John Baldessari

John Baldessari

Los Angeles County Museum of Art                                                                                                   

June 27–September 12, 2010

Originally published in ArtUS 30

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“Pure Beauty,” the first major retrospective of John Baldessari’s work in the U.S. in twenty years (it ran first at Tate Modern, and concludes early 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum), felt concise rather than sprawling, unfolding over a floor of the Broad building at a steady pace. Considering he has produced thousands of works over five decades, such an end result must have been a challenge. But volume aside, Baldessari’s career lends itself well to a retrospective. There’s a clear arc in his practice, from the earliest paintings to conceptual photography and video, to the film still compositions, to the latest sculptural pieces, and a compelling, built-in narrative that almost shades into myth: the story of how a young artist working in National City, California, far from the art world’s epicenter, helped bring about great shifts in the game of art by playing off the board, and went on to become a revered, influential, and ubiquitous artist and teacher. There’s youthful rebellion—the photo-emulsion paintings in which Baldessari systematically defies conventional aesthetic wisdom, including the famous Wrong (1966-68), and the cheeky text paintings. There’s death (symbolized by Baldessari’s 1970 cremation of his early, more conventional paintings, a few of which survived, and figure into the exhibition), and resurrection. There’s exhaustion and reinvention. There’s wit and charm, but beneath it all, a well of unease: even in Baldessari’s facile-seeming works, the unsettling idea hovers that order is only ever an illusion of perspective.

Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees (Near) (1975), for example, which served as the LACMA exhibition’s poster image, is a sunny picture of a pretty blond kissing a tall palm, reminiscent of snapshots in which someone pretends to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa. Apparently shot on the fly near Baldessari’s Santa Monica studio, it’s in line with his oft-repeated early intention to give people what they want. But the image hangs together thanks only to the perspective of the photographer, whose smallest move would expose the lack of any real correspondence between the subjects. These kinds of gaps between systems, these perceptual illusions, these contingencies of perspective, as those who follow his career know, are Baldessari’s overarching fascination, the foundation for much of his art. Often glossed over in the narrative of his freewheeling early years and belied by the casual affability of his work (and of the artist himself) is the cleverness with which he brought ideas first set out by theoretical trends in the 1960s and ’70s, which he followed closely, into the visual art sphere. Perhaps more than any other artist, he has made such abstract concepts vivid, concrete, and seductive. Arguably, he has helped prolong our romance with postmodernism by making its ideas so attractive as a basis for art, even as such ideas are now seen from the receding edge of history.

When presenting a retrospective of a living artist, there’s always the question of momentum—of whether, after a burst of groundbreaking early work, the later work will seem to wilt. Here, the pieces chosen to represent Baldessari’s late work hold up. Arms & Legs (Specif. Elbows & Knees), Etc. (Part Two): Green Knee/Red Elbow (2008), one of the last works on display, is arrestingly strange: a bright red arm painted directly on the wall cuts a trough into a glossy, 3-D pine-green knee concocted of resin and PVC. That it looks like finish fetish sculpture is no doubt one of Baldessari’s jokes, since his early paintings, with their slapdash aesthetic, were opposed to exactly this strain of L.A. art. As evidenced by the retrospective, Baldessari’s habit of circling back on the past while pressing forward with a current obsession (here, the notion of body parts other than eyes as vehicles for expression, an offshoot of the idea of misdirection that has long permeated his art) runs throughout his career. It’s visible, for instance, in the way painting, which he once decisively rejected, creeps back into his collaged film stills of the 1980s and beyond, and in his late-1990s reprise of black-and-white photographs printed on canvas, paired with text (Goya Series). This kind of recycling without empty repetition, these cycles of self-reflection and re-invention, help account for Baldessari’s staying power.

Recently Baldessari has ventured into installation. Along with the René Magritte exhibition he designed for LACMA in 2006, he has created room-based installations at the Mies van der Rohe-designed Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany (2009)—for which he made a wonderful couch in the shape of an ear (not in the retrospective)—and at Margo Leavin, his longtime L.A. gallery, earlier this year. Brain/Cloud (Two Views): With Palm Tree and Seascapes (2010), made especially for the LACMA edition of “Pure Beauty” and situated in the final gallery, was a cartoonish sculptural brain, almost equally resembling a cloud, flanked by walls covered with photo murals of the ocean. On the fourth wall, in a nod to his early video work (and the 1970s time-delay videos of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham), a feed of the hanging white brain played on a slight delay, so that viewers found themselves watching the versions of themselves that had existed a short time earlier. In the way it boxed up virtually all of Baldessari’s preoccupations of the last few decades—the X-axis of palm trees and the Y-axis of horizons, the diverted gaze, video, sculpture, photography, a gap (represented by the time lag) between two systems, the mapping of human elements onto the physical world—it was impressive, but veered into self-parody, as Baldessari’s art sometimes does. Taken together with pieces like the ear sofa (which was accompanied by nose-shaped sconces) and other recent sculptural body parts, Brain/Cloud points to a fresh ballooning of dada-inspired absurdity in Baldessari’s work to come.

The artist is now nearly 80. He has few serious detractors, since the taste his work helped create, and by definition epitomizes, remains a dominant force. As Baldessari might be first to say, the critical worth of art depends on perspective, whether skewed subtly or severely by evolving beliefs and passing time. As an artist who has built a practice around shifting vantage points, perhaps he appreciates the irony that, by so saturating the atmosphere, his work has become practically perspective-proof in today’s art climate—especially, and most significantly, in Los Angeles. It’s difficult for anyone to discount the potent mixture of focused inquiry, humor, and restless innovation behind Baldessari’s continually surprising career.