Artist Behind Geisel’s “READ/WRITE/THINK/DREAM” Passes Away

John Baldessari, the artist behind Geisel Library’s “READ/THINK/WRITE/DREAM,” passed away Jan. 2, 2020 at his home in Venice, California at the age of 88. Baldessari will be remembered for his conceptual designs and devotion to education. 

“READ/THINK/WRITE/DREAM,” which makes up the entryway to Geisel Library, is one of the 20 art pieces part of UC, San Diego’s Stuart Collection. Mary Beebe, Director of the Stuart Collection, spoke to the UCSD Guardian on Baldessari’s passing. 

“We are extremely proud to have this major Baldessari as part of the Stuart Collection,” Beebe said. “He was a friend and a pal and we will miss him very much.”

Baldessari and Beebe at the opening of “READ/WRITE/THINK/DREAM” in 2001 // Courtesy of Mary Beebe

Born in National City, California, Baldessari earned both his Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts in painting from San Diego State University in 1953 and 1957, respectively. He created his art largely by juxtaposing images and photographs with text, leading viewers to confront and question the images’ new meanings created from placing these elements out of context.

Within this conceptual style, Baldessari maintained a sense of personality and humor, with many of his works evoking wry smiles. One such piece is Baldessari’s 2018 “Emoji Series,” which consists of printed images of fruit with captions. A print in this collection shows an apple with the text “You May Like” below. The title of this piece reads “Adam Wasn’t Into It.”  

In 1970, Baldessari began his career as a university professor, teaching for the following 18 years in Valencia, CA for the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. From 1996 to 2007, he taught for UC Los Angeles. According to the New York Times, Baldessari’s teaching style centered on embracing the new and unconventional in a way that inspired his students, including conceptual artist Barbara Bloom and painter David Salle. 

It was this very passion for education and experimentation that Mary Beebe used to encourage Baldessari to install “READ/THINK/WRITE/DREAM” in 2001. The piece consists of moving, primary colored sliding glass doors, bookended by black and white images of students and a row of books. Two eucalyptus benches rest on either side, and within the doors are photos of art supplies and the ocean. 

Above all of this are the words “READ, THINK, WRITE, DREAM,” words that its Stuart Collection writeup identify as a message Baldessari would convey to his students by reminding them that they’re capable of doing so much more beyond work. 

Beebe reflected on Baldessari’s inclusion in the Stuart Collection, explaining how he was at first hesitant to do the piece, but she reassured him by referencing his influential relationship with both art and education.

“When first asked he kept saying ‘But, Mary, I’m not a sculptor,’” Beebe said. “I kept saying but you’re such an important teacher, and artist, and you grew up here, and have taught here, and I know you can think of something to do.”

Another Baldessari piece familiar to San Diego residents is his mural “Brain/Cloud (with Seascape and Palm Tree.” Installed in 2011 at 1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla, the mural depicts a cloud that distinctly resembles a human brain, floating above a palm tree by the ocean. The Murals of La Jolla website cites that the intention behind the mural is to draw viewers’ attention to the way many people identify images in the clouds. 

Baldessari explained his relationship with his art in a 2013 interview for Interview Magazine with his former student and fellow artist David Salle. At the time, three of Baldessari’s works were about to open at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. 

“I go back and forth between wanting to be abundantly simple and maddeningly complex,” Baldessari told Salle. “I always compare what I do to the work of a mystery writer—like, you don’t want to know the end of the book right away.”

John Baldessari’s contributions toward conceptual art as both an artist and a teacher will be long celebrated. Readers who are interested in learning more information about his life and art are encouraged to visit www.baldessari.org and his page on the Stuart Collection website. 

Photo by Nithish Narasimman for the UCSD Guardian.

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