What Is Painting

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John Baldessari

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What Is Painting

John Baldessari. What Is Painting. 1966-68. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 67 3/4 x 56 3/4" (172.1 x 144.1 cm). Gift of Donald L. Bryant, Jr. © 2014 John Baldessari

Audio Program excerpt

What is Painting? Contemporary Art from the Collection

July 7–September 17, 2007

Artist, John Baldessari: I'm John Baldessari. In the mid-1960s I was living in this small service community south of San Diego. And it was a good moment for me, in retrospect, because I was able to really dig into what I thought art might be, not what somebody else would think art would be. You know, received wisdom, what you would get in school. And, so a lot of my work was about questioning this received wisdom.

And I thought, "Well, I wonder what would happen if you just gave the public what they know," which would be, let's say, words and photographic images. You know, they'd probably had a camera, and they probably read books, magazines, and newspapers, so I said, "I'll just do text pieces, or I'll do text and photo pieces" that doesn't look like Abstract Expressionism, it looks like something in their lives. But I would put it on canvas, and that would be a signal that it would be art.

What comes afterwards is not your traditional kind of painting. And the piece is not actually physically done by me. Somebody built the stretcher bars, stretched the canvas, primed it. The text is painted by a professional sign painter. And the text was not written by me, but it's an appropriated text that I found.

I've always been attracted to anyone that can blatantly say what art is. I just like that kind of audacity, or ignorance, one or the other. I think the wonderful irony about this piece is that it's text. But in fact it is a painting, because it's done with paint on canvas. So I'm really being very slyly ironic here in saying, "Well, this is what painting is."

Back then, I couldn't get any response from those works. People who just looked at me like, "You know, what are you, are you crazy? This is not art." And now, you know, I think it's wonderful that one of them hangs at MoMA.”