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Santa Monica Was Artistic Home for Renown Conceptual Artist

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By Jorge Casuso

January 7, 2019 -- When conceptual artist John Baldessari died in his Venice home last Thursday at age 88, he left behind a vast body of work created mostly in Santa Monica.

For more than 40 years, Baldessari, known as a "congenial workaholic," created art inside a cavernous but cluttered warehouse studio near Main Street and Pico Boulevard where he also lived for years.
John Baldessari
c 2016 Nicole Shibata (Courtesy

There, behind the surf shop where skateboarding was born, Baldessari fashioned iconic works using text, photographs, film, prints, scuptures and paintings that used wit to tilt our sense of reality.

"I am constantly playing the game of changing this or that, visually or verbally," he told ARTnews in 1986. "As soon as I see a word, I spell it backward in my mind. I break it up and put the parts back together to make a new word.”

Baldessari had moved into the rented studio in 1970, shorty after famously cremating the traditional paintings he'd created in his native San Diego County and whose ashes filled ten human-sized boxes.

The studio had been passed down to Baldessari, who had been working in the living room of an old Santa Monica house he rented, by his neighbor William Wegman.

Wegman, best known for his series of paintings of dogs in human costumes and poses, was moving to New York.

"He asked me do I want his studio, and I said, 'No, what am I going to do with it? It’s just too big for me," Baldesssari told Jane Jacob in a 2013 interview.

"And he said, 'Well, you can maybe split it up and sublet it.' I thought, well, it was pretty modest, so I said, 'Okay, I’ll take it.' And I remember just working in one corner of the studio, and slowly spreading out."

"The studio rent was cheap," Baldessari told the New Yorker for a 2010 profile, "and out front was a cement courtyard already famous as the birthplace of skateboarding."

"Baldessari, a congenial workaholic, spent most of his non-teaching time in the studio," straining the relationship with his wife, Carol, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the profile.

When they decided to buy a house, Baldessari didn't move in.

He stayed "in a tiny bedroom" behind a photography darkroom, "where a Sol LeWitt drawing hangs like a crucifix over the bed," according to a 1986 cover story in ARTnews.

By the time the ARTnews feature ran his studio was a cluttered reservoir of images that sparked his quirky imagination.

"Floor-to-ceiling shelves sagging with books line the walls of three rooms," Hunter Drohojowska wrote. "Filing cabinets complete the decor."

Barbara Isenberg visited the Main Street studio that year to conduct an interview for the LA Times.

The place was "so overflowing with stacks of books, magazines and other raw material you never knew where to put your feet, much less your coffee cup," Isenberg wrote.

"Studio" by John Baldessari
"Studio" by John Baldessari, 1988, Lithograph and silkscreen (Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Baldessari lived in the studio until the early 1990s, when he bought a bungalow in Venice. But he remained single and spent most of his time in his Santa Monica space.

By then he had been instrumental in turning the beach city into an artist haven, according to an interview conducted in his Santa Monica studio for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art.

"There was a certain group of artists and a lot of them moved down here to Santa Monica, where I was living, which was also good," he told Christopher Knight in the 1992 interview.

"David Salle, for one, moved right down here. And Jim Welling and Matt Mullican immediately come to mind. And then I encouraged them to get places where they could have studios as well, so that began to happen.

"And then when that began to happen, I began to schedule classes, each week a different studio, so we could meet and see the work that was going on."

The Ocean Park Neighborhood where he lived and worked cropped up in the images Baldessari used to forge his works -- from frame houses and flower boxes to the studio where they were created.

The city appeared in the title of a work -- "2623 Third Street, Santa Monica" -- that "marks the moment Baldessari began to use images he took himself in place of found photographs," according to Artspace.

"Here, the everyday impressions of a garden -- a brown tree trunk and white flowers in a planter, for instance -- are highlighted and emphasized with bold rectangular shapes and vivid lines in blue, purple, and yellow."

Superimposing shapes in primary colors on photographs -- whether movie or magazine images or pictures he snapped himself -- became a Baldessari trademark.

In 2003, Baldessari was told his rented studio in Santa Monica was beng torn down to build condominiums, and he bought a property in Venice to build a studio of his own.

"So then I moved in, getting ready to get evicted from the other space," Baldessari told Jacob in 2013. "Then the real estate market began to tank."

In 2007, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission voted to designate the building a local landmark only months after a condo and retail development seemed set to consume it ("Landmark for Dogtown," May 17, 2007).

"In front," Baldessari recalled, "there was a surf shop. And when the landlord, the property owners, wanted to develop condominiums, somehow word leaked out around the world, because this surf shop is where skateboarding was born.

"So anyway, Santa Monica is getting letters from all around the world saying you can’t destroy this; this is a shrine, a landmark."

"I still have the space," Baldessari told Jacob in 2013, "but it was always on a monthly lease. . . and it still is."

He had already moved into the new Venice studio when the New Yorker piece appeared three years earlier, but he hung on to his Santa Monica space for another couple of years.

The obituaries written this week in the worldwide press emphasized Baldessari's ties to Los Angeles.

The city the New York Times said he he helped transform into a "global art capital" was the perfect place to create works that blurred the line between reality and the image of reality.

"I draw a lot of my imagery from the movies," Baldessari told Nicole Davis in 2004. "I think it's just that it mirrors the real world, but it's in another place. It's always set up.

"And, when it gets really confusing, especially like when I'm traveling some place and watching a movie and a lot of locations are around Santa Monica, and then you say, 'How can this be a movie,' because I live there.

"The worst it ever got, was when I was married, and I was living up the street, and I came down here to my studio and there were movie trucks all over. In the parking lot out there they had some chairs set up and it was Jack Nicholson and Mike Nichols.

"They were doing this shot in 'Chinatown,' and I said, 'Pardon me, can I get into my studio?' I'm thinking, 'Okay so, the line between reality is my door.'"

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