Baldessari's visual jokes reveal multi-layered wit

Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; C01

In T. H. White's "The Sword in the Stone," the classic children's version of the Arthurian legend, Merlin the magician lives backward in time. He knows the future because he was born there, then ages as he moves into the past.

You want to imagine some such backstory for John Baldessari, the great California artist who, at 79, is the subject of an astonishing new retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum.

Baldessari seems distinctly wizardly in person -- he's very tall but slightly stooped, with long white hair, a white beard and a shy, slightly vague manner. His achievements seem Merlinesque, too. Almost from the start of his career, in the early 1960s, he produced work that foreshadowed a huge amount of what others would do later. If you want to know about the best of contemporary art, you could do worse than look at some of the 40-year-old works in this survey. It's almost as though Baldessari had witnessed what was coming before it arrived.

By 1963, when most famous artists were still busy with splashy abstraction, Baldessari had made a photographic inventory of "The Backs of All Trucks Passed While Driving." It's just a series of color snapshots taken through his windshield on a trip, but it seems to delve deep into one aspect of the passing flow. Leading artists and photographers have been doing similar inventories ever since.

By 1964, Baldessari had made the first of his witty "art lesson" paintings, in which he took cliched advice from "How To Paint" books and made the advice the subject of paintings. In the 1964 work that launches the series, Baldessari paints precisely the pictures the books say not to paint, exaggerating their faults.

Within two years, other pieces in the series have done away with pictures altogether.

A 1966 Baldessari called "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell" pays homage to a list of art-market bromides, including "Generally speaking, paintings with light colors sell more quickly" and "It has been said that paintings with cows and hens in them collect dust -- while the same paintings with bulls and roosters sell." But instead of giving us a bright painting of roosters, Baldessari presents only the words themselves that convey the advice, carefully lettered across his painting by a professional sign painter. He ends up, that is, with a work that conveys the market-friendly advice while completely disregarding it, too. (The background, however, is a prudently light color of yellow. Baldessari has never rejected the prospect of market appeal. He's been a collectors' darling for decades and has done very well.)

Another painting presents us with pure beauty, in the grandest, most romantic tradition of art making. It consists of the words "PURE BEAUTY," sign-painted in black caps on a pale background.

Yes, these are jokes. One of the pleasures of all of Baldessari's art is its unfailing sense of humor and play. (I've never seen so many smiles in a Met show. This is conceptualism with a human face. But these jokes are not merely one-liners. They are more like philosophical and visual puzzles that beg to be sorted out, that can't be, and that therefore never arrive at a simple punch line. Is Baldessari's beauty-full painting beautiful? It is certainly as pure as it says it is -- purer than most paintings that set their sights on beauty. The two tones of "PURE BEAUTY" hint at Malevich's great "Black Square," from 1915, and at the grand spiritual aims of such minimal abstractions. And what, for that matter, could be purer than the word?

Forty-two years after its creation, "Pure Beauty" actually does come off as "beautiful" (whatever that might mean). It's almost as though it has created its own new aesthetic, built on concepts and the bold texts that express them.

A later series of "Commissioned Paintings" -- some of Baldessari's very greatest works, even though they aren't quite by him -- achieves a still more complex effect by mashing up text and image. In 1969, Baldessari photographed various friends' index fingers pointing at random household stains and smudges, then commissioned hack realist artists to make paintings from the shots. In the big white bottom border of each canvas, Baldessari had still another artist, a sign painter, inscribe the name of the hack. "A PAINTING BY ANITA STORCK," reads the caption on a painting of a photo of a finger pointing at a table with a spill on it.

It all seems simple, until you try to figure out who is getting credit for what.

The letters themselves aren't painted by the person they name -- even though they point to that person as the author of the painting. And they can't be giving Storck credit for the image that sits above her "signature" -- that properly belongs to whoever snapped the shutter.

