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« Elsewhere | Main | Photography Questions »

January 15, 2005

John Baldessari

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Do you guys go for the work of the artist John Baldessari? I took in this show shortly before it closed and had a good time. But I always have a good time when I look at his pictures. Here's an example.

baldessari 02.jpg Two Person Fight (2004)

Baldessari -- who has been an influential teacher as well as a longtime presence on the art scene -- is a semi-conceptual gamesman. He gets you watching how you take things. Though the orange color of the silhouette in this painting pops out, for instance, Baldessari has cut into the painting's surface so that the orange area is in fact physically recessed. Then he doubles the effect. Because B&W Gal is slugging Silhouetted Guy in our direction, we expect to feel him crashing into our laps. Yet, because Baldessari has recessed Silhouetted Guy into and behind the picture plane, Silhouetted Guy is actually moving towards and through B&W Gal.

These shenanigans create an arresting push-pull/pull-push dynamic. Has she KO'd his identity? Has he obliterated hers? And where do you-the-viewer stand in relationship to all this? You may look at the picture and find yourself reacting along the lines of, "Huh?!? Wha'?!? Oh. Hmmm ... Well, hey, whaddya know?"

Generally speaking, I don't enjoy games-playing art, do you? I tend to agree with an artist friend who likes to say, "What's wrong with today's art-world art is too much Duchamp, and not enough Cezanne." But Baldessari's spirit -- which is a sunny, mischievous, California spirit -- wins me over. I look at his work and think, Well, why the hell not? I can't say that I get a lot more from his art than I do out of flipping through some of the kickier magazines, though Baldessari's creations are quieter and more poetic than most media creations are. But still, that's a lot more than nothing.

I suppose you could linger over the philosophical-aesthetic conundrums Baldessari's artworks are semi-intended to provoke. Certainly most of his champions would have you do so; and in some interviews and statements I've run across, Baldessari has been willing to feed the appetite some people have for intellectual be-witchery. Blanketing your your work in a certain amount of high-toned fog seems to be part of the job of being an artworld gallery-artist these days.

But you can also take Baldessari's pictures more simply -- as quick-reading, off-beat pranks that may or may not set some inner bells to ringing. Here's an unpretentious and fun interview with Baldessari where he comes across the way his paintings do (to me, anyway): friendly, full of curiosity, whimsical, and a little weird in the most benign way. He's probably a great teacher. It's hard to imagine anyone more likely to steer students into the habit of saying, "What if ...?"

As a gallery-going friend once said: "When I first started going to art shows, I thought I had to know everything about the art. I thought I had to read up on it, and that I had to understand everything that smart people said about it. I thought I had to ponder it deeply too, like it was meant to be taken as heavy philosophy. Otherwise, I'd be missing out. Then one day I woke up and realized, it's really all about whether the art is any fun to look at." My friend enjoyed this Baldessari show too.



posted by Michael at January 15, 2005


hey, i was just looking at these!

in the interview he says he's "trying to make something that's neither painting nor photograph," i was just thinking maybe he should try photoshop :D

like i think between what you(?) were saying earlier about commercial art and design being at the cutting edge or something and the fair ubiquity of net art (or "" :) on the web, even tho i rarely go to galleries (museums on occassion :) and shows, i still sorta feel like i'm getting to see a lot of art! or at least a lot of neat shit :D it's immersive!


Posted by: glory on January 15, 2005 4:12 PM

Those are great links, tks. I often wonder what a lot of onetime radical artists make of the new digital world. Godard, Baldessari, many others. What with photoshop, Macs and the web, a lot of what they used to dream about (and make art while dreaming about) is now fact. And not just fact, but easily-accessible fact. Easily-usable tool, at least if you're lucky enough to be a healthy, middle-class developed-world person. What becomes of the old avant-garde spark? You'd think it would just dissipate, wouldn't you? And kind of blend into the general flux of swirling pixels. Will they be remembered as prophets of the new world? Will their work, when looked back on, have anything of the charge it once had? Or is it just ... gonna be swamped and forgotten?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2005 5:29 PM

Can I ask a question? Are these pictures intended to be hung in museums and galleries, or are they meant to be hung in someone's home? How are they meant to be displayed?

Posted by: annette on January 17, 2005 12:09 PM

What a sensible question. I wish I knew how to answer it, and I wonder if Baldessari thinks about such matters. Seems to me they're really meant for gallery walls, magazine reproduction, and schools -- I'm guessing they're more fun to think about (as visual triggers for thought) than they are to live with. They'd be mighty austere and empty on a home wall, don't you think? There isn't a lot of "hand" work on them, and they aren't remotely sensual or warm, except in the sense you get that you could have a drink with the artist.

I'd find 'em a bit much in my apartment, anyway7. Do they seem like anything you'd enjoy in your place? I kind of enjoy them as artworld games, but maybe they're best kept in the art world.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 17, 2005 3:33 PM

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