A Shirley Temple—And Make It a Double! John Baldessari Is Remixing Art History

And throwing animal crackers in everyone's soup

John Baldessari, ‘Animal Crackers in My Soup,’ 2012. (Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery)

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles-based artist John Baldessari quietly arrived in New York to get his license renewed. Assuming the reviews are decent for his latest exhibition here, which opened Oct. 19 at the spacious 57th Street gallery of his longtime dealer, Marian Goodman, Mr. Baldessari will, he said, get his “license as an artist” extended. Now 81, he has been going through the process annually (or pretty close to annually, with shows somewhere or another in the world) for many years, and by all appearances, he wears the effort lightly. Sitting in the gallery last week, decked out in the standard art world uniform of all black below his signature white chin-strap beard, surrounded by several of the 13 pieces in his new series “Double Play,” he described to The Observer what’s involved in the license renewal. “The whole test,” he said breezily in his SoCal drawl, “is: can I get away with this?”

Lately Mr. Baldessari has been making it very difficult for others to get away with things. The last time he was in the news, just a few months ago, was when he became the first artist to resign from the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, after the museum parted ways with its longtime chief curator, Paul Schimmel. It is perhaps a testament to Mr. Baldessari’s influence that the three other artist board members—Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha—swiftly followed suit. Much of that influence comes from the quarter century he has spent, off and on, as a professor at CalArts and UCLA, two of the most celebrated MFA programs in the country, where, up until his retirement four years ago, he taught artists like Cindy Sherman, Meg Cranston, David Salle, Tony Oursler and the late Mike Kelley. A recent graduate at UCLA was Dawn Kasper, one of the stars of the most recent Whitney Biennial. Assignments in his Post-Studio class at CalArts—recently the subject of an exhibition at San Francisco’s Wattis Institute, and documented in the book Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment—included “imitate Baldessari in actions and speech. Video,” “Put new canvas over old painting” and “Develop a visual code. Give it to another student to crack.”

An admired educator of younger artists—though he tends to shrug this off by saying things like, “One thing I want to make clear is, I only taught to make money and there wasn’t anything noble about it”—he is, in his own most recent work, a borrower from older ones. The pieces in “Double Play” all have as their jumping-off points tiny details taken from classic paintings. Mr. Baldessari would prefer not to tell his viewers where, precisely, they come from. Suffice it to say that Chardin, Courbet and Manet make appearances. He crops these details, enlarges them, and prints them directly onto canvas, then touches up the final product with paint.

That’s where the high-art part ends. The titles of the pieces, which are written on the canvas in block letters, come from popular songs. One of them is called Animal Crackers in My Soup, a Shirley Temple ditty. All of this gels with the two-step Mr. Baldessari has long danced between the most rigorous forms of conceptual art—like having found text applied to canvases by sign painters in works such as What Is Painting? (1966-68)—and imagery from pop culture—like the black-and-white B-movie stills in Heel (1986). “I always think of art as a conversation,” he said in the gallery. He has no truck with “epater la bourgeoisie,” the avant-garde’s calling card since the 19th century. “I don’t have that idea of the fucking bourgeoisie—that I don’t care about them. I do care. But I don’t want to make it easy, either.”

A Shirley Temple—And Make It a Double! John Baldessari Is Remixing Art History