High-Concept Survivor

John Baldessari has outlasted critics and art-world fads. The California painter has been around long enough to be hot, in, out, rediscovered, forgotten and, now, all but canonized.  A retrospective of Mr. Baldessari’s work opens Oct. 20 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its name: “Pure Beauty.” 

Born on June 17, 1931, in National City, Calif., Mr. Baldessari is best known for paintings that block out people’s faces with brightly colored dots and for teaching (mainly at CalArts and UCLA) a generation of artists, including David Salle, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler.

While most artists hide from museum shows that feature their contemporaries –as if to pretend they were the only artist alive–Mr. Baldessari, a giant, smiling, bewhiskered bear of a man is a frequent sight at major openings.

“He was not part of the fad in the early 21st century, when artists just out of grad school were selling for tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Shlomi Rabi, photography specialist at Phillips de Pury. “But they were the first to burn out when the art market crashed. … People saw [that Baldessari] had created a body of work worth discussing.”

In addition to his obscured-face paintings, he also experimented with photography and video art early on; in his 1971 piece I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, he repeats the title’s phrase onscreen for several minutes.

Mr. Baldessari is also remembered for doing something in 1970 that, given art’s new treatment as an asset class, would be almost unthinkable today: He burned 13 years of his paintings. In The Cremation Project, the ashes were baked into cookies and placed in an urn. The resulting piece included the cookie recipe.

On Oct. 8, Phillips de Pury will auction Life’s Balance (With Brushes), 1996–two “color-coupler prints, flush-mounted on board” and three feet high. The presale estimate is $30,000 to $50,000.  The same artwork was sold 12 years ago this

High-Concept Survivor