The West Coast is celebrating one of their most important and deserving artists as John Baldessari’s retrospective “Pure Beauty” is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), through September 12th. Fortunately Chicago has not been left out in this celebration as the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) hosts “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation,” an exhibition organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.
John Baldessari. Studio. 1988. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer
While the ethics of showing artwork from a private collector have come under increasing scrutiny, thanks to the New Museum and Dakis Joannou “Skin Fruit” incident, an exhibition like this shows the positive side of displaying a private collector’s holdings. It is pretty clear that Mr. Schnitzer is sensitive to these recent ethical conflicts and questions, writing in his statement for the exhibition: “these exhibitions of work from my collection . . . are loaned for free, I also help fund educational programs that are tailored to individual community needs . . . these programs include underwriting that provides for . . . transportation for grade and high school students, and curriculum materials for teachers.” Bussing in needy kids? Providing materials for America’s chronically under funded public school teachers? It’s a smart P.R. move but it seems honest. I’m guessing this guy doesn’t have a Jeff Koons-designed yacht named Guilty sitting in the Mediterranean.
The motive for the show is altruistic, and the quality of work on view is uniformly high. The exhibition itself focuses on Baldessari’s printmaking, just one of his many artistic outlets. Characteristically, once Baldessari began making prints he immediately started to blend genres and break the traditional “rules” of printmaking, starting with one of his first series of prints, Raw Prints from 1976.
According to the exhibition text, it was “unheard of at that time to use an artist’s self-made photographs in combination with lithography.” The same text also describes the series as “not visually compelling,” and that it “met with resistance in the market,” which may explain why this first foray in printmaking is shown further away from the main entrance, on the second floor of the museum. It may not be the best work on view, but Raw Prints indicates the strategies that Baldessari will pursue for the next three decades and more, by blocking out certain pictorial elements and emphasizing others, creating a complex conversation between form and meaning, realistic and abstract. The prints themselves have a photo in a corner from which certain elements appear in the larger field—a block of green is reproduced from a man’s shirt, along with a line, sourced from the outline of a doorway. The result is a Richard Tuttle-like construction and the series gives you a sense of how Baldessari chooses to emphasize the things he does, a patch of color here, an outline there. It is just enough to try to start a narrative that never can be completed, forcing you to enjoy the elements for what they are, not what they could be or what you would want them to be.
John Baldessari. Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue. 2005. Mixografia print on handmade paper. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.
Printmaking techniques are evidenced in the variety of work on view but unlike an exhibition like “Chuck Close: Process and Collaboration” printmaking itself is not really the focus of the exhibition—Baldessari and his art are. Thus there are works utilizing familiar and popular techniques, like Six Colorful Gags (Male), 1991, that uses photogravure, color aquatint and spit-bite aquatint to reproduce the desired graphics. But there are also more challenging series in terms of printmaking, like Stonehenge (With Two Persons) from 2005, seen above, that use Mixografia prints on handmade paper yielding a result that seems to stretch the limit of paper itself to the breaking point. The nuances of Baldessari’s engagement with printmaking will have to be left to another exhibition.
Humor is in no shortage in this exhibition and it’s not your typical art pun or visual one-liners. It’s no coincidence that Baldessari was the exhibition designer for the 2006-2007 Magritte exhibition at LACMA, like Magritte’s humor, laughs from Baldessari leave the viewer more curious, more thoughtful than before. Art that utilizes puns or a one-liner is always disappointing and a bit empty after the laugh.
John Baldessari. Two Opponents (Blue & Yellow). 2004. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer
Baldessari’s Two Opponents (Blue & Yellow), 2004, seen above, shows two men locked in the manliest of contests, arm wrestling, their faced blocked by Baldessari’s characteristically colorful circles.  Maybe it’s just me, but I can never see a picture of two dudes arm wrestling without thinking of the arm wrestling scenes in the ludicrous 1987 Sylvester Stallone movie Over the Top. This association could be shared by myself alone and could be completely wrong, but the strength of Baldessari’s artwork is that it can sustain a variety of readings and none of them are completely correct—it is a generosity of meaning rather than a loss. In this way we can look at the two figures as signifying a variety of oppositions, some of which have already been mentioned: artist/viewer, intention/interpretation, overt/implied, etc. In this work and others on view, humor operates to draw the viewer in, disarming those who are intimidated or resistant to contemporary art, while never simplifying the art, or dumbing it down.
Baldessari is an artist that is consistently asking questions and, in turn, forces his viewers to ask questions. Why is one thing juxtaposed by another? Why are these things represented in this particular medium? Why are these things represented at all? Baldessari frequently rescues the junk of culture and turns it into something else—art that probes the unconsciousness of the same society that produced and forgot those images in the first place.
 For some reason the image provided by MoCP show the right circle as orange, not yellow.