Baldessari's visual jokes reveal multi-layered wit

The conceptualist's non-art tickles the mind and senses in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010

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.

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