In the late 1960s, a friend took a photo of artist John Baldessari with his back to the camera, looking out over the California landscape.
Baldessari, who was still creating abstract paintings in the early phase of his career, wears a jean jacket decorated with back patches in the style of a motorcycle gang. But where most motorcycle clubs declare their affiliation, he has a patch that reads “Born to Paint” over a skull resting its chin on a paint palate and a brush.
Within just a few years, Baldessari would turn his back once again, this time on the entire practice of painting to which he had declared his sartorial allegiance on that California day.
In a dramatic fashion, he scorched all of his early canvases and launched the artistic practice that would define his long career as the “Godfather of Conceptual Art.”
“John Baldessari is probably best known for a single, creative act of destruction that took place on a Friday afternoon in San Diego, California, in the summer of 1970,” wrote the editors of his catalogue raisonné in 2012.
On July 24, 1970, Baldessari was ready to make a change. He had soured on the abstract style of painting that had defined much of his early career and had moved in a more conceptual direction with his work, playing around with the juxtaposition of text and photography.
In this new work, he produced pieces like a white canvas on which he had hired professional sign painters to paint the words “PURE BEAUTY” in bold black caps in 1968. Or a 1967 photograph he had his wife, Carol, take of him in which he is standing in front of a palm tree that looks as if it is sprouting from his head.
In a comment on the prescriptive rules of photography that declared this arrangement a bad shot, he printed the word “WRONG” below the photograph.
In this new stylistic turn to the conceptual for which Baldessari is now renowned, he was poking fun at the establishment and playing around with what art and beauty really are.
“I was getting tired of people saying my art was like Abstract Expressionism,” Baldessari told Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker in 2010. “Being in National City, where nobody cared what I was doing, I thought, What if you just give people what they want? People read magazines, and look at photographs, not at Jackson Pollocks.”
So Baldessari conceived of a grand gesture — a ritual burning of the work he was turning away from — that would signal the end of one phase of his career and the beginning of another. Like a phoenix, the artist would be reborn from the ashes of his old work, which would become a new piece of art in and of itself.
It was a move that was fundamentally radical…but also practical.
Baldessari had been hired to teach at CalArts and was getting ready to move his work and his family from his small hometown of National City, CA, just 15 minutes from the Mexico border to Los Angeles.
His studio in National City was in part of a movie theater that his father had built. Not only was he going to have to downsize in LA, but the cost of shipping his vast body of work was going to be steep.
So he decided, why lug around work that he no longer stood by? Better to ceremonially cremate the whole lot.
“I thought about Nietzsche and the eternal return and equating the artist with the ‘body’ of his work, and so forth,” Baldessari told Tomkins. “The problem was that several local mortuaries refused to cremate paintings. I found one finally, but the guy said we had to do it at night.”
On the evening of July 24, 1970, Baldessari gathered several friends and students as well as all of the paintings that were in his possession that he had made between May 1953 and March 1966. They took them to the crematorium and incinerated the whole lot.
“It was in a crematorium, so the proper term would be cremated, I suppose,” Baldessari drolly notes in an entertaining video of his life made in 2012 by Yale University Press and narrated by the musician Tom Waits, who is also from National City.
Baldessari took the ashes of his early career, and put some of them in a bronze urn that is shaped like a book “suitable for your library shelf” that he still has today.
Another scoop of the ashes were baked into a batch of cookies he called corpus wafers, in something of a gesture of consumption and digestion, although allegedly only one person was bold enough to try a taste. The recipe was printed beside them.
The artist was thorough with the laying to rest of his no-longer prized collection of early works. He commissioned a grave-like bronze plaque in their honor that listed the dates of the collection’s life and death. And he had an affidavit witnessed by a notary public printed in the San Diego Union to serve as their obituary.
The announcement read, “Notice is hereby given that all works of art done by the undersigned between May 1953 and March 1966 in his possession as of July 24, 1970 were cremated on July 24, 1970 in San Diego, California.”
“I really think it is my best piece to date,” Baldessari wrote to a critic of the action-cum-artwork that would come to be known as the “Cremation Project.”
While the artist made slides of the images that were destined for the furnace, it is unknown the exact number of works of art that were cremated that day. It is believed that there were hundreds, but, according to Jennifer Mundy writing for the Tate’s Gallery of Lost Art project, Baldessari has never released the slides to the public.
But reviews of the select pieces that were out of his possession and that escaped the blaze that day are not half bad. “Judging from the few canvases that remain, Baldessari had it in him to be a very good painter. You can see him studying Jasper Johns especially,” Jerry Saltz wrote in New York magazine.
The year after the cremation, Baldessari created a new piece that would serve as the mission statement for his career from that point forward. In a 13-minute video, he writes over and over and over again on a piece of paper, “I will not make any more boring art.”
“This is pedagogy, punishment, and promise—the work of a prisoner and a preacher of art. (And it’s not boring.),” Jerry Saltz wrote. (Although Baldessari disagreed with that final pronouncement. “And it’s very boring, isn’t it?” he commented to Tomkins in 2010 on the video.)
True to his written word, he never turned back to “boring art.” Baldessari is now 87 years old, and the Godfather of Conceptual Art is still active in his quest to answer the big questions of the definition and meaning of art.
“Baldessari once said, regarding his work from the late sixties, ‘So much of my thinking at that time was trying to figure out just what I thought art was,’” Tomkins wrote. “And had he figured it out? I asked him. ‘Not a clue,’ he said, with another big laugh. ‘Not . . . a . . . clue.’”