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What do the trenchant photographer Carrie Mae Weems and the conceptual trailblazer John Baldessari have in common? They both attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles, the mythic university and birthplace of some of art history’s most pivotal contemporary movements, from Fluxus to Light and Space. Baldessari and Weems are among the 50 luminary alumni of the school who have been commissioned to create works ahead of its 50th anniversary. Titled 50+50: A Creative Century from Chouinard to CalArts, the initiative also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Chouinard Art Institute, which merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in 1961 to become CalArts.
Consisting of limited edition works produced with publisher Lisa Ivorian-Jones, the works in 50+50 will be released in groups of 10 over a five-year period and sold to benefit a new scholarship endowment for the university’s School of Art. The inaugural grouping will be on view at REDCAT Gallery, part of CalArt’s multidisciplinary center in downtown LA, in an exhibition co-organized by Michael Ned Holte and Carmen Amengual from February 12 through March 22.
Each artist has chosen to interpret and approach the theme of CalArts’s anniversaries in different ways. Some reference or cite memorable experiences they had at the school, while others “will use the commission to revisit formative themes in their practices or experiment with new technologies,” according to a press release. (Artist Joe Goode, for instance, who graduated from Chouinard in 1961, forayed into 3D printing for the first time to create a sculptural milk bottle edition that harks back to his Pop art milk bottle paintings begun in the 1960s.)
“This initiative says something important about how layers of art history become a catalyst for the unknown future,” said the multimedia artist Tony Oursler, who earned his BFA from CalArts in 1979.
Oursler met fellow American artist Mike Kelley at CalArts in 1976, where the pair immediately hit it off and formed a band that gave way to the experimental collaborative group The Poetics. Each edition of his shelf sculpture “Lucky Charm” (2019), Oursler’s commission for 50+50, includes a boombox that plays a video compiled from previously unseen footage produced by Kelley and Oursler and a uniquely designed composition notebook, an icon of the era and symbolic of the group’s early days.
Baldessari, who passed away earlier this year, completed post-graduate work at the Chouinard Art Institute and joined the School of Art as a founding faculty member in 1970, where he went on to inspire and guide generations of artists. His contribution to 50+50 is a life-sized, hand-painted resin sculpture of a penguin, improbably titled “Quack” (2018) and produced in an edition of 14. (Two years ago, Baldessari made a six-foot-seven-inch penguin sculpture — towering at the same height as the maverick artist — which he hilariously described as a “self-portrait.”)
The LA-born artist Anne Collier, another CalArts alum, is participating in the fundraising initiative with an “aura” portrait of Baldessari, who was her teacher and mentor. Collier originally created her aura photographs (images that allege to capture a person’s color-specific aura on film through double exposure Polaroid photos) between 2002 and 2004, and her print of Baldessari for 50+50 is the first edition to be released from the series. In Collier’s photograph, the seminal conceptualist looks out from a soft fog of gold-speckled greens and ocean blues, a meditative and fittingly enigmatic tribute to his shapeshifting practice.
The 50 artists commissioned for the project span ages and nationalities, representing graduates of the progressive arts school as far back as the 1950s and through the present generation. “The 50+50 project is one example of the myriad ways our alumni play a vital role in directly supporting our current and future students — the artists who will shape the future of culture,” said Ravi S. Rajan, CalArts’s president, in a statement.
The inaugural exhibition in the five-year initiative will feature works by Baldessari, Weems, Oursler, Collier, Goode, Naotaka Hiro, Laddie John Dill, Gala Porras-Kim, Stephen Prina, and Barbara T. Smith. They will be priced between $1,500 and $150,000; sales inquiries can be made online here.
50+50: A Creative Century from Chouinard to CalArts opens at REDCAT Gallery (631 West 2nd Street, Downtown, Los Angeles) on February 12 and runs through March 22.