Why Was the Late Artist John Baldessari So Important? Just Watch This Video Narrated by Tom Waits

A short documentary on the artist from 2012 has been making the rounds on social media.

John Baldessari in a still from
John Baldessari in a still from "A Brief History of John Baldessari."

John Baldessari, the wry conceptualist who died this weekend at age 88, meant a lot of things to a lot of people. But of the many Baldessari-heads out there, there’s at least one you might not expect: Tom Waits. 

It turns out that the croaky crooner grew up in the same town as Baldessari—National City, California—and was a big fan of the artist. And the respect may have been mutual. In 2012, upon Baldessari’s request, Waits narrated a short documentary about the artist titled “A Brief History of John Baldessari.” (Baldessari says he chose Waits because of his voice.) 

The documentary, every bit as quirky as you might expect a video featuring two of the 20th century’s most idiosyncratic voices to be, has been making the rounds on social media in the days since Baldessari’s death. If you haven’t seen it yet, it deserves a look. Though it’s only 6 minutes long and fails in its stated goal of telling the artist’s life story, it does capture the sense of humor, humility, and pathos that pervaded just about everything he did.

The short film was commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012 on the occasion of its first annual “Art + Film Gala,” which honored both Baldessari and Clint Eastwood. (The museum was one of four institutions to host Baldessari’s sprawling 2009 exhibition “Pure Beauty.”) It was filmed and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the brotherly tandem behind the 2010 documentary Catfish and the movies Paranormal Activity 3 and 4

Interspersed with archival footage and clips of Baldessari himself speaking in his studio, the video features the artist reflecting on his legacy (he thinks he’ll best be remembered as the “guy who put dots over people’s faces”), revealing the x-factor behind his famous beard (“It’s pretty much the same color as my hair”), and sharing the three things that he believes every young artist should know. 

See the full documentary below. 


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