There is a big fuss about Pure Beauty, John Baldessari’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And there should be. While his work has been shown here and internationally since the 1980s, this exhibition comprises the first major survey of Baldessari’s work in the United States in over twenty years. It was about time.
Baldessari was part of the conceptual art scene that developed in the US post WW II period. Well known as a teacher from his years at CalArts and later at UCLA, and with a host of ex-students who became art world luminaries in their own right (David Salle, Barbara Bloom, Mike Kelley and others), Baldessari has been an integral part of the burgeoning LA art scene for over the past fifty years.
Several essayists in the accompanying catalogue note Baldessari’s interest in the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Claude Lévi- Strauss, but those interests appear to be married to a frank sense of not only the absurd, but of the daily. A natural post-modernist, as much as contemporary theory may have attracted him, it is equally obvious that Baldessari was influenced by Hollywood film culture, using, as he himself said, “the language of everyday people.”
Arranged chronologically, Pure Beauty, does what a good retrospective should; it gives us a glance into decades of Baldessari’s career. What is curious here however, is the absence of any clear trajectory; certainly there is no dominant linear progression in terms of subject. The ideas that interested Baldessari as early as the 1960s keep circulating throughout the exhibit and he redoes them in media as disparate as paintings, text, found footage, appropriated posters, film stills, photographs, performances, collage, videos, reliefs, digital prints—and combinations thereof. His 1975 black and white close-up of an elbow shows up again in 2008 as a laser cut bas relief titled Arms and Legs (Specifically Elbow and Knee). His 1965 painting, Falling Cloud, morphed into an enormous brain for one of the two newly commissioned posters in the foyer of the Met.
While circularity is a leitmotif here, it doesn’t imply repetition. Baldessari’s approach is multitudinous. He will take one idea and play it out in a dizzying array of possibilities. Agency (or lack of) is clearly one of Baldessari’s concerns and several photographs document remnants from a game he designed that is about making choices. In an altogether different series of photographs, Baldessari documents chance as in Three Balls in the Air to get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts). Color is another theme he returns to again and again, ranging from formal close-ups of unidentified objects that look like large color swatches, to a video showing an aerial view of a man painting a room in various colors. Structure by Color Series: Simone with Fruit, is a set of luscious color snapshots that show a beautiful California blonde licking, kissing or sucking on different (colored) fruit.
But it is his work during the 1980s and early ‘90s for which Baldessari became most famous. Large images appropriated from the news and film stills, these were often a pastiche of unlikely photographs paired and grouped in one piece. Initially color was a small, tinted imposition on these black and white images but increasingly Baldessari simply painted colored circles and squares over crucial parts of composition to elide any hope of a clear narrative. Viewing them as a group, there is an almost uniformly ominous affect to these pieces, although only a few are overtly political and even then they are far from agitprop. Kiss Panic, done in 1984, consists of a grid of twelve appropriated photos that juxtapose two mouths kissing with a still depicting the scene of a riot; these two central images are surrounded by photographs of various small firearms. But during this period, more often Baldessari’s dark mood is less directive. Horizontal Men is made up of nine, four-foot long images of men shown horizontally, one on top of the other. The first seven rows are of men prone in battle with the bottom two of men in suits, walking briskly, but still displayed sideways. Man and Woman with a Bridge is an elegant gelatin silver print of two Hollywood stars from the ‘40s peering into each other’s eyes with a photo of a fox walking a pole between them. This is work made by someone who is both bemused and amused by life.
By the time I was in the last two rooms of the exhibit, replete with work up to 2010, something small began to bother me. The work is as witty as ever; the artist’s apparently insatiable curiosity about the world and his own observations well intact, but with Baldessari’s increasing use of digital technologies, the work looks different.
Much has been made of the fact that in 1970, early on in his career, Baldessari ceremoniously destroyed all his paintings as an attempt to dispose any notions of the preciousness or privilege of an object over an idea. But the fact is, he did not rid himself of the handmade, actual ‘object’ quality of his work until the computer was made more available. Baldessari’s early appropriations drip with glue bits; when he first covered photographs with paint, the awkward evidence of brush strokes on top of emulsion remained on view. His videos have odd sound qualities and funny lighting. Throughout the exhibit we see the struggle of execution but by 2004, it’s gone. The 2006 body parts are smooth reliefs and look like the result of rapid prototyping. No matter how bold and prescient Baldessari’s concepts were throughout the years between 1970 and the beginning of the 20th century, his materials had a language of their own that lodged the pieces into time and place. Viewing that work in conjunction with work from the past six years distilled through digital media, has the unlikely effect of making all his materials and methods pop out a bit—certainly something ancillary to Baldessari’s purpose but part of the pleasure in viewing this retrospective.
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is on view in the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall (2nd floor) of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 20, 2010–January 9, 2011)