The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, the most extensive retrospective to date of Los Angeles-based artist John Baldessari (b. 1931), on view June 27 to September 12, 2010.
Organized by LACMA in association with Tate Modern, the exhibition will bring together more than 150 works and examine the principal concerns of Baldessari, who is widely regarded as one of the most important artists working today. LACMA’s presentation will be the only West Coast showing and feature the greatest number of works of any venue on the show’s major international tour.
“Pure Beauty will be a revelation to many, even those who are familiar with Baldessari, as it features many of the artist’s lesser-known works,” says Leslie Jones, LACMA associate curator of prints and drawings. “The exhibition will explore Baldessari’s lifelong interest in language and mass media culture, which seems increasingly relevant—-even imperative-—in an era of information and image proliferation.”
Based in Los Angeles since 1970, Baldessari is one of the most influential artists of his generation. His text and image paintings from the mid-1960s are widely recognized as among the earliest examples of conceptual art, while his 1980s photo compositions derived from film stills rank as pivotal to the development of appropriation art and other practices that address the social and cultural impact of mass culture. His continuing interest in language, both written and visual, has been at the forefront of both his work and teaching, through which, for more than thirty years, he has nurtured and influenced succeeding generations of artists, including David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Barbara Kruger among others.
With humor and irony, Baldessari dissects the ideas underlying artistic practice and questions the historically accepted rules of how to make art. The combination of photography, painting, and references to film has become one of the key elements in his work.
Beginning with his little-known paintings from the early 1960s, the exhibition features the landmark photo and text works from 1966-68, photocompositions derived from films stills of the 1980s, irregularly shaped and over-painted works of the 1990s, as well as video and artist books. The show concludes with his most recent work, which includes a special multimedia installation conceived for the retrospective.
In the 1960s, Baldessari notably painted statements derived from contemporary art theory and instructional manuals onto canvas. These early major works, such as Wrong (1966–68, LACMA) and Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966–68), will be on view.
In 1970 Baldessari cremated nearly all the paintings he had created between 1953 and 1966. Cremation Project was both a public renunciation of painting and the beginning of Baldessari’s more documentary, hands-off approach to art making, in which he used photography and video to record acts and events. His strategies embraced chance and accident, and included gameplaying, as in Choosing (A Game for Two Players): Carrots (1971), or seemingly pointless tasks, as in The Artist Hitting Various Objects with a Golf Club (1972–73). During the ‘70s, Baldessari also began to use cinematic tools of the script and storyboard as means to restructure conventional notions of narrative.
Beginning in the early 1980s, cinematic references become even more apparent with the artist’s use of found film stills that he cropped and enlarged to create photo-compositions. Abandoning the standard rectangular canvas or photographic format, Baldessari constructs irregularly shaped compositions from film stills, creating provocative juxtapositions. According to the artist: “I think of the images that I use as units, like words might be units, and I construct similarly to a good poet, where I’m trying to get a certain kind of syntax, a certain explosion, a meaning when these units collage, building up an architecture of meaning, so to speak.”
Baldessari’s work of the past two decades has continued to explore the relationship between imagery and language, as in the Goya Series (1997), as well as the social and cultural impact of mass media imagery, through his ongoing use of altered film stills and other photographic imagery.
Recently the artist has added dimension to his works, employing raised and recessed surfaces, as well as more color, which enhances the allusion to painting. Of particular note is Brain-Cloud (2009)—made specially for the exhibition—a multimedia installation involving photography, cast sculpture, and video that occupies an entire gallery and concludes the show.
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is curated by Leslie Jones, associate curator of prints and drawings, LACMA, and Jessica Morgan, curator of contemporary art, Tate Modern, and assisted by Kerryn Greenberg, assistant curator, Tate Modern. Prior to LACMA’s presentation, the exhibition was on view at Tate Modern (October 13, 2009–January 20, 2010) and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (February 11–April 25, 2010). Following its showing at LACMA, Pure Beauty will conclude its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (October 20, 2010–January 9, 2011). The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with essays by major writers, curators, art historians, and former students of Baldessari.
