Rarely, in recent history, has an artist distinguished him or herself as primarily a printmaker (or at least none jump to mind, like might happen with say painters or photographers), especially in terms of art after conceptualism, where the medium was rarely, if ever, the message. As Sol Lewitt wrote in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, “Any idea that is better stated in two dimensions should not be in three dimensions. Ideas may also be stated with numbers, photographs, or words or any way the artist chooses, the form being unimportant.” The key phrase for this conversation is the last one. So in the panoply of tactics used by contemporary artists, printmaking, with its ancient history and regular reinvention, seems as good as any for artists such as Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari to exercise ideas.
Both are winners of Golden Lions at the most recent edition of the Venice Biennial, Nauman (Best National Pavilion) and Baldessari (Lifetime Achievement). Both individually and significantly altered contemporary artmaking with a particularly California spin. At their origins, they provided an important alternative to the hardheaded ideas that formed the foundation of Minimalism and Idea Art on the East Coast in the 1960s. Although distinctly different from one another in not only their visual language but also their subject matter, both of them came out of a very particular brand of California conceptualism and they both bent art toward something a little more funny, a little more playful, definitely not any dumber, though they both mocked dumb gestures in their work. Their deadpan jokes and dopey attitude about what constitutes art making can easily be witnessed at the exhibition currently on view at Cirrus Gallery, and too, can be seen as the framework for each of their practices.
In this exhibition, prints for Nauman serve as a kind of sketchbook, where the ideas being played out take on greater shapes in other works, from sketches of rooms and studios (where as Nauman has stated, 'anything made is art') to the classic word play that is fundamental to Nauman’s oeuvre. Raw, built like an old-fashioned hotel sign with struts and joists on the page, easily becomes War. And Caned and Dance, one written over the other, become linguistic cousins: their elements the same, their meaning radically altered, with their juxtaposition making new meaning.
The works being shown by Baldessari seem to capture the two modes evident throughout his career-long inquiry. The first being a print of one of Baldessari’s most famous conceptual works, a school boys’ rote repetition of “I will not make any more boring art.” (A dictate one would hope younger artists might take more seriously). The second being his now classic visual language of pop imagery, altered and punctured, faces covered with colored dots, the various elements of different framed images playing with each other, as if each separate framed image were affecting the delicate constitution of the others around it.
Baldessari in his later career continued this second throughline placing him in line with Pop Art (and proto-Pop artist, fellow Angeleno, Ed Ruscha) though reinventing its coolness to deal with a more frisky approach. Nauman, who always bent more toward language, has in some ways fared better, not only because language has been one of the primary focuses for the construction of meaning in academic endeavor since the 1960s, but also because Nauman's words, bent and needled in his distinctive way, seem to age better than the five hundredth Baldessari work with dots over people’s faces. Baldessari's prints here, as it is often elsewhere, are certainly smart, and though he sometimes plays with the pop accoutrements of violence, never gets quite as darkly complex as Nauman, readily evident in a comparison of these prints.
According to the dealer, this exhibition, which focuses on prints made at Cirrus by both Nauman and Baldessari, was thrown together from existing inventory. But even if it’s construction was relatively haphazard, Nauman and Baldessari formed poles that drastically affected artmaking both locally and internationally. Exhibiting their work side by side, and focusing on the crux of important moments in both their careers, allows an engaging examination of their similarities and differences.
Deadpan and stone-faced, I can write with assurance that one similarity is for sure: neither makes boring art.
-- Andrew Berardini
(Images: John Baldessari, I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art, 1971, Lithograph, ed. 50, 22.5x30 in.; Bruce Nauman, Raw War, 1971, Lithograph ed. 100, 22-1/4x28-1/4 in.; John Baldessari, The Fallen Easel, 1987, Lithograph, ed. 35, 74x95 in.; Bruce Nauman, Caned Dance, 1974, Lithograph; All images © of their respective owners; courtesy of the artists and Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles) courtesy of the artists and Cirrus Gallery, LA)