In October, the John Baldessari retrospective that was at the Tate last year and at LAMOCA all summer travels to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the LA Weekly, Doug Harvey wrote about the exhibition back in June. “Much of Baldessari’s extensive oeuvre, in spite of the fact that he cremated the bulk of his early paintings in a 1970 action (complete with commemorative plaque and book-shaped urn), examines not only such epistemological conundra but the specific manner in which they may or may not be embodied in visual language. And the pointing finger was one of his primary and most effective pictorial widgets. In the early ’70s Choosing series, in which ‘players’ take turns indexically indicating their selection of one of three possible parallel linelike vegetables — carrots, beans, rhubarb, etc. — Baldessari simultaneously skewers game theory–based conceptualism and aesthetic taste; the core tenet of conceptualism’s nemesis, all that corny formalism so beloved by the bourgeoisie. That’s a hell of a fusion kebab.
“At the same time, the Choosing offers stripped-to-the-bone testimony of the necessity of decision making, even in the form of apparently random, indifferent or uncontrollable choices, as the central engine of creative activity. In Line of Force (1973) Baldessari reduces the signified and signifier to a single, repeated indicative gesture (snapshots of a finger pointing offscreen) seething with exasperation at our species’ seeming inability to just look but recalling the Zen admonition to recognize conceptual formulations as ‘fingers pointing at the moon.’
“Yet throughout his career, in spite of his conscientious streamlining of the mechanisms of communication (by stripping away anything extraneous to bare-bones pictographic symbolism: surface texture, complex color, illusionistic space, expressive or subjective content), Baldessari has specifically engaged the often technical or arcane language of painting — a language presumed dead, with clues pointing directly at Professor B … in the library … with a slide ruler. This heretical current is most obvious in his early works like the classic Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (“Subjects that sell well:
Madonna and Child, landscapes, flower paintings, still lifes…”) and the self-explanatory A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (both 1966–68), part of a loose series of professionally lettered texts on canvas deriving from art-teaching texts or theoretical writings — usually to put them to the test….
“Baldessari’s bittersweet romance with pictures and words cuts to the quick of human perception. And his work may still suggest a way forward: Sit and spin. From the empty hub of communication, all data are decoration. It is a digital revolution of another entire order; profoundly anti-authoritarian but rhizomatically complicit, and constantly searching for a way out. Or in. Baldessari’s prescription? When you paint yourself into a corner, simply open the door and step outside.”
“John Baldessari: Pure Beauty,” curated by Leslie Jones (LAMOCA) and Jessica Morgan (Tate Modern). The Metropolitan Museum, October 12-January 9, 2011.
Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.