Geneva Anderson digs into art

Artist Jeanne-Claude has died suddenly. She lived a full life. May she now wrap Heaven in shimmering fabrics

Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebone, wife and artistic partner of Christo, died suddenly Wednesday, November 19, 2009, in Manhattan, where she had lived with Christo since 1964.  A statement on the couple’s website said that she died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  She was 74.  I met her several times throughout the years and found her both enchanting and frank–hallmarks of a strong woman.  The last time we met was in mid-September at “The Running Fence at 33” gathering,  when she and Christo spent the afternoon in Valley Ford reminiscing with old friends about “The Running Fence,” which graced our California coastline 33 years earlier.  German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen was there shooting a documentary film about the fence and George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was also there preparing for “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition,” which opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally.  

Looking back at that lovely event, I am thankful that I had the chance to greet her again and that she was able to visit with friends who were part of her formative years.  She said several times that afternoon that she felt as if she had “come home.”   When I wrote about the gathering, my headline pointed to what was coming “..we’re all older but the fence lives on..”  Many of the farmers who had given the young couple permission to put the fence up on their property had passed away and most of the people at the gathering were well over 50.  Talking about the fence took us all back to our youthful days.   Jeanne-Claude was happy and spoke excitedly about their new project “Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado.”    which had suffered the standard bureaucratic and funding snafus that accompany these immense temporal  projects.  Her red-orange hair—reminiscent of the cotton candy hair of a clown– seemed brighter than it had ever been before.  She signed autographs and poured over pictures and maps.  She spoke graciously with strangers and lovingly with dear friends.  And, like a little girl, she snuck a cigarette with an old friend and told us not to photograph her smoking because she didn’t want to be seen promoting something that was unhealthy.     

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in younger days (image by Fred Modarrah)

I have always been fascinated by artist couples who manage to pull it off—a loving marriage, a creative partnership and fame.  Their collaborative approach, which I had heard them describe a few times in the 1990’s, always left me hungering for more information.  It was described as follows–Christo and Jeanne-Claude would come up with an idea and he would prepare drawings, scale models and descriptive items that could be sold to realize the full-scale project.  She was a driving force in other ways, particularly with financial affairs, permitting and when the project was going up on site– The only problem with this explanation was that it seemed to contradict an earlier history of sole attribution to Christo that had been in practice from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

Around the time the Wrapped Reichstag project (1971-95) was nearing its completion– about 1994—Christo and Jeanne-Claude began to insist on retroactive joint attribution of all artworks from the 1960’s onwards that had previously been attributed to Christo.   They essentially re-branded themselves.  Before, they asserted they had been “Christo” and now they were instead “Christo and Jeanne-Claude.”     The problem I see in that is that it does not answer when or how she began to think of herself an as artist and it clashes with earlier comments Christo made about his artistic process.  In my mind, a large part of making art is declarative–asserting that what you are doing is art when you are doing it.  It is less powerful when it comes 30 years after the fact.  

Christo and Jeanne-Claude (image by Wolfgang Volz)

So in the 1990’s, it was asserted frequently that she and he shared equally in the creative process.  At other times during this period, Christo spoke of himself as the artist, the one who had absolute control over all the decisions.  There are quotes to back-up competing interpretations.   Their website has a section called “Common Errors” which explains it this way: “In 1994 they decided to officially change the artist name Christo into: the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They have been working together since their first outdoor temporary work: “Dockside Packages, Cologne Harbor, 1961.” Because Christo was already an artist when they met in 1958 in Paris, and Jeanne-Claude was not an artist then, they have decided that their name will be ” Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, NOT Jeanne-Claude and Christo.” 

Nice dodge.  I would have loved to have spoken with them about the topic of authorship, though I suspect the conversation would not have been an easy one.  I suspect the truth is that they struggled with this and reached some negotiated decision and then set it aside and got back to work, which they seemed to thrive on.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris, France, in November, 1958—Christo Javachef, a native Bulgarian from Gabrovo, was a young impoverished refugee artist, who had recognized artistic talent and had already wrapped a few things.  She was born in Casablanca, Morocco, where her father, Major Léon Denat was in the French military.  Her mother, Précilda, divorced Denat after Jeanne-Claude’s birth and remarried three times.  During WWII, Jeanne-Claude lived with her father’s family while her mother fought in the French Resistance.  In 1946, Précilda married the influential General Jacques de Guillebon and the family led a priviledged life in Berne from 1948 to 1951, then in Tunisia from 1952 to 1957.  In 1957 they returned to Paris and lived in comfort.  Jeanne-Claude earned a baccalaureate in Latin and philosophy in 1952 from the University of Tunis. 

