s infamous 1970 Cremation Project, in which Baldessari and friends burned the more than 100 paintings created between 1953 and 1966 that had not sold and were still in his possession. Some canvases however, White X Sign among them, were not reduced to ash and baked into cookies. As Baldessari himself told Christopher Knight, “Obviously there are some works that survived. Not a lot, I might add.”
White X Sign (1963) belongs to a pre-Cremation body of work built around the letter/symbol “X,” many of which were included in the 1962 Art Works Galleries show John Baldessari: X Exhibition. The first of this series documented within Baldessari’s raisonne is the 1961 X for Karen, executed in watercolor on paper. Some works from this period, like Sign for One Way (Version 1), prominently feature an “X” but do not reference it in their title — and others still deviate from painting as forays into assemblage, such as the 1962 works X Sign for a Crucifixion and X Sign Meets the U.S. Mail.
Despite narrowly avoiding a fiery end, White X Sign does seem to evidence certain themes that guided Baldessari’s deeply subversive artistic career. Baldessari would later famously incorporate winking pedagogical text into his practice, and the close engagement with a single letter might be viewed as a foreshadowing. Beyond being a letter of the alphabet, “X” is a loaded symbol of both negation (to cross out, to x-out, ex-) and amplification (to multiply). In White X Sign, the titular shape is not fully rendered and emerges through layered fields of paint — is the “X” crossing out, or is it being crossed-out? As with so much of Baldessari’s output, nothing is certain, and everything is in question.
Lannan Foundation. “John Baldessari.” Accessed September 18, 2020. https://lannan.org/art/artist/john-baldessari/
Meier, Alison C. “Why John Baldessari Burned His Own Art.” JSTOR. Accessed September 21, 2020. https://daily.jstor.org/why-john-baldessari-burned-his-own-art/
Patrick Pardo and Robert Dean, eds., John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné, Volume One: 1956-1974, New Haven, 2012.
White X Sign
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated in graphite lower center edge of canvas; signed, titled, and dated to canvas overlap verso; signed and dated “’67” canvas verso
Canvas: 30.875″ x 32.25″; Frame: 31.875″ x 33.25″ (Canvas: 78 x 82 cm)
Provenance: Private Collection, San Diego, California (acquired directly from the artist, 1967)
Illustrated: John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné Volume One: 1956-1974. R. Dean and P. Pardo, eds. #1963.3.
October 18, 2020 Modern Art & Design Auction