Saturday, July 11, 2009

John Baldessari at the Legion

John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation: July 11, 2009 — November 8, 2009

At 6 foot, 7 inches, Baldessari towers over most people. Dressed in black with long white hair and a lived –in face, his height belies his soft-spoken manner and his ironic and puckish sense of humor. Throughout his career, he has taken great pleasure in thumbing his nose formal art techniques and the art establishment (even though he's now a part of it). He appreciates the irony. He has worked in a variety of media but the current show at the Legion focuses on his work in print. He hates to be classified and loves to push the envelope.

"It's about what I can get away with," he declared at the opening of his show at the Legion, at a reception in a room filled with exquisite ceramics and just down the hall from cases of art from Egypt and Ancient Greece. The contrast could not be more extreme. The first piece in the exhibit "I will not make any more boring art (1971)" sets the tone for the show. A 22 x 30 inch lithograph, the sentence fills the whole space - black on white with no explanation other than that's what he felt like doing. He felt like being bored and was bored in the thirty minutes or so that it took him to write it. So why do it? Because he wanted to.

He’s a great trickster in the Duchamp tradition by using common everyday images and altering them to make the viewer look at them differently. His famous, face covering dots are a perfect example of his thought process. He was looking at some old photos of dignitaries and became irritated that they were out changing the world while he, the artist, was isolated in his studio, and unable to participate or impact the decisions that would change his life. “I was using some price stickers for another project and I pulled out the photos and covered their faces. I felt a great sense of power. I could color code them, red for danger, green, not so dangerous, blue for aspirations and yellow - chaos. ”

When he was teaching life drawing, it irritated him that the students would spend two hours on the model’s face and only an hour or so on the rest of the body. So, he covered her face with a drop cloth, forcing them to look at the whole, rather than just one part. By depriving them of what they expected to see, he forced them to look at something and understand it– in this case, the human figure – in a whole new way.

Perhaps understanding is not quite appropriate. His sense of humor and irony come though on each piece but his blend of surrealism, Pop art, Dadaism and Minimalism is unique and sometimes unfathomable. The most common thing that he wants you to fathom is that most of this is done in such a way to force the viewer to reinterpret the everyday. He considers himself a minimalist in that he is constantly taking away from the image, cropping, altering and changing his source (often an old movie photograph or a portion of a cinema still) into something new and strange. Many of the series in the show start with an image full of objects and people and end on the final frame with only one image. It’s not that the medium is the message, it’s that the process is the meaning. Concept is everything but he prefers not to tell the viewer what the concept really is (or was). "Am I telling a story? " he responded to one question by not answering it.

“Eyes, lips and hands have all been done, “ Baldessari says, “so I thought ears and noses, why not?” "I was thinking about totality (what is and what isn't a part?). Painting sections of the human body was part of that investigation. To represent people by an ear and/or a nose became a way of reducing human identity to a minimum." Simple logic? Not when Baldessari gets through with it.

Early in his career he wanted to make affordable art and went to some lengths to find a printer to produce books that students could afford. His goal was to stay within the twelve to fifteen dollar range. Those days are long behind him. In 2007, one of his pieces sold for 4.4 million at auction. Baldessari says, “I used to sell these pieces for a hundred bucks each. Luckily, I have a sense of humor.”

The son of a Danish mother and an Austrian father, he grew up in National City, a working class town outside San Diego. It was 1931 and the great Depression affected every aspect of life. Nothing was thrown away. Everything was recycled and reused – attitudes, which influenced his art from the beginning. He was good at art, went on to get a BA in art education and an MA in painting. He taught for years at CalArts and UCLA, challenging artists to make art that was different.

"I felt I had to challenge conventional wisdom about art. I had to reevaluate the givens. One thing he reevaluated is the notion that art has some special value, usually spiritual. He declares that he hates beauty and revels in the tatty, the mundane, the boring and the obscure. Even now, he seems slightly uncomfortable with his fame and the fact that his artwork is being showing in one of the most beautiful museums in San Francisco in one of the most beautiful locations. He prefers discomfort and antagonism but mostly he's just a guy who wants to have fun. Of course, his definition of fun is unique, ironic, full of juxtapositions and witty puns. As you exit, there's a piece on the ceiling, a three dimensional sculpture of noses, titled "God knows."


Andrew said...

I love the story about the life drawing class. Kind of a variation on not seeing the forest for the trees.

Andrew said...

I love the story about the life drawing class. Kind of Bizarre, but it makes the point. Drawing only the head in a figure class is like not seeing the forest for the trees.

namastenancy said...

I think he'd be a fantastic teacher. I didn't get any sense of arrogance or "better than you" vibes from him at the museum preview. But all of his "famous" students are men so that might be an issue but I don't know. It's not "my kind of art" but it was an interesting challenge to write about it in a non-judgmental way. Or at least, I hope I did.

Margan said...

I wrote my Masters thesis on Baldessari and helped some with the exhibit. It was a treat to meet him. He seemed more embarrassed than flattered that I chose to study his work. A humble and brilliant man.

namastenancy said...

He was super nice to us "jackals" of the press and very accessible. I was very impressed by him as a person and I'm still thinking about how to better write about him. But his work rather defies any definitions, doesn't it?

Margan said...

Yes. His work is not easy to write about, since it seems to raise more questions than it answers. Though there seems to be no wrong answer, this only raises further frustration especially when such meanings may be contradictory. Yet, this is also part of the beauty, don't you think? As Jordan Schnitzer says, his work makes us stop, look and think, which is a powerful tool. His work challenges us to find new ways of looking at art and the world. The irony being that he achieves this by using found (media) imagery from the world around us - the very world his work seems to critique.

namastenancy said...

I really appreciate your astute comments! I hope that I covered this in my review but it was a struggle. You've helped me understand his work much better. If you wouldn't mind, how about putting your comments in the comment section of my article on him at the The URL for my webpage is under my profile on the right hand side of the page. I think that what you have to say is elegantly put.