The Most Expensive John Baldessari Art Pieces Sold at Auction

January 8, 2020

As one of the leading figures and determining forces of the late 1960s conceptualism, John Baldessari relied heavily on the linguistic play and upon appropriating and recontextualizing images. This way, he disrupted the relationship between sign and signified, between convention and unconscious meaning. Questioning the very notion of art and artistic practice he explained that he “was able to dig into what I thought art might be, not what somebody else would think art would be”. His works are often riddles highlighting some of the unspoken assumptions of contemporary art. Creating complex compositions exploring the multifaceted interpretations of cultural iconography, he always maintained his signature sense of humor.

Beginning in the 1950s, Baldessari emerged through works executed in a gestural style. Abandoning painting altogether, he burnt all of his early works, turning them into dust that he kept as a souvenir until his death. He wanted to discover a way to create pictorial art without making "paintings". By the end of the 1960s, the artist started to introduce text and appropriated images. Focusing on the photographic image, he explored the ways these they communicate. Employing distorting, cropping, collaging, blocking out faces and objects with colored dots, he would often arrange them to suggest a narrative.

Baldessari described himself as a “frustrated writer, less interested in the form art takes than the meaning an image evokes”. Introducing text into his works, he realized that imagery and text behave in similar ways through codes that convey messages. His versatile portfolio includes photomontage, artist’s books, prints, painting, film, performance, and installation. His emergent “anti-style” idiom of photographic and filmic mash-ups, deadpan humor, and canny juxtapositions became the language of Conceptual Art and have had an enormous influence on generations of artists.

Let’s take a look at the priciest John Baldessari art pieces sold at auctions!

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Two Compositions (Dynamic / Static; Red / Green), 1990

The piece Two Compositions (Dynamic / Static; Red / Green) from 1990 consists of two appropriated black and white photographs. While one image is dynamic, other is static, and they are conflicted against each other. It depicts his signature use of colorful dots atop photographs, the practice for which he has received an early acclaim.

The piece was first sold at Christie’s New York in May 2004 for $86,040, but only four years later, it was sold again at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 for $554,500.

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Upward Fall, 1986

Addressing the social and cultural impact of mass media, clipping and manipulating found imagery from a variety of sources, Baldessari’s ‘80s photo-compositions are decisive in the development of appropriation art and the Pictures Generation movement. The work Upward Fall demonstrates the artist's savvy knowledge of the subjective workings of pop culture. Cutting and pasting visual prompts on top and next to each other, he re-contextualized the original imagery, providing a deep commentary on how we understand society and the complex world around us.

The work was sold on October 5th, 2018 at Phillips London during their 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $474,762.

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Figures at Beach; Figures on Mountain Peak, 1990

The piece Figures at Beach; Figures on Mountain Peak from 1990 juxtaposes the imagery of the crowded beach with a mountain peak conquer. Facial expressions of the beach figures are obscured with his signature geometric shapes. Baldessari found his medium in a readily available resource of mass culture; the discarded photograph that could be recombined and altered to yield new configurations of meaning. 

The piece was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2007 for $576,000.

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Brutus Killed Caesar, 1976

The piece Brutus Killed Caesar from 1976 depicts two men separate by objects implying a controversy. It was published in one of Baldessari's early artist books. The men on the left and right are “looking at each other” and these portraits remain constant throughout the book. What changes is the image between them. The first sequence reads like a rebus: portrait-knife-portrait; but subsequent examples offer different, often humorous, interpretations, as the knife is replaced by images of a gun, coat hanger, banana peel, potted plant, and can of paint, among other items. Each photograph references the three-word structure of the title.

The piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012 for $662,500.

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Eden: With Ascending and Descending Figures, Onlookers and Hope (Small), 1991

Constantly striving to find new ways of merging photography and painting, the piece Eden: With Ascending and Descending Figures, Onlookers and Hope from 1991 is a striking example of Baldessari’s artistic preoccupations. It is assembled of several photographs where two figures are painted in bright colors, uniting the two mediums. These shadowlike silhouettes are scattered in the bottom of the composition.

It fascinates me how I can manipulate the truth so easily by the way I juxtapose opposites or crop the image or take it out of context.

The piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2006 for $688,000.

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Font, 1987

In the piece Font from 1987, Baldessari incorporates flat, geometric shapes of color to change the meaning of appropriated imagery. Focusing on a workplace achievements that Baldessari believed to be arbitrary, facial expressions of the figures and some other detail that would particularize the events are obscured with. These banal rituals are therefore mocked for its absurdity. The work emerges from reflections on public interaction in the modern world, where one’s individuality is submerged in the interests of the group.

This piece was sold at Christie’s New York in November 2006 for $800,000.

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Hands, Horses (To Agree), 1987

A photographic work Hands, Horses (To Agree) from 1987 consists of two assembled images of businessmen who are “sealing the deal” and two photo stills from the film The Misfits from 1961. The identity of this famous movie is here lost, and the imagery seems timeless. These images are juxtaposed by the American ideal of success in the business world. This literal parallel reflects sources of America’s aspirations and dreams. Here, the artist also liberates the figures and allows room for more than one interpretation of his conceptualism.

The piece was sold at Phillips New York in May 2007 for $735,000.

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Kiss, Panic, 1984

Kiss, Panic from 1984 consists of a grid of twelve appropriated photos that juxtapose two mouths kissing with a still depicting the scene of a riot; these two central images are surrounded by photographs of various small firearms. But during this period, more often Baldessari’s dark mood is less directive than this.

The piece was purchased in May 2007 by Manhattan gallerist David Zwirner at Sotheby’s New York for a record $992,000.

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Painting for Kubler, 1968

Painting for Kubler from 1968 is one of the groundbreaking works created between 1966-68 that have changed the landscape of contemporary art. Self-contained and self-referential, it also refers to George Kubler, an important art historian and scholar. Baldessari has condensed the essential points from a segment of Kubler’s seminal book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things into a snappy aphorism. By co-opting this text, he refers directly to his artistic practice. Questioning the authorship and originality, Baldessari has commissioned a sign painter to execute these phrases and removed his personal touch from the production of the work.

The piece was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2009 for $1,874,500.

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Commissioned Painting: a Painting By Edgar Transue, 1969

Commissioned Painting: a Painting By Edgar Transue from 1969 is both aesthetically reductive and piercingly intelligent. It is a seminal benchmark for the evolution of conceptual and appropriation art. Questioning authorship, originality, and aesthetic judgement, the piece embodies Baldessari’s emphatic statement, “The purpose of art is to keep us perpetually off balance”. It is part of the series entitled Commissioned Paintings where Baldessari has photographed his friend George Nicolaidis pointing out random everyday objects. These photographs were taken to various local sign painters to copy these photographs as faithfully as possible. These works question the very notion of “high art” throwing the definition of art-making open to broad and exciting new interpretation.

This piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2014 for $2,517,000.

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Quality Material, 1968

The piece The Quality Material from 1968 is part of the seminal series where Baldessari explored the way that language conveys the complex mental image that is inextricably bound to our understanding of art. He began juxtaposing  photographs with text on canvas, eventually removing the imagery from his work altogether. Operating outside the traditional forms and materials of art-making, the artist aimed to critique systems of communication, the production of meaning and the reception of art through an analysis of language.

This piece was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2007 for $4,408,000.

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