Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2011
Jessica Morgan and Leslie Jones, eds. John Baldessari: Pure Beauty Exh. cat. Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Prestel, 2009. 324 pp.; 240 ills. Paper $36.00 (3791343459)
Exhibition schedule: Tate Modern, London, October 13, 2009–January 10, 2010; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, June 27, 2010–September 12, 2010; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 20, 2010–January 9, 2011
John Baldessari. Noses & Ears, Etc.: Head (with Nose) (2006). Three-dimensional archival digital photographic print and acrylic. 54 1/8 x 47 1/4 in. (137.5 x 120 cm). Collection of Nabil Aouad, Lisbon. © 2009 John Baldessari. Photo courtesy of Baldessari Studio.

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty was an extensive retrospective composed of over 150 works created by the artist over the last 45 years. To access this exhibition on the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA) campus, I walked through the Ahmanson Building, past EATLACMA, by the contemporary LA artist collective Fallen Fruit, down a set of stairs to cross beneath Smoke, Tony Smith’s soaring hexagonal 1967 sculpture, which quite literally fills the atrium. Exiting that building I walked out onto an outdoor pavilion still under construction, which, I noticed rather ironically, is called the BP Grand Entrance. Looking out toward Wilshire, an array of 202 vintage streetlamps stand assembled in orderly rows in Urban Lights, Chris Burden’s 2008 sculpture. Thus, as if by chance, on my way to see Pure Beauty, I had literally passed through a series of staged contexts—social and artistic, contemporary and historical—on the campus of LACMA to reach the large, red iron-and-glass structure of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM).

Inside BCAM, I pushed a button for the elevator and paused before stepping through the enormous doors of the freight-sized elevator, which opens onto an imposing white box gallery space with walls almost two stories high. Hovering close to the walls, I felt small. Entering a portal to my left, I found myself in a room surrounded by seascape murals and a goofy relief of a human brain larger than I am. I chuckled at the plastic scale of this organ juxtaposed against the cool blue expanse of ocean and sky that filled the room, just small enough for me to feel present. The horizons of the seascape murals met precisely at the corner of each wall above eye level. The seascape opposite the big brain is black and white and seemed to be breathing ever so slowly in a time-lapse video projection. In one color mural there was a palm tree placed smack dab in the middle of the frame. Again I giggled, for this is the banal (as Baldessari says) palm tree of Southern California. Commonly used as background on postcards, the top of this palm claims to be the central subject, bisecting the horizon and unsettling the pleasurable expanse of ocean and sky. Realizing that I am looking down on this single palm tree and, at the same time, up at the horizons of sea and sky, my perspective began to teeter and float, slightly askew. This is Brain/Cloud (Two Views): with Palm Tree and Seascapes, an installation Baldessari created in 2009 for this exhibition. I enjoy the combination of visual humor and cerebral reflection imbued in Baldessari’s artwork. It felt effervescent, even blissful standing beside this big white brain. This is the pure beauty of his conceptual art practice.

Blissful in the way that Roland Barthes describes a text in his 1971 essay “From Work to Text,” where the pleasure of reading occurs as the reader participates in the production of meaning out of floating signifiers and codes that are gathered together in the work. In an open text the process and composition of the project share the roles of subject and substance in the piece. Engaged contemplation becomes an active part of the project for the reader (or viewer, in this case) of such works. This is what Baldessari does so well. He brings together an array of images, texts, and other materials from everyday life, popular culture, and fine art, rearranges the syntax and reframes our perceptions in such a way that we, as viewers, are asked to expand our habits of understanding how these signifiers operate in our world. Baldessari does so with a casual wit that belies the revolutionary depth of his practice and supports the agile parables he proposes in his work.

