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Searching for the Ethnic Angle in John Baldessari’s Art

Searching for the Ethnic Angle in John Baldessari’s Art

Laura E. Ruberto (August 19, 2009)
"Lover's Embrace" (John Baldessari)

On a visit to a retrospective of this California artist, I consider traces of the Italian immigrant background in his work.


I recently had an opportunity to see a retrospective of John Baldessari’s work at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, and I was struck by the consistency of his style even over many decades and a variety of media.

Baldessari’s particular blend of texture, color, light, and words comes through from his now-classic “I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art” (1971) to his photogravures “Some Narrow Views: Either Tall or Wide (2004).


But I sensed something else, something more elusive than texture, something harder to describe than color, something more than irony. I sensed an ethnic side to Baldessari’s art; I became certain, in fact, that it was there to be found. My search may well be willfully essentialist, but I like to think of it as a postmodern musing on identity and culture, as Pasquale Verdicchio recently reminded me in a conversation, whereby migration comes to support rather than negate the possibility of a particular kind of ethnic positionality within art.

John Baldessari was born in 1931 in National City, California—just minutes away from downtown San Diego and the Mexico-U.S. border. His parents were both immigrants: his mother, a Dutchwoman who had come to the U.S. to work as a nurse and his father, an “ethnic” Italian, who came to the U.S. as an Austrian citizen (from the town of Albiano, today part of Italy, in the province of Trento) looking for work (more on this later). 

We could argue that as a postmodern artist Baldessari produced an entire oeuvre—each piece a pastiche evoking hybrid identity, multiple perspectives, varying interpretations—that suggests a migrant’s experience as an outsider embracing a new world. Or, at the very least, we could say that his work is representative of the multicultural space of twentieth-century California. By themselves, such generalizations don’t get us too far.

Early in his career, Baldessari worked a lot in video, including making an 8-minute piece in 1974 called “The Italian Tape.” It’s a smart, though rather obvious, reflection on misunderstanding and language, with an over-the-top Italian romantic melody suggestively playing in the background. By itself, it cannot get me to where I want to be.

Two decades later, in 1992, he made a series collectively called “Cliché” (“Cliché:  North American Indian, Red,” “Cliché: Eskimo, Blue,” “Cliché: Japanese, Yellow”)

Cliché: Japanese, Yellow

Cliché: Eskimo, Blue

Cliché:  North American Indian, Red

Was it living along the U.S.-Mexico border? Growing up with immigrant parents? Or merely the epoch of self-conscious identity politics that led Baldessari to create these pieces? Regardless, it’s there—at once a critique of ethnic representation in popular culture and a beautiful amalgam that, if it wasn’t for the title, might even be misunderstood as supporting rather than dismantling stereotypes. Nevertheless, the series suggests an awareness of ethnicity that might seem missing in much standard postmodern art.

But there’s a quality even more essential to Baldessari’s work that emerges from a consideration of his oeuvre, an aspect of his approach that may gesture toward a diasporic identity. Central to most of his work is process: Baldessari takes objects apart and puts them back together differently; he manipulates photographs, constructs objects, he calls attention to the everyday by rearranging things. Certainly this attention to, so to speak, the constructedness of things is emblematic of much twentieth-century art. To suggest that such moves might somehow link Baldessari to aspects associated with an Italian immigrant/Italian American identity (attention to labor, working with your hands, decorating/beautifying/making place out of the everyday, l’arte di arrangiarsi, of making do, etc.) would be stretching things, making something out of nothing.

And then I come across an oral interview with Baldessari from 1992, conducted by Christopher Knight. I quote a section at length.

CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: And what did your father do?

JOHN BALDESSARI: Well, he was sort of a self-made man. He arrived in Colorado in the midst of, well, the beginning of the Depression, I suppose, and was a coal miner. And I guess he had a real entrepreneurial streak, from stories he would tell me. He already was making money then by essentially recycling. Which it was interesting, by the way, parenthetically, going to India, I felt right at home where they recycle everything, don’t throw anything away, and I’d think, “God, I know this life.”


JOHN BALDESSARI: And he would pick up cigarettes and dry them out on the stove and reroll them and sell them you know. And I guess he made his first break, he said, by. . . . There was a triangle of land where railroad tracks, that apparently wasn’t used or anything, and he asked the railroad company if he could use it. And he was living in the Alps, was well trained in cultivating land—you know, taking rocks out and so on. And [he] cultivated that area and started growing onions. And parlayed that into where he was actually shipping onions, and had already started making money. And I remember once my sister got him to sit down and go through all of the jobs he’s ever been through, and she said she just lost track. But it was always this propelling himself hustling, you know, never really working for somebody. And we had a restaurant, he had grocery stores. And I guess at the point where I was born, what he was doing was pretty interesting at the time, was in the salvage business, and he would contract to tear down buildings, houses. You know, either buy them for very little or just get them for nothing, and then salvage all of the material and build houses with the material and sell off the rest of the stuff in a store he had. And until the idea of tract housing caught on, it was a pretty good scheme. And then parlayed that money into buying real estate and. . . . And I remember as a child, basically what I did was sort of. . . . You know, taking apart faucets and reconditioning them, painting them, and taking nails out of lumber and. . . . And I sometimes think that has a lot of bearing on the art I would do because I was. . . . It would almost be in like some sort of museum, you know, looking at maybe two hundred different kinds of faucets, but all generically the same, but seeing all the variations. And taking them apart, painting the handles or what have you. And always looking at things—like “Why is this faucet better than that faucet?” that sort of thing. And I got a taste of the hands-on thing—you know, taking things apart, putting them together, painting things, and so on. My mother babysat me by. . . . You know, I would get something, ten cents a day, something like that in an allowance.

Self-conscious or not, taking his words in all seriousness, Baldessari’s memories of his childhood experiences and working class immigrant milieu seem to be reflected in his art.
Indeed, Baldessari’s art is obviously not representative of an Italian American ethnic identity in the way that Joseph Stella’s or Ralph Fasanella’s paintings are. His work instead suggests to us that artistic output might offer layers of meaning that are not always visible, that may not even be self-conscious, but rather speak to the multidirectional movement of ideas and identity.

Check out one of Baldessari's videos, "Six Colorful Inside Jobs," a piece with a self-conscious take on everyday spaces

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