Essay

Lost Art: John Baldessari

The Gallery of Lost Art is an immersive, online exhibition that tells the fascinating stories of artworks that have disappeared. Each week, a new story of loss is added, and the evidence presented for examination

Cremation Project 1970

This week the Gallery of Lost Art looks at the unusual decision of the America artist John Baldessari to burn much of his early work.

John Baldessari is today known as one of the leading conceptual artists of his generation, using found or appropriated images and exploring the associative power of language. Like many experimental artists Baldessari began his career in the more traditional realm of painting. Rather than merely moving on from these early works, Baldessari decided in 1970 to have them destroyed.

John Baldessari’s studio with works gathered together in preparation for Cremation Project 1970

John Baldessari’s studio with works gathered together in preparation for Cremation Project 1970
Photo: John Baldessari
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman © John Baldessari

In the summer of 1970 all paintings in the artist’s possession dating from the thirteen years 1953–66 were incinerated at a local crematorium. He took the precaution of making slides of most of them but the exact number of works destroyed is unknown.

Baldessari conceived of the destruction of his early works as an artwork in itself called Cremation Project and in a letter to a critic shortly afterwards he wrote, ‘I really think it is my best piece to date’.

Find the full story and explore the last traces of many more lost works here

See also

  • Tate Etc

    Somebody to talk to

    Jessica Morgan

    The Los Angeles-based artist John Baldessari (born 1931) made his name as a pioneer of conceptual art in the 1960s …
  • Tate Etc

    Simplify, simplify, and simplify

    Skylar Haskard and Frederic Tuten

    Four appreciations of John Baldessari, including an artist’s project by Rita McBride and a short fiction story by Frederic Tuten.
  • Tate Etc

    Nine to five

    Christopher Miles

    The American artist John Baldessari has influenced several generations of younger artists, and has, since the 1960s, consistently renegotiated his …
  • Tate Modern
    Exhibition

    John Baldessari Pure Beauty

    John Baldessari Pure Beauty; past exhibition at Tate Modern