California Conceptualist John Baldessari: Veteran Iconoclast, Irreverent Data Processor. Show in final week at Legion of Honor, San Francisco
It is rare that the Legion of Honor has a show honoring a living artist who is available to comment on his work, and even rarer when that artist is leading rabble-raising conceptualist. For the past 50 years, John Baldessari., now 78, has been poking his finger in the eye of the contemporary art world, challenging its long-held assumptions, with the persistent confidence of a visionary. As a result, he has become one the most influential artists of our time. His current show at the Legion of Honor “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of the Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” closes this coming weekend and is well worth a trip.
125 prints are included in the exhibition that spans the last forty years of Baldessari’s post-painting period, from the 1970s to the present. The collection of prints is on loan from the Portland, Oregon-based collection of real estate developer Jordan D. Schnitzer. Schnitzer, who began collecting in 1974, and now has an almost complete archive of Baldessari’s printed work in his a collection of over 5,000 prints by leading artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Bruce Nauman. Schnitzer worked with Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to organize the exhibition, and to support the printing of the catalog.
The most important thing that someone can take away from a visit to this show is a change in their own attitude about what it really means to really see something. Baldessari is the quintessential data processor. Much like what Einstein did for physics, Baldessari has challenged some of art’s lynchpin assumptions by exploring what would happen if they were relaxed, asking WHY is this so? He is a genius at stripping things of their normality—their context, order of being experienced– and then seeing what emerges. As a result, he has been able to experience the world in a way that is not preconceived and to see profound connections that others aren’t even looking for. He separated himself from his herd of artists early on and made a distinctive break from painting in the 1970’s by ceremoniously burning his paintings. He then began working with paper and photographic images, working through many of the concerns that he wasn’t able to address as a painter. With his fresh eye, sharp wit and soft spoken ways, he managed to influence an entire generation of artists. His work can be intimidating for the uninitiated as it is not always easy to understand. “Sometimes I think people get frustrated with his work because they feel they have to figure it out,” said curator Connie Lewellen, who has worked with him for years, “and that causes tension because they have to decide. You can look at everything he does on many different levels and I think you are also challenged to make your own stories which will evolve the more time you spend with the work.”
The press preview offered a guided tour through the exhibition with Baldessari and Lewellen and a chance to hear Baldessari talk about his work and ask questions. What emerged was captivating—he spoke very simply about complex and powerful thoughts. The Baldessari comments that follow (in italics) are all from that day.
Standing in front of “The Fallen Easle” (1987), a nine part color lithograph and screenprint, that is emblematic of a lot of the issues that his work has dealt with over the years, Baldessari admitted to being a “closet formalist.” (focusing on the visual elements of the artwork). There are fragments of different images that were possibly culled from movie stills, magazines, sources from popular culture, sources that are cut up in very idiosyncratic ways. On a compositional level, the fallen easle is a pointer, an arrow to the rest of the composition. The space between the images is empty. One frame holds a pointed gun, an image appearing frequently in his work. Another frame contains three men in suits treated in his emblematic way of handling faces, which is to cover them with bright, primary-colored dots. “He does this to take the individuality away from the people, so they cannot be identified and are generic types, explained Lewellen. “It’s never important to John to identify what the source is or where is came from.”
“This is a period where I am choosing multiple frames,” said Baldessari. “In early shows I was such a purist that I refused to put my works in frames, I used Velcro and a lot of damage occurred over time. I refused to think about frames for as long as possible but my gallerist, Sonnabend, convinced me that I had to think about the work and preserving it. I decided to use the frame as part of the work, to use the frame as architecture and to avoid a single frame and to play around with pieces that had both framed and unframed parts. A lot of the works also play with what was considered normal height/width ratios that were accepted by museums and that as artists we had to accept… I asked ‘why?’ and started using long rectangles and placed them with other sized rectangles and squares.”
Leveling the playing field with colored dots
Circular disks placed over faces figure prominently in Baldessari’s work from the mid-1980’s onward. “I’d been working with images from newspapers a lot and had a lot of imagery of people shaking hands, the local fire chief, that type of thing. I was always intrigued by them. It hit me one day that, working in the isolation of your studio, you’re not doing much about the condition of the world but those people are. I got to feeling there’s something out of whack here. I was working with other works where I was using these little price stickers and, in a fit of exasperation, I stuck them over the faces so I didn’t have to look at them. I felt that I had leveled the playing field.
It later struck me that we have ways of prioritizing our vision that impacts what we see. If you’re running into a train station and you’re late, you’re going to prioritize the clock but if you’re just wondering about you’re going to look at other things first. People tend to look at faces and if you can’t see the faces, you’ve got to look elsewhere—at how they’re dressed or standing, the ambience, so forth. Also in drawing class, you might
spend two hours on the head alone and the last hour on the rest of the body. In my class, I put a drape over the model’s head so they couldn’t do the head. Then, in the last hour, I took the drape off. That’s how that all started. Now, I think in terms of I am master of my universe I can control what people see and pay attention to.”
“Throwing Three Ball in the Air to Get A Straight Line (Best of Thirty-six Attempts),” (1973) is illustrative of the prankster in Baldessari, who initially set out to trying to upset beauty (a beautiful result) by intervening on a photo shoot. The series of work is about throwing three balls in the air to make a straight line…an absurdist idea….and underlying that, trying to create order from chaos or to look at non-conventional forms of order, an ongoing interest of Baldessari.
“Beauty is a by-product,” explained Baldessari. “Each time an artist does something, you get better and better at making beauty, so why work at it? Why not something else?”
