Tuesday, October 20, 2009

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty

I was teaching a class in contemporary art for UC Extension, and John was teaching a drawing class down the hall. In those days the classes were held in the La Jolla Museum and the students were a mix of high school teachers and servicemen working for credentials and returning housewives and retired professionals just interested in art. The classes were a couple hours long with a short break in the middle, when John and I would meet in the hall. One day I broke early and walked over to his room to get him. John was sitting in the front, looking out the window, while the students were copying a piece of plumbing sitting on the desk.
"John," I said, "they're cross-hatching the shadows!"
"Yeah'" he said, "they like to cross-hatch. It feels professional." - David Antin from Eight Stories for John Baldessari

A new book on the hugely influential artist John Baldessari published for his retrospective at LACMA, Pure Beauty is one of my favorites of the year. Baldessari, an artist who has used a wealth of mediums including photography, is a prolific source, challenging our perceptions of painting, photography, video and text. Playful and slyly profound, his works address mass culture and how we digest the images that surround us and what they convey.

In some ways his art is one that wants to appeal to everyone but its deadpan straight-forwardness often confounds the viewer and we stumble over his creations, questioning their intent. He is one that challenges us to really look and perceive, accepting what might be considered humor, yet not being stunted by its presence.

It was his disregard of traditional representation, attempting to talk to the audience literally in a language they could relate to, that led Baldessari to create many of his well known text paintings. One called Subject Matter (again painted by the local sign painter) is lettering on a light green background, "Subject Matter Look at the subject as if you have never seen it before. Examine it from every side. Draw its outline with your eyes or in the air with your hands. And saturate yourself with it." This very painting with its sobering text might be hanging on a wall next to different artist's painting and yet another a few feet away. What are the parameters for examination? Within the single canvas? Or taking in, almost cinematically, all of the works, including: the wall, the moulding, the doorway, the window and what is seen outside. This extension of perception led to many of his later works which combined multiple images, often in separate frames and taking up large on gallery and museum walls.

As Lawrence Weiner once wrote of Baldessari, "John...understands that art is based on the relationships between human beings and that we, as Americans, understand our relationship to the world through various media. We think of any unknown situation in terms of something we've seen at the movies...John is dealing with the archetypal consciousness of what media represent, using the material that affects daily life."

Pure Beauty covers Baldessari's entire career and includes nine substantial essays from various writers. Illustrated by hundreds of plates and handsomely designed using different paper stock for text and image, Pure Beauty has quickly become one of my picks for Books of the Year for 2009. It was co-published by LACMA, Delmonico and Prestel.

On the way back from an opening in Los Angeles, Elly and I were sleepy and stopped for gas in San Juan Capistrano. It was late, the road was empty, and I was doing 65 or 70 in my two-hundred dollar, 1950 Chrysler Imperial with the wire wheels and electric powered windows. It was a gusty night and we could feel the mountain winds buffeting the car, and as we drove, the black hood rose slowly, floated up and over the windshield and disappeared behind us before I could stop the car or turn around. We went back to look for it the next day somewhere south of San Clemente. But it was gone. The only thing to do was find another one in a junkyard in Chula Vista. That's when I found out there was a place called National City. - David Antin from Eight Stories for John Baldessari

Trapped in the proverbial vacuum of Southern California's National City, John Baldessari discovered a way to accept the void, the cultural isolation, the boredom and estrangement. He made a series of snapshots, sometimes from a moving car, sometimes from the hip, of life in National City - pictures of street corners, various storefronts, suburban homes, car dealerships - everything he saw as "the real situation." These he would use photo emulsion to apply them to canvas and as a finishing touch, hired a sign painter to paint a caption, usually the location, in a straight-forward and matter of fact style. These photo-texts pieces he created starting in 1966 would lead him to ceremoniously cremate all of his previous works in his possession on July 24, 1970.

A book I picked up at Artbook Cologne earlier this year from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego called John Baldessari: National City (1996) features most of this work plus newly realized pieces created when Baldessari revisited sites in his former hometown.

These works raise questions about image and text in similar ways to Ed Ruscha's self-published artist books of the time. One reads Twenty-six Gasoline Stations and then peruses photos of gasoline stations but all the while we are looking for more, questioning the simplicity. When Baldessari has his picture taken standing in front of a palm tree in a suburban neighborhood, then has his sign painter caption the photo "Wrong," we stumble for a moment. Is he questioning rules of photography? The palm tree sprouts from the head of the figure, breaking a conventional rule - do not photograph people so things appear to be growing out of the subject's head. When he directs us to look at an "Econ-O-Wash" at 14th and Highland do we accept the image or are we distrustful of the artist. Is this conceptual art? On first viewing, the images seem funny and according to Joseph Kosuth, the use of comic irony fell into pop art, and he once implied, "conceptual art could not be funny." So in essence, Baldessari (according to Kosuth) was doing everything "wrong." Why are these canvases sized 59 x 45? So they could fit inside the artist's van.

As a book, John Baldessari: National City, is not a great object but to have these works in a single volume at an affordable price is the draw. Along with eight essays by various authors, the plates are reproduced in color and works from the series not included in the exhibition are shown in duotone as well.
Look for this one before it gets too pricey.