Jeanne-Claude met Christo in Paris in 1958 while she–a young debutant– was enagaged to be married and he was painting a portrait of her mother.  It is well-known that Christo invited her to his place to see his real artwork—sculptural pieces which were a series of wrapped found objects—and that she thought he was crazy but she was hooked.  She became pregnant by Christo but married her fiance, an older man, and then divorced him immediately and took up with Christo, delivering their child Cyril in 1960.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The couple not only share the same birthday but the same time of birth on June 13, 1935. They emigrated to New York from Paris in 1964 and worked together for over 40  years creating temporary artistic interventions involving covering, wrapping or altering landscapes.  Iconic best describes their impact.  Many people I have spoken with have mentioned a sense of the spiritual and others see it as a kind of architectural humor.    Whatever the reaction, is it deep and memorable–no one walks away from one of their installations without being stirred.  Their projects have been immortalized in six films by filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose first film “Christo’s Valley Curtain” was nominated for an oscar.   German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen also paid homage to the couple with his 1996 film “To the German People: The Wrapped Reichstag.” 

 My favorites of their 18 realized projects  are “ Running Fence” (1972-74),  “Pont Neuf Wrapped” (Paris, 1975-85) and  “Wrapped Reichstag”  (Berlin, 1971-1995)—all of which required years of planning and lengthy campaigns to obtain the necessary permits.  In September, Jeanne-Claude, with a mixture of pride and weariness, reminisced about the tenacity these bureaucratic interfaces required, particularly “The Running Fence” which was one of their earliest big projects.  I think it is fair to say that everyone in attendance at the event was proud that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had cut their teeth for these projects here on our home turf.   And, what a battle it was– they perservered and, in the end, created the most lyrical outdoor intervention ever.

 While the couple were long-term residents of New York, “The Gates” (1979-2005) was the only project they succeeded in installing in New York City, in Central Park.  They signed a 43 page contract with the city of New York before they could install the 7,503 orange fabric panels of varying heights that graced Central Park for 16 days.

The couple’s website is the best place to read about their work.   Whatever they have declared about the change from “Christo” to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude”, the institutions that house the artworks done by Christo’s hand have not followed suit with retroactive joint attribution.  That may or may not be important to Christo, who survives his wife and, according to their website, plans to continue on creating in both their names.    

SFMOMA has a number of photos and drawings by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their collection with attribution solely to Christo Javacheff.  Images of “The Running Fence” dominate their Christo holdings and were accessioned in 1977, a year after the project was realized.  None of these are currently on display.  The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has 22 of Christo’s drawings, attributed solely to Christo (Christo Javacheff).  Ditto for the Smithsonian American Art Museum which in 2008 acquired the complete documentation of “The Running Fence.”  The title of the exhibition does credit Jeanne-Claude—“Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76, A Documentation Exhibition.” 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s artworks are temporary and immortal, living on in our dreams long after they have been taken down.   As a new cycle now begins for Jeanne-Claude that is even richer than her time here on earth, may she smile as she wraps heaven in shimmering fabrics.

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Richard Avedon at SFMOMA: A Powerful Retrospective of the Legendary Photographer through November 29, 2009. SFMOMA is the show’s only U.S. venue

Richard Avedon, Self-portrait, Provo, Utah, August 20, 1980; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Throughout his celebrated six-decade career, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) has always drawn huge crowds.  His fashion photography, portraiture and reportage, an innovative juggling of commercial and fine art photograph, have seared themselves into our memory.  His current show at SFMOMA, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004” July 11 through November 29, 2009, is the first comprehensive retrospective his work since his death in 2004 and delivers over 200 of his signature photographs along with some surprises—lesser known photographs that are remarkable.  SFMOMA is the only US venue this show.  The exhibition was organized by Helle Crenzien in 2007 for The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark in cooperation with the Richard Avedon Foundation and it has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.  It is installed here by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, with support from SFMOMA curator Corey Keller, Norma Stevens and James Martin from the Richard Avedon Foundation and the Jeffrey Frankel Gallery.

