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Language and Art

Explore the role words played in Conceptual art’s emphasis on ideas over visual forms.

What Is Painting

John Baldessari
(American, born 1931)

1968. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 67 3/4 x 56 3/4" (172.1 x 144.1 cm)

To create What Is Painting, John Baldessari had someone else stretch the canvas and hired a professional sign-painter to hand-letter the text, which the artist took from a book about art appreciation. Baldessari conceived the idea for What Is Painting, while others realized it. The use of a definition of art and painting within a work of art brings to light what he sees as the irony in narrowly defining something that is so open to interpretation: “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.”

For Baldessari, “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.’”

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).