The majority of the works in the show are from the 1980’s and they all basically address breaking-up the rectangle, which had become the convention that people had become conditioned to accept as normal. Baldessari asked “why?” and found there was no real reason. He began working in a new direction, experimenting with various ways of putting together images from varied sources, sometimes adding colors.
“Roller Coaster” (1989-90) combines two black and white squares which are formalist tropes we recognize from Malevich but sandwiched between them is something very novel and other—an image of two carnival roller coasters about to hurdle past each other. Your mind looks at what appears to be a very minimalisti piece of artwork in the black work and then processes the roller coaster and then moves on to the white square. The work has a curving line of white that extends the movement of the photograph and across the black on the left and a similar effect with a green line on the right which extends into the white expanse.
Baldessari is masterful at word play. In “Life’s Balance (With Money),” (1989-90), he offers three images that don’t seem to be related at all—a juggler, some people above who are very happy with money and a precarious situation—someone about to lose his balance. “The point is that you can combine almost any two or three images and come up with a story or narrative,” explains Connie Lewellen.
Humor is also by-product–a lot of his absurdist ideas are funny and serious at the same time. His first print using digital imagery– “The Pot with Nine Removals” (1996)—is a bizarre series of ten prints that begins with what appears to be an old film still of several scantily clad blond Marilynn Monroe-like cannibals dancing around a man about to be cooked in a huge cauldron. People are systematically removed from each successive print in the series until just the empty pot remains. A frustrated journalist tried to think his way through the piece and asked him what was going on. “Well, I’m the last person on earth who is going to answer this,” replied Baldessari. “It’s about being reductive and taking things away, or being additive. “
“I sometimes think of myself as writer but, instead of using words, I am using images,” said Baldessari. “A word and an image I find equal in weight. In a lot of my work, instead of an image, I am using a word or, instead of a word, I am using an image. I’m putting them together pretty much like a writer does and, if they are good, they have to have the right placement of words. If it’s not the right order it’s too flabby or it’s too obtuse—it has to be just right, not so stretched that it snaps, but you want it to pop.”
Repatterning the Color Code
Baldessari has long been fascinated with big questions such as can color in art ever be stripped of its meaning. A number of his works address color which he tends to use sparingly but in a bold fashion.
I used to do a lot of painting and then I started doing more and more with paper and painting wasn’t foremost in my mind. I decided I was going change my attitude towards color which has a relational use in painting and most of the time is used to produce something aesthetically pleasing. I decided that I wanted to get away from that and would use something like color coding, always in some systematic fashion. I was working in sequences at the time, so I if were working in a sequence of three, I would work in the three primary colors–red, yellow, blue— and if it were six, I’d bring in the secondary colors of orange, violet, green or up the ante by adding black or white. I had a system going on and I owe that to Sol LeWit who has a system and follows it. With faces, I used color in a symbolic way, color coding people—red/dangerous, green/safe, blue/platonic, and yellow/crazy. This led me to ask him about how the dot might factor into his interaction with real people. Does he mentally blot out of their face and focus on the information around them? He did not answer the question.
Philosophically, Baldessari has a long-standing fascination with the relation of the part to the whole which he has tackled in many ways. He often has asked himself’ ”How much can I leave out of something; when does it cease to be whole?
His “Person With Guitar” series (2005) addresses a very clichéd image—the guitar—in a novel way. There are six images of hands playing guitars—the players are not recognizable as individuals because they are headless and the guitars are hand-painted, each in a different color, so that all distinguishing characteristics are gone. The hands are also painted. “I am always gathering images but I don’t necessarily like them but I am fascinated by them. I am attracted by things that are ugly, in my mind, too.
A lot happens form disliking it so much that I force myself to deal with it. The guitar has a long history…it made such a beautiful shape when you take away all the distinguishing details, so that it’s in perspective and it’s just a shape. I isolated that and the hands and I decided to paint on the surface to create a different reflectivity. I got tired of paint and so I decided to have more than one level and had a level above and then another by sinking into it…hands, guitar, clothing”.
Parts of the body is another curiosity. “Noses & Ears, Etc: The Gemini Series: Two Faces, One with Nose and Military Ribbons; One With (Blue) Nose and Tie,” (2006) is part of a series in which six three-layer screenprints are mounted on Sintra board and specific facial features are articulated by color and dimension. There is a high degree of abstraction—the face is a single color, but the tie and shirt are presented in exacting detail.
I had a retrospective in Vienna and I saw these works that I had forgotten about. The ear painting came about when I was in San Diego and I had friend in the billboard business and they put them together in sheets—a 24 sheet billboard. So, any time they were any left over sheets, I would get it from my friend and look at the imagery. I was very much interested in philosophical way what was the difference between the part and the whole or is there any difference…this still occupies my think a lot. I came upon this giant ear and all of a sudden a part became a whole and so I used it as a basis for a painting and that’s how I got interest in body parts. Going on with it, it became a subject of my work…eyes and lips seemed fairly conventional but noses and ears were rare in visual art, so that’s what I started off with, eliminating nearly everything but the ear and the nose in roughly he same territory that we might expect a head to be. After that I did a whole other series of elbows and knees. And then foreheads and eyebrows (some of which are here) and now I am working on hands and feet. Hands are pretty easy; feet aren’t.
What Baldessari is doing is formulaic—at every instance, he is rejecting the common view and trying to find a new one by stepping out of conventions and assumptions. Art has the benefit of not needing strong conventions because of its abstract nature–you never have to return to the real world. Baldessari is also a paradox…he had to achieve a certain amount of success in the art world before his early ideas–that so challenged that world– were accepted and became so influential.