Standing in what feels, symbolically at least if not exactly chronologically or architecturally, like the middle room of Pure Beauty, a retrospective of 79-year-old Californian conceptual artist John Baldessari's career organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tate Modern and currently on view at The Met (through January 9), the photo installation "Virtues and Vices (for Giotto)" (1981) dominates the space. Two series of black-and-white photos with simple captions naming seven cardinal qualities and faults are arrayed along the bottom and top edges of an otherwise empty 20-feet-high wall.
In the exhibition's narrative of Baldessari's fifty-year career, this piece announces a move away from video and performance in the 70s towards photography, installation and a return to painting in the 80s, 90s and now. Fitting, then, that the artist should stroll into the gallery just as I peered up to read the virtues on the perched photos, his gentle 6-foot-seven-inches frame instantly dominating the room despite his soft demeanor, making us all appear as hobbits before the white-bearded wizard Gandalf. And there's certainly something fantastic to the manner in which, looking back on the last half-century of Modern and contemporary art, Baldessari's work has prefigured so many major aesthetic developments. He'd likely never admit as much. "I think art is about communication," he says latter during a media preview, "art is about making viewers feel intelligent."
And certainly, many of the early paintings from the 60s hanging here will provide viewers plentiful "I get it" moments, from conceptual art-lovers (can one really "love" conceptual art?) to tourists who got lost looking for the Vermeers. The first piece for instance—though not the earliest—"A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation" (1966-68), a rigorously conceptual assemblage of canvases, has been amended with institutions' names and exhibition dates by a professional sign painter every time it has been shown in the last 44 years. New canvases have been added following twenty or so shows in Europe and North America. A sly comment on the social construction of artworks that link distant places, people and moments, it also underlines the accumulative nature of the art economy: the more times a work is exhibited, the more curators and collectors will want to show it in their space. Other early pieces, and indeed most of Baldessari's output throughout his career, explore related slippages between objects and their representation, be it filmed, painted, photographed, or some combination thereof.
Often this involves Baldessari recruiting someone else to carry his ideas to fruition. For the "Commissioned Painting" series (1969, including "A Painting by Emile Bourke," above), for instance, he hired painters of quaint landscape scenes from local art fairs to recreate, as photorealistically as they could, slides the artist had made of a friend pointing at objects they'd come across during a walk. The resulting canvases were then supplemented with the caption "A Painting by…" and their name, this executed by sign painters (who always remain anonymous). At once deliberate and open to the wanderers' chance encounters, the series weaves together the artist's major early investigations into appropriation, conceptual and Pop art. Nearby the 1966 piece that gives the exhibition its title features another sign painter's work, this time with only the words "Pure Beauty" in black on a white canvas as if articulating the idea would bring the thing itself into being, like Magritte's pipe taken one or two steps further.
Shortly thereafter Baldessari renounced painting very publicly, incinerating most of the contents of his studio for 1970's "Cremation Project" before turning to video, drawing and thematic or formal photo assemblages. Exercises like "A Movie: Directional Piece where People Are Walking" (1972-73), in which found stills from obscure films are arranged based on the direction in which a character is moving to form a large spiral on the wall, anticipate the most recent pieces at the end of the exhibition. Videos like "Baldessari Sings LeWitt" (1971), in which the artist sits facing the camera, singing an essay by Sol Lewitt, or "I Am Making Art" (1971), where he stands before the camera, changing his pose slightly every time he repeats the title of the piece, are very funny. But they also exemplify his early- to mid-career attempts to reduce the creative act to the simplest of gestures, to get at the essence of what constitutes beauty, pure or not.
Since the mid-80s he's tended to collapse his early- and mid-career aesthetics together, incorporating Pop-ish paints into installation-like assemblages of found photos, many from largely unknown mid-century Hollywood films. The seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions of images, highlighted in vivid tones, tease us with possible narrative connections, without prioritizing one or another. By now we're a long way from the relatively easily legible conceptual works that open the exhibition. In "Three Red Paintings" (1988), for instance, three photos rest against one another askew, the places where they meet creating continuity between the disparate images that all feature elaborate frames filled with primary colors, especially red. Taken from left to right, they feature a gun, a woman talking to a man, and a man apparently being arrested. These potential plot points conjure numerous scenarios, from something akin to Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, to the suggestion that the man with his hands behind his head in the final image has been framed.
While earlier pieces and series are concerned with distinctions between copies, originals, and the markers that direct us to them, newer works investigate related questions, but ones much more a propos for a time when the real and the replica are reversible. Lately, Baldessari explores how one image, or series of images, can have innumerable meanings shaped by equally incalculable subjective factors, as illustrated most succinctly by "Prima Facie (Third State): From Aghast to Upset" (2005, below). What provokes fear in one viewer may cause another to laugh, but both will find pure beauty somewhere in Baldessari's oeuvre.
(images courtesy the artist, Metropolitan Museum of Art)