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Here are some artistic creations that have defined beauty for generations: a young man in marble with a slingshot on his shoulder, in Michelangelo's "David;" a plump pink woman, depicted by Renoir; brilliant blocks of color that seem to vibrate, in a Rothko painting.
In Venice, California, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met an 81-year-old artist who respects these definitions of beauty and turns them upside down.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: John Baldessari is an icon in some art circles, especially in Southern California, a towering figure someone said. Well, he's six foot seven with long white hair and beard, thoughtful and provocative. He has burned his own paintings, put colored dots over faces in photographs, covered floors at the Los Angeles County Museum with a carpet of blue sky and puffy white clouds. Lots of times, a Baldessari makes you smile, then go huh? In his sunny studio, the artist says he's trying to slow us down to look in new ways.
JOHN BALDESSARI: You know when you're sitting in a dentist office or doctor's office and you look in a magazine? And then you go: What was that? I would like people to have that feeling, you know, that wait, what did I just see?
STAMBERG: Like with the colored dots, they are price stickers. Over the years, he'd been collecting black and white news photographs - pictures of people at various civic occasions.
BALDESSARI: I just got so tired of looking at these faces.
STAMBERG: Faces of mayors shaking hands with firefighters, faces of local officials at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. In 1985, in a fit of pique, Baldessari covered the faces with colored dots.
BALDESSARI: If you can't see their face, you're going to look at how they're dressed, maybe, their stance, their surroundings. You know, you really do see that handshake. You know, it's not about those guys, it's about that handshake. It's about cutting that ribbon.
STAMBERG: But scissors and a ribbon are not nearly as interesting as looking at a human face.
BALDESSARI: But if I could take the face away, you don't have the face to look at.
STAMBERG: So why do you leave us with this boring stuff to look - like a scissor and a piece of ribbon?
BALDESSARI: Why do I leave it? Because I think then you really, sort of, dig beneath the surface and you can see what that photograph is really about. It's what's going on.
STAMBERG: Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - LACMA for short - understands.
MICHAEL GOVAN: If you obliterate the face, then you begin to see the hands and the ribbon as full of meaning, because, no two ribbons, no two hands, no two ceremonies are the same. So it is, in a way, it's a proper metaphor for thinking about what John's work does, generally, which is sometimes he takes away the thing that's most obvious in the center of your vision, forces you to look at everything else, almost for the first time, to make new sense of what your seeing.
STAMBERG: Govan calls Baldessari one of the most influential artists working today. A pioneer of conceptual art, where it's the idea that counts - the idea in the ARTIST'S head that becomes art in the heads of viewers as they try to puzzle it out.
LACMA curator Leslie Jones says Baldessari chews up the familiar and spits it out into something else.
LESLIE JONES: I've often thought of Baldessari's work as kind of a surrealism for the media age, if that makes sense. And it's because he's taking pre-existing imagery and re-configuring it, and creating new realities, or surrealities, right from them.
STAMBERG: In 1970, Baldessari was painting in San Diego and he says getting nowhere - had no gallery, had no audience, no buyers for his pictures.
BALDESSARI: And so, I said well I'm just going to stop. I have them in my head. I don't really need them. So I just - I'll just destroy them.
STAMBERG: He took everything he'd painted from 1953 to 1966, found a mortuary and cremated all of it - burned his body of work. Nine-and-a-half boxes of ashes later, he still has no regrets about losing any of them. It was a ritual act of purification, a farewell to the tradition of painting and a re-birth, for him. He turned to photography as his main medium of expression and communication. The modern medium, Baldessari believed.
He did save some text paintings. He was experimenting with using words in his work. "Pure Beauty" is an example. Those two words in black capitol letters on a painted white canvas. Leslie Jones, who curated a Baldessari show called "Pure Beauty," says he was again trying to get us to think.
JONES: What is pure beauty? And ultimately, pure beauty is a very subjective experience. You know, it could be a painting by Rothko. It could be about color. It could be about a beautiful landscape. But ultimately, everyone's notion of pure beauty is different. So, for me this work is conveying that very idea, is that pure beauty is whatever you want to envision in your head.
STAMBERG: LACMA director Michael Govan says we are taught certain standards of beauty from childhood.
GOVAN: That's right. You know something's beautiful because somebody has told you it's beautiful. And so you'll use that as the definition. John's trying to unmake that simple reference; that it's beautiful because somebody else says it's beautiful, and wants you to think about it: What are the constructs of beauty.
STAMBERG: So just two simple words on a canvas, that can be pure beauty. It's funny, this stuff. It makes you laugh - at first.
GOVAN: I would say that John's work possesses something like deep humor. It's funny, but it leads you somewhere. It's never a one-liner that ends there. It's always based on some deep philosophy, consideration, reconsideration way of seeing. It's never just funny for the sake of being funny.
STAMBERG: The artist John Baldessari finds humor in his work and in this world. A while ago, one of his text paintings sold for $4.4 million.
BALDESSARI: Yeah. And if I couldn't laugh at it, luckily that's, you know, that's a whole other thing.
STAMBERG: I hope you went to Paris or drank some really good wine.
BALDESSARI: No, not really. You just have to laugh.
STAMBERG: And keep on working.
BALDESSARI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STAMBERG: It's my life, he says. It's what I do.
BALDESSARI: I suspect it's, you know, by keeping my mind active, it's keeping me, you know, alive. Absolutely.
STAMBERG: A smile, a farewell handshake and John Baldessari gets back to work.
In Southern California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And you can see some of Baldessari's works at NPR.org.
STAMBERG: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
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