Divided roughly into a chronological series of galleries, the exhibition mapped the development of this influential artist and teacher from Southern California, who pioneered many of the groundbreaking conceptual art practices that have become almost commonplace today. Alongside students in his “post-studio” art class at CalArts, Baldassari experimented with appropriating from popular culture and reconsidering the expressive hierarchies of fine art and everyday life. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, David Salle recalls the liberating proposal that Baldessari presented to his students in the 1970s, “Anything can be art/Art can be anything.” Almost prosaic in the art world today, Salle emphasizes how profoundly influential this concept was at the time. Along with other conceptual artists working in other mediums, Baldessari’s artistic approach, with its ironic style and transparent process, have expanded the boundaries of traditional fine art painting and photography in contemporary Western culture, and allowed subsequent generations to make art in new ways. Many of his works capture the irresolute levity and gravity of everydayness, which we so often look through or beyond, in visual events that ask us, as viewers, to participate in making new meanings of the world around us. As Baldessari is quoted as saying in the didactics of the show, “When you’re paying attention to one thing, you’re not paying attention to something else, and that narrows your view. I want to open it up, through literature, film, the workaday world, and art—it’s like four different sets of eyes perceiving the same world, but differently.” He asks us to look again and reconsider our ways of seeing and how multiple meanings arise and change through association and proximity.

In the exhibition, Pure Beauty (1966–68), a commissioned sign painting, was installed in a room with other works like Wrong (1966–68), a large photo-screened canvas, and God Nose (1965), an early painting, which was salvaged from his work before the Cremation Project (1970), when Baldessari burned most of his paintings and commemorated the event with an affidavit, plaque, and urn. The relics of this memorial were installed in a vitrine located in the largest gallery, which was devoted primarily to his clever serial works of the 1970s. This is where I found the two almost identical photographs that compose Kissing Series: Simone Palm Trees (Near) (1966–68). “Aligning: Balls” (1972) is a series of snapshots strung out along a line chalked to the wall. A finger points at one of several carrots laid out on a black surface in Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Carrots (1972). Car Color Series: All Cars Parked on the West Side of Main Street, between Bay and Bicknell Streets, Santa Monica, at 1:15 P.M., September 1, 1976 is pretty much what the title suggests. Other photographic montages, diagrammatic charts, and art books like Fable: A Sentence of Thirteen Parts (with Twelve Alternate Verbs) Ending in Fable (1977) study the gaps between words and seeing. Several monitors played his early experimental videos, including Baldessari Sings LeWitt (1972), which has become a cult clip on YouTube.

Another series of Commissioned Paintings (1969), each painted by a Sunday Painter with an extended index finger that points to an obscure aspect of a landscape or still life, led into a group of galleries that highlighted Baldessari’s darker cutout collages of the 1980s and the more minimalist text and image constructions of the 1990s. Here, I found myself unsettled by the series Crowd with the Shape of Reason Missing (1985), where a field of white paint obscures the action of an enlarged appropriated film still like “wite-out” over text, and Violent Space Series: Nine Feet (of Victim and Crowd) Arranged by Position in Scene (1976), with its dots of photographed shoes and shins enlarged and arranged on an expanse of black to suggest an action. This is the reverse of a strategy he will use to great effect in later well-known works, where colored dots blot out faces to redirect the viewer’s gaze. In a smaller collage, Pelican in Desert (1984), a black, oversized cutout silhouette of this sea bird squats like an emblematic eagle on an aerial photograph of the high desert. Indirectly Iraq and global warming come to mind today. Also disturbing is Horizontal Men (1984), a large, tall collage that stacks nine movie stills of cowboys, soldiers, and businessmen, lying on the ground. The hands of the man in the center are bound. It is startling to notice that the bottom image is of a man stepping forward turned on its side. Beside it was Inventory (1984), in which a more graphic print from a Holocaust crematorium is juxtaposed beneath a collage of colorful silhouettes of shoppers and items stacked in a supermarket and the face of a happy housewife consumer pushing a shopping cart. Other galleries showed work Baldessari produced in the late 1990s, which amplifies the incongruent allegorical space between image, text, and meaning-making. Also on view were a beautiful group of early 2000 photographs that reiterate an art of the everyday and stretch out of the frame in unlikely ways with painted extensions of limbs and lines.

Overall, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty was an extensive retrospective of a prolific artist. The accompanying catalogue is worth noting for its insightful essays, beautiful color reproductions, and smaller, more personal black-and-white snapshots. Walking through the exhibition, one experienced the breadth and depth of Baldessari’s endeavors. Many viewers, historians, and critics have commented on and enjoy the humor that infuses his work. With humor and blissful strategies that question presumptions, Baldessari lifts the weight of tradition and habit to redefine gravitas. The “pure beauty” of his conceptual art is a perceptual effervescence that does not evaporate.

Carol McDowell
PhD candidate, Department of World Arts and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles