Sunday, December 05, 2010


Tips for Artist's Who Want to Sell (1966-68)
(Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of
Art and © John Baldessari)
   "John Baldessari: Pure Beauty" 
      Metropolitan Museum of American Art, New York 
      Through January 1, 2011

One word to describe the Met's major retrospective of the SoCal pioneer of conceptual art: "EDIT!," both in terms of the quantity and quality of the works displayed. The exhibition spans from the hugely prolific artist's earliest surviving paintings (in 1970, he burnt and destroyed the works painted between 1953 and 1966 as part of the piece titled "The Cremation Project") to his most recent works with what appears to be very little editing in-between. I find excessively voluminous surveys tend to be a sensory-overload which leave you with only a faint recollection of individual works but in this case, the lack of editing is especially unfortunate since on the whole the later works are, in my opinion, not nearly as insightful or innovative as those produced in the 60s and 70s. That was the period during which the artist lived isolated from any (East coast) art scene, enabling him to create art free from judgment or rejection. In this regard, I agree with Jerry Saltz' review though I don't see 1980 as being such a clear-cut turning point in the quality of Baldessari's work. 

Highlights of the early period include the photo-text works, where the artist experiments with  textual versus visual language and a method of disclaiming authorship in a traditional sense by outsourcing the texts to local painters (either the paintings are left unsigned or the text itself attributes authorship to the local painter). The photo-texts accomplish exactly what Baldessari set out to do: that is, to make things "look simple but to raise issues, and to have more than one level of comprehension." The choice of photography as the visual language most people understand best and its juxtaposition with poignant texts appropriated from existing popular sources results in wonderfully thought-provoking works; the accompanying humour and wit -- purportedly never the artist's aim -- are an added bonus. Other texts such as the one featured in the image above touch on art maxims that go to the heart of the meaning, creation and consumption of art -- issues that are even more pertinent today with the consolidation of a globalised multi-billion dollar art market. The smaller but no less appealing pieces composed of series of miniature photographs ("Aligning Balls" (1972); "Goodbye to Boats" (1972-73); "A Movie: Directional Piece Where People are Walking" (1972-73)) are charged with a charming innocence and touching sentimentality. These "small masterpieces" beautifully depict movement (hand waves, clouds, a floating balloon, passersby walking) and the emotions bound-up in the movement (pain, anxiety, expectation, loneliness). To be sure, the simplicity of many pieces would not be so effective were it not for the corresponding titles; the two are inextricably linked and essentially continue the theme of textual versus visual language.

By the time you reach the fifth or sixth gallery (this likely roughly coincides with Saltz' "1980" defining moment), the movie stills -- always a rich source from which Baldessari appropriated images -- take center stage and the style becomes repetitive, far less conceptual and in most cases, devoid of any real meaning or emotion. The stills or photographs that are combined with splashes of color (for example, spheres of color covering the faces of the  human subjects) say little or nothing to me, granted the titles do help make the experience more worthwhile. There are a few exceptional works in the last few galleries: in "Man and Woman with Bridge" (1984), the subjects are not the man and the woman looking into each others eyes but rather the space between them, filled by a superimposed image of a wolf making its way across what looks like a log on a misty night. According to the artist, whether two people are apart because they are attracted or repulsed by each other, a magnetic field is created in the space between them and the choice of filling such space with a wolf is genius. However, I don't think I would have found the work as captivating had it not been for the accompanying notes explaining the concept behind it. Other noteworthy pieces are those reminiscent of the "small masterpieces" where color is used one again as the fluid, unifying link between a series of small photographs (in "Five Yellow Divisions: With Persons (Black and White)" (2004), a yellow line flows from image to image filling the familiar subject of the space between people).

For those who have not yet seen the exhibition, make sure to leave plenty of time or alternatively, skim through the final galleries. And be sure to pay close attention to the titles and notes -- without them the concepts are often lost and the experience is largely forgettable.

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