Richard Avedon, Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Aside from the famous models (Dovima, Suzy Parker, Veruschka, Twiggy), there are movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn), rock stars (the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Björk), world leaders (Eisenhower, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy), writers and poets (Ezra Pound, Renata Adler), artists (Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol) and non-famous people.  It all adds up to a show that equals the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 blockbuster show “Richard Avedon: Portraits.”   Now that Avedon is dead, what kind of artist we judge him to be is ultimately based on the work we see and its presentation, which makes posthumous retrospectives vitally important. 

This exhibition is organized chronologically, highlighting the major themes and benchmark moments in Avedon’s prolific career—his early post WWII street scenes; his breakthrough into fashion work in the 1950’s; his expansive reportage of American counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; his Reagan-era series of portraits of non-famous people—cowboys, drifters—on the fringe and his iconic portraits of the influential and famous.  The galleries are filed with unforgettable gorgeously printed pictures–medium-sized, large, larger and really really large, like the 31 foot long 1969 mural of Andy Warhol and several of his Factory gang, buck-naked. 

Avedon, Homage to Munkacsi. Carmen, coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premiere, Paris, August 1957, @2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

 With Avedon, it’s all about people—capturing them at that perfect moment in time when you sense you can read them— against a backdrop that is either a highly-stylized fashion environment infused with energy and movement or, for the portraits, a stark sheet.  Either way, Avedon was in full control of everything down to the finest detail.

 Of his early fashion photography, certainly the most famous images are those of his beloved models– “Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955” and “Homage to Munkacsi, Carmin, Coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premier, Paris, August 1957”  which captures Carmen gliding effortlessly in mid air as she steps off a curb into a Paris street.  Avedon was inspired by the Hungarian-born Martin Munkacsi, whose work he had come across in Harper’s Bazar and Vogue.  Munkacsi was a former sports photographer who revolutionized the static world of fashion photography by injecting it with movement. Avedon added to Munkacsi’s pioneering work by infusing the movement with soul and emotion.

Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, actor, New York, May 6, 1957; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

 As Avedon quickly found his expressive groove in the fashion work, his career took off and he successfully and seriously embraced portraiture.  His stark portraits have been described as unforgettable, as being unusually good at capturing character.  The truth is that we read into these whatever we want to see.  We all have an internal filter–whatever we think we may know about that person, we project onto their image.  Critic Michael Kimmelman writes “The tradeoff with Mr. Avedon is between style and substance.  It’s the tension he has made into his art.” (Art Review, New York Times, September 27, 2002.) Avedon’s  1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe captures a weary starlet who seems smaller than life, whereas his 1963 portrait of a young Bob Dylan seems “charged with future” (Gabriel Celaya). 

 Avedon is one of the very few artists who started in a so-called non-serious branch of photography and transitioned into serious branch and was able stay there, not only as a fully accepted but also as a highly esteemed practitioner of photography as an art. (Helle Crenzien essay p 22 in Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007)  His first major retrospective was in 1962 at the Smithsonian (he was 39), just as photography itself was being recognized by arts institutions.  His fashion work drew the crowds, who also reacted enthusiastically to his vital portraits.  The situation now is radically different—today, it is generally accepted that a commercial photographer can be an artist. 

Walking through the exhibition, I had a talk with Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Photography Curator, and with Norma Stevens, Avedon’s long-term “person” (friend, colleague, and Founding Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York) and with James Martin, Managing Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation, who worked closely with Avedon as a technician up until Avedon’s death in 2004.  

 Geneva Anderson:  As Avedon became more and more famous over the years, did his work process change?  Did he become more and more picky about who he worked with, selecting subjects himself, or did he work on commission?  

SANDRA PHILLIPS:  He worked pretty much only through commissions.  He had a very strange egalitarianism mixed with celebrity.  I think what he tried to do was to show that people were remarkable and that famous people were as remarkable as people who are remarkable in different ways. 

