John Baldessari has left me feeling sensitive. Maybe not John himself, the snowy-haired giant (both in literal and figurative stature) of art in Los Angeles, but his work. Though Baldessari has had retrospectives in the double-digits, this latest one has been billed as “long overdue” and as one of the most important, not just because of its scope (which is broad) but also because of its timing and location, coming near the end of Baldessari’s long and rich career here in his hometown of Los Angeles.
John Baldessari has always asked the question, "What is Art?" In photographs, videos, paintings, prints, and sculptures, California native Baldessari has spent a lifetime regularly asking (and answering!) that question. As one of the godfathers of Conceptual Art, Baldessari's mixture of found image and texts, visual additions and subtractions are plump with narrative possibility, infused with a sense of humor that's deadpan, playful, funny, arresting, and sometimes even sinister. It is this sinister quality that struck me wandering through the row of white cubes housing Baldessari’s life’s work this summer at LACMA.
Perhaps, just a few days after seeing Baldessari’s retrospective, Pure Beauty, at LACMA (following whistle stops at the Tate Modern in London and MACBA in Barcelona), I am beginning to feel particularly sensitive to the artist’s dictatorial streak (of which most are unaware) having been drawn in by his notoriously gentle manner.
“People ask me why I stay here and they think I love it and I say no I hate L.A. I always have to be a little bit angry, and L.A. makes me angry”
Perhaps my current gripes come from the exhibition itself, which opens with a couple of gripeworthy choices. Arranged chronologically, the exhibition begins with a few spared paintings that didn’t make it into the crematorium during the artist’s famous incineration of his early attempts with the canvas. One can understand why Baldessari decided to rid himself of them – they are fine enough, but are really nothing too special. What is interesting however is to see how the subject matter in these early works get revisited by Baldessari throughout his oeuvre. Body parts, noses, birds – all reappear in some more appealing configuration later on.
In the room following the early paintings, Baldessari’s video work gets an embarrassingly inadequate representation. There were only six videos on view on four standard Sony monitors, presented in the ambiance of the galleries, with no bench on which to actually sit and watch, which is likely moot anyway as they are virtually inaudible. I guess it is easy enough to get the gist of conceptual video work quickly, but when a second piece is looped after a fifty-minute work, it’s difficult to commit enough time. A separate video program would have been a satisfactory solution.
His early documentation of conceptual “games” are very well represented. But even his games are serious and less about play and more about prescriptions (A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking, 1972-73). Baldessari creates the game for the viewer to play by his rules, whether you like it or not. Follow the lines, follow the arrows, follow the trajectory, follow the path.
“It’s a cat and mouse game where I give them clues. It’s like a great detective story where the writer leads you to think you’ve got it all figured out, then, ‘Ah hah! No you haven’t!’”
But, if conceptualism is criticized as nothing more than pointing, as Baldessari claims to have read before embarking on the Commissioned Paintings, 1969, then it is the act of pointing that needs to be critically analyzed. To point is to suggest, or more forcefully, to demand one’s attention be directed to a certain spot. It is a powerful gesture and not without its own sense of violence. One is forced to look whether one wants to of not. And Baldessari is pointing. Aesthetic judgment, artistic authorship, structuralist linguistics are all his (moving) targets.
Even though Baldessari’s paintings predate the landmark Camera Lucida by 15 years or so, I’m reminded of French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes’ punctum and its prick. And though Barthes was never being literal, in Baldessari’s conceptualism, literality reigns. Pointing (meaning ‘to select’) is coupled with pointing (meaning ‘to penetrate the image, to pierce the meaning of the image’). That wounding created by the image is rooted in Baldessari’s hidden anger and the effect that the city (Los Angeles, but also Hollywood) has had on him (Thaumatrope Series: Two Gangsters [One with Leather Suit], 1975).
“Movies are many people’s reality. And what do they deal with? Primarily violence or love.”
I do not intend to say that the viewer should see the work as violent (although two particular works – Horizontal Men, 1984 and Inventory, 1987 – do strikingly deal with death and the Holocaust). Quite often the contrary happens. Baldessari mitigates the violence he sees (and experiences) by making the work beautiful. In theory, collage can be seen as an attempt to reorder the world as the artist wishes, giving the artist a power that has previously been denied. Baldessari’s works from the ‘80s and ‘90s uses appropriation to similar effect. He makes a world in which he feels more comfortable living.
"People shaking hands, you know: congratulating each other, what have you in a standard shot. I really always found them objectionable and then I realized that these were people making decisions about my life while I was in my studio so there was a kind of uneasiness on my part and one day after carrying these photographs around I had some circular price stickers and I put them on their faces. And I really felt that leveled the playing field somehow."
But in another act of violence, Baldessari routinely obliterates identity. Red, yellow, blue and other colored circles cover faces in most of his later works. The circles don’t act to prevent us from recognizing an actor – most of the images come for rejected film stills, from the unknown Hollywood – but, rather, block us from recognizing their expressiveness, and consequently, their (pure) humanity.
“I think I got traumatized as a kid when I saw photographs of the Holocaust and bodies stacked up, and that really scarred me... And so I think I have this idea that civility is just a thin veneer that could crack open at any minute. And would that be funny? Yes, it could be funny.”
He points, penetrates, and blocks, he’s angry. He happily obliterates faces of self-congratulatory men making decisions on the artist’s unhappy behalf (Exterior Views, 1986). Perhaps what makes the work function is the tension between the friendly and familiar and the subtle aggression of the artist’s play. Familiar imagery (made vague by stock repetition) gets chopped, faces are redacted with bright, primary colored stickers, violence pokes in again and again. Things are not so much left out but cut out. Perhaps Baldessari does what we might all want to do in the dark recesses of our souls, chop and cut the repeated images of crasser aspects of pop. When Baldessari blocks faces, he’s claims (repulsively) that “they were faces I couldn’t bear to look at.” The ‘block’ is cruel and prohibitive, but does nothing to lessen their potency as pictures.
- Calvin Phelps
John Baldessari’s work can currently be seen in the following exhibits: “Sediment,” Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, May 22 – July 10, 2010; “Foot and Stocking (With Big Toe Exposed) Series,” Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, CA, June 26 – September 3, 2010; and “Pure Beauty,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, June 27 – September 12, 2010.
All images courtesy the artist and LACMA. All works by John Baldessari, Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Hildegard Reiner, 1969, Acrylic and oil on canvas; 59 ¼ x 45 ½ inches. A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking, 1972-73 Twenty-three black-and-white photographs with acrylic; 10 x 6 ¾ inches each photograph, 11 ½ x 8 ¼ inches text, Thaumatrope Series: Two Gangsters (One with Leather Suit), 1975, Three black-and-white photographs; 16 x 20 inches, 16 x 20 inches and 5 x 7 inches. Horizontal Men, 1984 Black-and-white photographs; 97 ¼ x 47 5/8 inches overall; Exterior Views, 1986, Black-and-white photographs, oil tint, oil stick and acrylic; 101 ½ x 72 ½ inches.