A Quiet Man's Telling Choices

An installation shot of the Ed Paschke painting
An installation shot of the Ed Paschke painting "Fifi" (left) beside the Alfred Jensen painting "The Sun Rises Twice (Per I, Per II, Per III, Per IV)". (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

John Baldessari, one of the most influential artists in Los Angeles, had a Danish mother and Italian father. The Danish genes seem to be winning out.

Baldessari is 75 and walks with a slight stoop, but still stands a Nordic head taller than most people. He has long white hair, a white beard and beetling brows. He looks like an aging Viking chief who could still stare down a younger berserker.

If there's a voluble Italian hidden inside, he doesn't get out much. When Baldessari gives a tour of projects he has underway at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, he mostly speaks in pithy fragments and short sentences, with silences between.

Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn's chief curator, is a longtime fan of the artist. He has asked Baldessari to organize the first exhibition in a permanent-collection series called "Ways of Seeing." Baldessari's "intervention" has involved rehanging an entire floor of the Hirshhorn, often with peculiar, rarely seen works.

Brougher has also persuaded a foundation to buy several important Baldessaris from the 1970s and donate them to the museum. They've been installed in galleries on the second floor, alongside a few other Baldessaris on loan from elsewhere.

Baldessari's art seems to fit the imposing man who made it. It can seem dry and dour, busy paring the pleasure principle down to a shadow of its former self.

There's one caustic canvas that reproduces lame advice taken from a how-to guide for artists. ("It is a good idea to have your paintings shown with those of others; it gives you a fresh perspective on your work.") Baldessari paid a sign painter to lay down the letters of the text. His own aesthetic contribution was to choose the "peach" color of the picture's background. It was a commercial hue he knew from days spent painting apartments for his "slum landlord" father. "It's an ugly color; I just hate it," he says.

That's just the point. He says he's explored "all kinds of ways where I would evade my own taste."

Baldessari was in one of the first exhibitions of what came to be called conceptual art, whose projects were staged in 1971 on Pier 18 of the New York City waterfront. Artists were invited to produce pier-themed artworks of all kinds, or stage performances, then have them documented by a couple of photographers.

"My MO was that I didn't want them to be beautiful photographs by them , so I said, 'How do I not allow that to happen?' " He decided to produce a red rubber ball, which he bounced on the pier. He instructed the photographers to frame it in the middle of their shots. That, he says, made sure they would never find a safe, attractive background for the moving ball, or a composition it would look good in. In the photos that came out of the project, chance -- and Baldessari -- ruled supreme.

And then, looking at such youthful work, Baldessari seems to soften. "This was never meant to be art," he says. "I was just having fun."

You realize that fun, even silliness, are as important to Baldessari as rebellion. His friends say that any taciturnity is just his shyness speaking -- or rather refusing to. The giant is more gentle than man- or art-eating.

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