Born in National City, California, in 1931, John Baldessari is undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of our time. His long-term exploration of language and image coupled with his inquisitive approach to art-making has expanded the parameters of what we consider art.
In 1966 he began taking photos in a working class suburb of his hometown, National City. The pictures were intentionally non-spectacular and mundane. As an antithesis to Pop art, Baldessari adopted an anti-heroic attitude by documenting ingenious actions instead of monumentalising his subjects. The photos were enlarged and transferred onto canvas, and then commercial sign painters painted equally prosaic texts identifying each site. These photo and text pieces created new meanings and tensions between images and words and marked a pivotal turning point in Baldessari's artistic trajectory.
He later went one step further by dropping imagery all together from his canvases, leaving only texts appropriated from varied sources, which he sometimes manipulated. 'I sought to use language not as a visual element but something to read. That is, a notebook entry about painting could replace the painting... I was attempting to make something that didn't emanate art signals.' The concept of authorship was further addressed in the Commissioned Paintings (1969) series in which Baldessari hired amateur artists to produce paintings of photographs of a hand pointing at something ordinary. The inspiration for the series came from a criticism that said that Conceptual art was nothing more than pointing.
Teaching has always been a significant and integral part of Baldessari's life. In 1970 he was offered a position at the renowned California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) where he taught alongside influential contemporaries such as John Cage and Nam June Paik. Being exposed to their work and their respective mediums, music and video, made a significant impression on Baldessari. Music brought about the notion of temporality, which is reflected in his work through the use of multiple photos in a time sequence manner, as in Artist Hitting Various Objects with Golf Club (1972–73). With the introduction of the Sony Portapak, Baldessari naturally experimented with the new medium. Initially made for his students, such videos as I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971) and I Am Making Art (1971) have become some of the artist's most iconic video pieces.
Having moved to Los Angeles, the proximity of Hollywood also found its way into Baldessari's work. He adopted the work processes of the film-making industry as themes in works such as Story with 24 Versions (1974) and Scenario: Story Board (1972–73) where plots are sketched out scene by scene. Baldessari also appropriated imagery from film stills, which he found in local shops and meticulously categorised by content for inspiration and use in his works. Simultaneously, the pieces he created began to take on a larger scale, using the photographs as building blocks to suggest narratives. In Kiss/Panic (1984) there is a provocative juxtaposition of a couple kissing, with a seemingly chaotic crowd scene below, surrounded by photos of pointing guns.
By the mid-1980s coloured dots began appearing on the faces of the characters in the found photographs. Baldessari discovered that obliterating the face gave even more anonymity to the subjects and therefore forced the viewer to focus on other aspects of the image to make sense of the scene. Bloody Sundae (1987) consists of two distinct scenes with the subjects composed in the form of an ice-cream dessert. On top, two men attack a third beside a stack of paintings, while beneath them a couple lounge decadently on a bed. All five faces are covered with coloured circles. The violence of the upper image coupled with the suggestive title, hints at a pending raid on the couple's room.
In later works the signature coloured dots usurp the rest of the person, flattening the image and creating an abstraction of the human form. The Duress Series: Person Climbing Exterior Wall of Tall Building/Person on Ledge of Tall Building/Person on Girders of Unfinished Tall Building (2003) has three such figures in compromising situations; however the filled-in silhouettes somehow attribute humour to what would be a dangerous scene.
Baldessari revisits his ongoing interests in the parts of the body that identify visual sensitivity in the series Noses and Ears (2006–7) and Arms and Legs (2007–8), in which these parts are isolated while other details of the body and environment are coloured in or omitted, leaving viewers the bare minimum to interpret the work. In his most recent series Furrowed Eyebrows and Raised Foreheads (2009), the artist continues his exploration of human expression through fragmentations.