Playing with Conceptual Art

John Baldessari's Throwing Three Balls in the Air
to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts)

Contemporary art book publisher Giampaolo Prearo first met John Baldessari at the artist’s exhibition ‘John Baldessari: Choosing, Aligning, Floating, April 1972” held at Franco Toselli Galleria in Milan. Baldessari had recently finished his series, “Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts)” and Prearo, intrigued by the project, proposed that they collaborate in the creation of a small catalog. 

The series consisted of the artist throwing the three balls into the air simultaneously while his then-wife, Carol Wixom, photographed the efforts in an attempt to capture the moment that all three balls were perfectly aligned in space. The resultant 36 frames were pared down to the twelve most successful images, each displaying unique “hanging sculptures” that had been determined by chance atmospheric variables and the randomness of gravity.

Prearo completed his production of the booklet, printing a total of 2,000 copies containing the twelve frames but, as he later lamented to Artribune, “I must confess that of the whole edition, despite the paltry price of two dollars, I was unable to sell even a single copy. Only a few copies were given as a gift to friends, journalists and artists, the few people who understood the importance of Baldessari's work and who had the pleasure of owning this little book of mine.”

10 years later a flood damaged Prearo’s warehouse, destroying 1200 of the remaining copies. The resulting 500 booklets languished until Prearo reunited with Baldessari, this time at his exhibition at the Prada Foundation in Milan. Franco Toselli, the gallerist who had been present at the conception of the project, was also in attendance and suggested that the remaining booklets be given new blue silk bindings, reminiscent of the California sky under which the work was created. Prearo recounted, “We added our signature to the colophon, mine and Toselli’s, as a testimony of our long friendship.” 

John Baldessari b. 1931

Renowned conceptual artist John Baldessari came of age in California, studying art education and art history between San Diego State College and the University of California, Berkeley. Structures of pedagogy and art historical precedent would continue to influence his work even as he made a radical split from gestural painting and moved into experimentation with a wide variety of media and modes. In 1970, Baldessari ceremoniously marked this passage with “The Cremation Project,” in which he burnt the majority of his paintings created before 1966 and then baked the ashes into cookies.

Though Baldessari consistently defied categorization, much of his work addressed the uneasy relationship between image and word. "I've often thought of myself as a frustrated writer," John Baldessari once confessed. "I consider a word and an image of equal weight, and a lot of my work comes out of that kind of thinking." He became perhaps best known for his tongue-in-cheek photomontages, which brought sardonic tidbits of punny text into conversation with found and reappropriated images. Although textual elements gradually vanished from Baldessari's work beginning in the early 1970s, the essential, underlying questions that drove his earlier work remained.

Beyond his art practice, Baldessari had a considerable influence on contemporary art through his role as an educator. He taught at CalArts from 1970 to 1988 and at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1996 to 2007, influencing an upcoming generation that include Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, and David Salle. Baldessari’s works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and many others.

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