There are a lot of reasons to visit Pure Beauty, the John Baldessari retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through January 9), but viewing famous pieces like "I Am Making Art" (1971) in the flesh isn't one of them. It looks almost exactly like it does on YouTube—a black-and-white video of Baldessari taking various poses as he repeats the work's title—only displayed on a TV monitor. These days the piece seems almost incomplete without all the YouTube response videos.
Needless to say, locating art's aura isn't particularly important to Baldessari's work. It's not filled with its own self-importance and mostly seeks to engage the viewer in the mechanics of what they see. It helps that he's funny too. These characteristics were visible in most of the works on show in an exhibition perhaps best described as a 50-year investigation into how to make, select and view art.
The most striking aspect of the show, arranged chronologically, is how effectively it displays the work. From start to finish, the viewer is engaged in a conversation started both by the art and the wall text, which often references relationships elsewhere in the exhibition.
While all of the work is related, some pieces hold up better than others. I don't blame the curators for including his 1970 "Cremation Project" for example—he believed it was his best work to date—but I doubt anyone's going to care much about it in the future. The project involved Baldessari burning all the work in his studio and creating an urn and affidavit for it. Clever, but I'd rather look at the work than its ashes and legal documentation.
Thankfully, not all his pre-1970 works bit the dust—those that found collectors before the bonfire survive and many are on display. Among my favorites is a painting of a nose floating in the sky, with a highway paved onto it. Its title, "God Nose" (1965, detail above), describes god as a species rather than a singular deity. I find this interpretation far more amusing than the obvious pun "God Knows," but then I'm also a pun Scrooge.
"God Nose" is notable for many reasons, not the least of which that it's one of the few pieces that doesn't reflect too much on how art is made or what it's about. Throughout the show viewers see a horizon line made of balls, an instructional guide on how to draw shadows, a grid of self portraits in which the artist slightly modifies his hair in each head shot. "Nose" does, however, reflect the artist's love for language. A nearby canvas reads, "Everything is purged from this painting but art, no ideas have entered this work." As if to locate the unseeable of that work within the indefinable of another, another piece sports only the words, "Pure Beauty."
Later in his career, Baldessari creates "Baldessari Sings Lewitt" (1972), a brilliant piece in which the artist sings Sol Lewitt's seminal essay "Sentences on Conceptual Art" (1971) to a number of tunes, including "Yankee Doodle" and "The Star Spangled Banner." He figured they would be better remembered this way than in a catalog. By the 80s we get a glimpse of his interest in New Wave cinema as he begins to arrange stills from films he likes, and blocks out faces with colored round dots. In the exhibition catalog Baldessarri describes the sense of relief he got from eliminating the faces of people who represented class values he couldn't stand, but the most interesting aspect of that gesture is simply that it blocks that person's line of vision. Here, understanding the artist's intentions helped, but I also had the sense that Baldessari was just as interested in our response.
The later dot work recalls a concept articulated earlier in the show by a scrolling LED light piece titled "Light Moved Message" (1968), which begins with the question "What to put in, what to leave out... Notably, by the time he got around to the dots, he'd gotten better at articulating what it means to see and had ditched the words entirely. Baldessari's true success in his later work has been that of efficiency. The pictures themselves can tell us everything that his text does and more.
(images courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery)