Ways of Seeing: John Baldessari Explores the Collection

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Editorial Review

Artist as Curator: Another Perspective

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Everyone's a critic.

Scratch that. Everyone's a critic and a curator. We're not just constantly making little judgments in our heads whenever we look at art -- love this, hate that -- we're also organizing little shows in our heads all the time. We may remember one piece in a special light, even as we delete another from our memory banks, rehanging exhibitions in our imaginations. If we wonder why something looks familiar, we might look at the wall label, realizing that we've seen another painting, or another sculpture, by this artist before. Or that a work by X reminds us a lot of a piece by Y.

John Baldessari got a chance to do just that, as the inaugural guest curator in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's new "Ways of Seeing" program. The artist, first in what the museum expects will be a line of artists, authors and filmmakers invited to create installations from its permanent collection, has organized a show that is, given his penchant for randomness in his own art, surprisingly coherent.

Take the first two paintings that face visitors as soon as they step off the escalator to the museum's lower level. On the right is Philip Guston's "Oasis," an abstract expressionist canvas from 1957; on the left hangs Guston's 1970 "Daydreams," featuring the artist's later, signature cartoon shoe imagery.

Somebody get this guy a job in a museum. The two Gustons, sitting side by side, make a sweet before-and-after, but it's the kind of conventional hanging I'd expect from a museum professional, not an iconoclast like Baldessari.

But wait. Does such a by-the-book pairing -- contrasting the early and late styles of a single artist -- set the tone for the rest of "Ways of Seeing"?

"As soon as you put two things together, you have a story," says Baldessari, whose work is represented upstairs in a small companion exhibition called "Collection in Context: John Baldessari." There you'll find a painting, "Exhibiting Paintings." It's essentially a sign, painted not by Baldessari but by a professional sign painter who was given a passage of text Baldessari found in a book: "Almost every painter arrives at the stage when he would like to exhibit his work," it reads. "It is a good idea to have your painting shown with those of others; it gives you a fresh perspective on your work; because it is surprising how different your pictures look on the wall surrounded by paintings of other artists."

Like-with-like is the general principle Baldessari seems to have employed in organizing his installation, combining three mid-20th-century Giorgio Morandi still-lifes with one from 1887 by John Frederick Peto and placing the contemplative emptiness of Anish Kapoor's 1987 sculpture "At the Hub of Things" next to the contemplative emptiness of Ad Reinhardt's 1956 "Abstract Painting." His pairings are always smart, occasionally wry, but often unsurprising. Two nudes are juxtaposed: Rene Magritte's surreal "Delusions of Grandeur II" (1948) alongside Emily Kaufman's "Girl on a Fainting Couch" (1975).

For my money, parts of the installation feel overly familiar, especially when you consider that Baldessari had almost 12,000 objects to choose from. Haven't we all seen Joseph Beuys's "Memory of My Youth in the Mountains" (1977) and in that exact same spot? But what are you going to do? Baldessari's the boss here. I was glad, however, to see that Baldessari placed Beuys's blob-like mass next to Medardo Rosso's equally blob-like "Child in the Soup Kitchen," a beeswax-over-plaster sculpture from 1893 (cast circa 1943-44), with which I was unfamiliar.

It's also nice to see a little attention paid to works by underexposed oddballs such as Louis Eilshemius, whose 1901 "Fairy Tale" probably doesn't often see the light of day. And I'll tell you why: because it's not a great painting. An interesting one, but not a great one.

Nothing, however, demonstrates as much wit as hanging Alfred Jensen's 1973 "The Sun Rises Twice (Per I, Per II, Per III, Per IV)" next to Milton Avery's "Thinking." The little man in Avery's 1940 gouache-and-pencil drawing appears to be pondering -- and none too successfully, I might add -- Jensen's mammothly cuckoo-nutty painting, a full 16 feet of abstruse numerology and symbols. The juxtaposition of the two pictures is a hilarious joke on the inscrutability of much modern art.

Except that Baldessari told curator Kristen Hileman, "Being funny is not really my goal." Oh, yeah? You could have fooled me.

But maybe the fact that I see a sight gag there says more about me than about Baldessari. Which is, in a sense, the real point of "Ways of Seeing." Sure, it tells us something about Baldessari and his tastes. It may even tell us something about the Hirshhorn and its collection (but I doubt it).

More important, the exercise of looking at art through someone else's eyes tells us something we might not have known about our own.