His work did change over time.  It changed, I think, because the market place evolved. Harper’s became a less interesting magazine.  It is significant that his last position was at The New Yorker which was kind of like Harper’s Bazar had been and he was very interested in making that a vital magazine.   He also did these commissions In the American West—these people who are not celebrities, they are unknown and that was an interesting challenge for him.  They are not humanitarian pictures; they are very serious pictures though that show the dignity that people have acquired through living as they have and where they have.

Richard Avedon, Willem de Kooning, painter, Springs, Long Island, New York, August 18, 1969; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

I believed the 1960’s shaped him profoundly in the way it shaped us–a period of tremendous upheaval whose resonance we still experience.  He photographed all the players, the heroes and villains, from Janis Joplin, to the Beatles, to Warhol, to the

Vietnam Generals, to George Wallace.  And his pictures of art aristocrat’s Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns come from the same special family as those more broadly known. Avedon saw them all as an individuals and all as models.

NORMA STEVENS:  He worked both ways. He worked for Harpers, Vogue, The New Yorker, so if he wanted a photograph someone, like say Ezra Pound, that request came from him through the magazine.  If the magazine brought him someone, he would do that too.  It happened all along the way and I am talking about the portraits–they were something that were of enormous interest to him.  He had fascination with the arts—artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and writers like Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker. By the time he got to The New Yorker, it was wonderful because they were interested and would bring him people that he might not have even known about and it was a wonderful collaboration.

Geneva Anderson:  Did he ever refuse to photograph anyone?

NORMA STEVENS:  Well, Madonna.  When a celebrity comes, they have their idea of how they want to look and you can go along with it but Dick would always want to add his creative mark, how he saw what they wanted to portray.  There might be a little struggle but, with her, she was not interested in working with him and he was definitely not interested in working with her.

Geneva Anderson:   Did she approach him?

NORMA STEVENS:  With celebrities, it’s usually mediated.  She sent her people to our people (and that was me).  She has people she loves working with like Steven Meisel. Dick was not her time of day.  It would have been interesting though–don’t you think?– to see what would have come out of that?

Geneva Anderson:   Did he strictly adhere to no cropping?

NORMA STEVENS:  He rarely cropped.  The prints you see here with all the black edge—that’s the entire photo.  He did it in the camera and that was it.  He used a big 8×10.  The printers would go all through the night and prepare images for him to review in the morning and he would make comments like “it needs a little more drama.”  And they had to interpret that.

Geneva Anderson:  How did the advent of digital photography impact him?

SANDRA PHILLIPS:  I am inclined to say it didn’t.

NORMA STEVENS:  He tried it and it didn’t really impress him.  He might have gone around and said no further prints can be made.  He was very strict about that.

Geneva Anderson:  What was it like over the years?   How did you make it?

NORMA STEVENS:  I am still here.  It wasn’t always fun.  It was an awful lot of work. Look at the energy in those portraits around us…he was just like that…he was so full of energy.  We had an understanding.  I am taller than I look.

 James Martin, Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation  worked as a dark room technician for Richard Avedon during his final years.

Geneva Anderson:  Take me through a typical printing experience with Avedon.

JAMES MARTIN:   I did a lot of his printing.  If you look at the way he has printed, it hasn’t changed that much. Earl Steinbicker, who worked with him from the 1950’s onward, is writing a book about the experience and his blog describers the printing technique.  The process for a single print involves making ten different prints with slightly different contrast ratios—darker or lighter and picking the four that they—the team–think Dick would want.  Those were printed 16 x 20 and put on his kitchen table in morning and, of course, they would all be wrong.  He would say things like “the ear is perfect–you should focus on the ear.”  And so you would go back down to the dark room and spend 4 or 5 hours and make another range of say 6 images based on his comment.  You would bring these up to him and you would get closer but he would say these are garbage.  And so it went.

Geneva Anderson: He had the capacity to use very technical terms to describe precisely what he wanted but it sounded like he chose to communicate in a non-technical way.

Richard Avedon, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano, New York, October 1, 2003; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

JAMES MARTIN:   Yes. He would communicate with us using phrases like “this “needs to have more passion” which, in a sense, is not technical but you know exactly what you need to do as a darkroom technician.  “More passion” is a nuanced way to work with the printing process.  Everything was done downstairs in the basement and you would work all day long on a single print, sometimes at 3 in the morning and he would talk in a very non-technical way–“More drama here, less drama there.”  It was a very intuitive way of going about it—it’s also talking with the other technicians you are working with and trying to determine what that means, what does that translate to.  It was a lot of teamwork and a lot of team building.

Geneva Anderson:  Is there a photograph here that you were responsible for printing?

JAMES MARTIN:  There is only one in this show—the portrait of the singer Lorraine Hunt Leiberman. It’s really fairly close towards the end of his life.  He was 82 when he did this project and was aware that it was his last major effort and he knows it and he knows he needs to come up a last important series of photographs.  And this was for The New Yorker but it was also for himself.  He working on this book Woman in the Mirror , photographs of hope, woman that bring that sense of coda to his story, to the work of Avedon.

 These are different portraits. This is a very tender tender image.  You do not see that forgiving quality in his earlier work.  That meant lowering the contrast in her face with one filter, yet pumping the contrast up in the hair.  But once you did that, you ran into the problem of what does that hair convey?  She had red hair and as I took the photo back to him, he would say that it doesn’t look like a photograph of a redhead.  I had to translate that into technical printing—how do you make that hair look red and preserve the contrast with the softness in the face?  It was certainly a challenge and you make choice and it probably took me 20 hours just working on the contrast ratios in the hair alone to really pull it up.  Now that I am looking at it here, I am seeing that in certain light, it looks a little more brown than red.  It’s very hard to look at this without seeing the other photos, the history.

Richard Avedon, Marian Anderson, contralto, New York, June 30, 1955; © 2009 The Richard Avedon Foundation

Contrast that with the 1955 portrait of Marian Anderson  the contralto singer who is captured in a moment of intense inner concentration on song.   By waiting for the moment when her eyes were closed, all the attention is drawn to her mouth, to her total embodiment of voice.  There is strength in this portrait rather than the tenderness and vulnerability in his last portraits of women. 

When Avedon died unexpectedly in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2004 on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, he left iron-clad instructions about how his $60 million fortune was to be used and how his artistic legacy should be preserved.

Geneva Anderson:  Norma, you have worked for the past five years to establish and make The Richard Avedon Foundation financially secure.  We are living in very tumultuous times–how secure are you?

NORMA STEVENS: “We are financially secure for the foreseeable future, at least the next five years.   Dick knew what he wanted done to protect his legacy.  The copyrights of his work alone, which he bequeathed to the Avedon Foundation totaled nearly $300,000.  The estate’s biggest asset is his printed pictures.  His biggest worry was what would happen to the prints after his death and he left directives indicating that no prints or reproductions were to be made posthumously, except for contact sheets, which could be used for educational purposes.

November 11, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

California Conceptualist John Baldessari: Veteran Iconoclast, Irreverent Data Processor. Show in final week at Legion of Honor, San Francisco

God Nose

John Baldessari, "God Nose," 2007, cast aluminum with hand-painting. Object 36 x 37 x 6 inches. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer.

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.

Baldessari FALLEN_crop

John Baldessari, "The Fallen Easel," 1987, color lithograph and screenprint in five parts printed on paper and aluminum plates. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. 2005.108a–i

 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

Baldessari BALLS

John Baldessari, detail from the artist's book "Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of 36 Attempts)," 1973, color offset lithograph. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. 2008.214b

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. “

Baldessari GUITAR

John Baldessari, "Person with Guitar (Red)," 2004, five color screenprint on Sintra board with hand painting. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. 2005.272b

 “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.


Baldessari NOSE

John Baldessari, "Noses & Ears, Etc.: The Gemini Series: Two Faces, One with Nose and Military Ribbons; One with (Blue) Nose and Tie," 2006, three layer, fourteen color screenprint mounted on Sintra with hand painting. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. 2008.19

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.

November 1, 2009 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Halloween–the theme was Hitchcock–ARThound added Roy Lictenstein


ARThound captures the pink feather boa for best costume: “The Birds– Hitchchock meets Lichtenstein” (designed/built by Tom Eames)

November 1, 2009 Posted by | Art | Leave a comment