Time Out New York / November 5, 2010

John Baldessari

In a typically deadpan, self-referential gesture, this long-overdue retrospective devoted to the influential California Conceptualist John Baldessari opens with A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation. An austere-looking set of canvases, dated 1966–68 but expanded upon multiple times thereafter and possessed of the capacity for endless further additions, it details the work’s ongoing journey from exhibition to exhibition. The text-only format is reminiscent of a rock band’s tour shirt, listing dates and venues starting with JUNE 19,1968 IDEA CONCEIVED AT 10:25AM NATIONAL CITY, CALIFORNIA BY JOHN BALDESSARI, and concluding (for now) with its present installation at the Met. Driven by a thorough fascination with order and the systematic emptying-out of passion from a conventionally expressive form, A Painting immediately alerts viewers to a challenge: Since the show that follows this piece often revolves around a kind of informational purity, it may take some effort to perceive the “Pure Beauty” of its title.

Which isn’t to say that Baldessari’s work lacks visual punch—far from it, especially in its brightly colored later manifestations—but the show’s first few rooms will certainly give pause to any visitors wandering in from the museum’s Jan Gossart survey. Other pieces made around the same time as A Painting follow its uncompromising formula: Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966–68) offers, in the same professionally lettered hand (Baldessari used a sign-writer), some pithy advice that includes avoiding “morbid props” in still-life painting. Clement Greenberg (1966–68) distances the artist even further from the creative equation by cheekily using the space of a painting to summarize, in a few sentences, the titular critic’s formalist credo. Although high Conceptualism is often—bafflingly—described as humorless, Baldessari reminds us here that it is anything but. But while distinguished by playfulness, such strategies were not arrived at without struggle. Characteristically, Baldessari was able to redirect even some of his wrong turns into fruitful new directions.

In 1970, having realized that the text paintings (along with others that combined words with photographic images) pointed toward his future and the future of art, Baldessari decided to destroy all of his previous work. Hardly a new idea, except that the San Diego–born artist formalized this cathartic act by publishing an announcement in his local paper and staging a full-scale cremation. The event is documented in photographs, a framed affidavit, a bronze plaque and an urn in the shape of a book. This collection of relics may constitute another deliberate refusal of the picturesque, but by transforming a trite act of creative angst into a public ritual, Cremation Project became an instant classic.

Thus symbolically liberated from his past, Baldessari began working through ideas apace, such that the Met’s galleries feel barely able to contain them. The photographic image in particular assumes increasing importance, often facilitating an exploration of categorical and formal arrangements. Many projects confront visual cliché and assumed meaning, revealing pictures as both the subject and agents of manipulation. A suite of retouched self-portrait headshots from 1974, for example, seemingly anticipates the coming predominance of Photoshop; while a strip of images of ice cubes from the same year, in which the disjointed self-promotional prompt U—BUY BAL DES SARI is subtly embedded, plays with the use of subliminal advertising, a hot-button topic of the time. Works like the deliciously titled Hitting Various Objects with a Golf Club So That They Are in the Center of the Photograph (1972–73), meanwhile, employ arbitrary variation to interrogate conventions of composition and narrative.

The latter concerns dominate Baldessari’s work of the late ’70s and beyond. Having made deconstructive use of storyboarding in 1978’s “Blasted Allegories” series and elsewhere, he developed a system of recontextualization, in which film stills are juxtaposed with stock photography and original snaps. Overlaid with colored dots and silhouettes that obscure, negate and otherwise toy with our desire for logical readings, these are matched and mismatched in ever-more-eccentric constellations.

For example, Mountain Climber (1988) features shots of a mountaineer and a scuba diver. The former is hung near the ceiling, the latter near the floor, and each features an image of a guide rope that Baldessari has “joined” into an unbroken line with the help of a painted stripe. Next to the underwater scene are two pictures of cakes, one with its candles tinted primary colors. The picture is ostensibly complete, the artist seems to say, but having sworn in 1971 that he would “not make any more boring art,” he leaves it to us to make the final connection.

Image: John Baldessari, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966-68.