So are we supposed to imagine that she's the author of the spill that forms the central focus of the image -- and could almost be a found piece of abstraction? Isn't the point of the whole picture to draw our attention to that abstract blotch -- and then to credit it to the painter that gets named?

And even as we consider all these possibilities, we know a single fact: The true author of the entire piece (of caption, painting, photo, act of pointing, spill, and their assembly into a work of art) is really a guy named John Baldessari, who is the person least on view in it -- except that he's the artist with his name on banners at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, home to Vermeer and Manet.

Banners or not, I know there will be readers who will say that there's very little art in any of this work. They are absolutely right.

Baldessari doesn't set out to make something already called "art." By the time he hits his stride -- after staging a ceremonial cremation of all his early, arty paintings -- he aims to avoid such received aesthetic ideas. (As most great artists do.) Instead, Baldessari makes something that tickles our senses and our minds, and which only declares itself art by virtue of not being anything else.

Here's a classic piece of Baldessari's non-art art. For a work from 1969 called "California Map Project," Baldessari began with a normal map of the United States, with the word "CALIFORNIA" printed large across his state. (Baldessari grew up in National City, a working-man's suburb of San Diego. His career has unfolded in Los Angeles, where he has been one of the country's most famous art teachers.) Keeping that map to hand, he hit the road, aiming to reproduce the ten letters in C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A as real facts on the ground: He drew them huge in whatever materials came to hand, on the same locales the letters covered on the map. The cartographer placed his "C" near the town of Redding, so Baldessari went there, too, drawing the letter in logs he found and rearranged. He painted California's "A" on a boulder near Newcastle, as big as he could make it. "F" was just scattered bits of red cloth in a field by Mariposa, ready to blow away. "O" was a big circle of red yarn, arrayed on grass in Sequoia National Forest. (As shown at the Met, the piece consists of color photos of the map, and of Baldessari's letters at their sites.)

It's as though Baldessari is thinking of his map as the ultimate in realistic pictures -- or that he's imagining that it needs to be turned into that, by changing the land it pointed to. Do his geographic "interventions" actually reproduce the letters on the map -- could you see any of them from a cartographer's plane? No. The point isn't to succeed, but to see what comes of making the effort, with an ever-changing set of art supplies.

Some other notable efforts made by Baldessari, in the most various of "materials":

-- He had seven different couples each shoot 10 takes from Hollywood scripts to see the range of meanings untrained actors might find in them.

-- He decided to ban boring art -- by boringly copying out the words "I will not make any more boring art" across pages and pages of paper, then recording that "punishment" in a 13-minute video that is as boring as could be -- except that it isn't.

-- He put "live" minimal abstractions out into the world by throwing big sheets of colored cardboard out a dormer window and freezing their descent with a camera. ("Performed abstraction" has become another art-world staple.)

-- He sorted and re-sorted sequences of Hollywood production stills (Baldessari once bought a huge pile of them, cheap) to see what kinds of sense and narrative could be forced out of them. ("As soon as you put two things together, you get a story," Baldessari once said.)

-- He collaged and collided found images of every sort, showing everything from kisses to guns to corpses to cowboys -- or sometimes showing nothing but patches of bright color -- in order to uncover all their semantic and visual rhymes.

-- Most recently, he collided a life-size color photo of a palm tree, symbol of casual California, with the real people parading through the formal lobby of a grand New York museum -- where Mr. Casual California happens to be having the grandest, most formal of shows.

But maybe, for all these avant-garde efforts, at heart Baldessari is really the most conservative of artists. His entire career, you could say, has been about painting one, big, ultra-realistic picture: It isn't a picture of something out there in the world but of the mind that takes them in. It's a lively mind, a mind that will never leave well enough alone, that is always trying something new, that revels in absurdity. It's an artist's mind, that is, a visual intelligence that revels in revealing its brilliance.

It's the same mind you see, if at one further remove, in the Met's Vermeers and Manets.

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty

Through Jan. 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Call 212-535-7710 or visit

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