On the Road: John Baldessari’s Pure Beauty
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 20, 2010 – January 9, 2011
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City, 212-879-5500
[Exhibition seen earlier at Tate Modern, London; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Los Angeles County Museum of Art.]
We expect art today to be portable. We believe that a painting, properly installed, will have a similar effect on us regardless of what city we are seeing it in. Yet seeing the Baldessari retrospective in Los Angeles and New York were palpably different experiences for this viewer, with the LACMA presentation making a far more favorable impression.
Both installations were, without question, well done. And while the Metropolitan left out a few works that were included in the LACMA show, it too included the key works presented in chronological order. So the only real differences, then, are the spaces and cities themselves. LACMA’s exhibition used its new Renzo Piano-designed building, which features spacious, naturally lit galleries, modulated via Piano’s signature louver system, throughout its top floor main exhibition area. The ample, light infused rooms evoke a subtle but unmistakable feeling of being outdoors.
Which brings us back to Baldessari. Baldessari was among a group of California artists – others include Ed Ruscha and Robert Irwin – who emerged from a local variety of Pop Art in the 1960s. A key attribute of this group was to question authority via conceptual practices, and in this Baldessari excelled from the beginning. Take, for example, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966-68. It presents itself as a simple yellow and black painting spelling out three bullet-points of advice, yet it plays a strange game. Like Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, it is a painting purporting to be a sign, not a painting. It contains none of the images it declares are essential to its own success. And while the work is inherently critical of mass culture it is not, in fact, critical of the viewer but instead depends on the viewer’s complicity to achieve its effect.
Requiring the viewer’s participation is, by implication, also to insist on the egalitarian nature of art. For Baldessari this manifests on a number of levels, working to undermine not only the idea of a privileged maker/viewer scenario, but also the concept of hierarchy in the works. In Violent Space Series: Two Stares Making a Point but Blocked by a Plane (for Malevich), 1977, for instance, an appropriated movie still collides, literally, with a large white abstract shape (or is that just a negative space?) confounding meaning while inducing drama. Conversely, in Prima Facie (Fifth State): Warm Brownie/American Cheese/Carrot Stick/Black Bean Soup/Perky Peach/Leek, 2006, the artist sets up a faux color chart which passive-aggressively asks the viewer for their thoughts on minimalist art and what, if anything, color actually means.
Motion is pivotal in all of these works, although sometimes, as in Baldessari’s videos, the movement comes courtesy of the actors on the screen rather than the viewer. In the deadpan and decidedly Sisyphean Six Colorful Inside Jobs, 1977, a camera stares down god-like from above as a man paints an entire room first red, then in quick succession orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Watching him paint, you think at first that he has painted himself into a corner, only to see a hidden door open to provide escape from the claustrophobic environment.
In a way, this mirrors Baldessari’s own escape from the confinement of being locked to a particular style, medium, or definition of art, or even, on a more quotidian level, of being forced to spend his time inside a traditional artist’s studio. Conceptually and literally, Baldessari wants to go outside to look for ideas and meaning. Which takes us back to why seeing this retrospective at the LACMA venue provided such a different experience. Being outside, specifically outside in southern California, is to be immersed in the hit-the-road-and-find-yourself car culture from which Baldessari’s work could find the essential freedom and context necessary for its growth.
The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January, 1963, presented as 32 photographs in a grid, speaks eloquently of this. The photographs impart intimations of what is to come. Motion, intrinsic to all of Baldessari’s work, is both literal and implied, as the trucks, after all, will be passed.
its unadorned simplicity of conception and its systematic, yet matter of fact cropping, The Backs of All Trucks… is pure Baldessari. His quest for discovery is transformed into a road trip, and in a small red roadster to boot. This is in itself so quintessentially Californian, for nowhere else was this iconic part of the American dream of finding oneself in, and through, the landscape so pursued and distilled. As you walk through this forty-year retrospective you realize that if there is one true thing you can say about John Baldessari, it is that he has always been on the move, determined to explore everything he finds along the way. It’s been an inspired trip so far.