While most of the city was giddy at the J. Paul Getty Museum's acquisition of Vincent van Gogh's "Irises," the Museum of Contemporary Art was readying its own idea of a capital event, the first retrospective of the work of John Baldessari, one of the smartest ideas in MOCA's short history.
Just hours before preview and things weren't going very well. The catalogue had not arrived from Japan, the show (to June 17) was undergoing a last-minute rehanging. Sigh. It looked as if reality was going to act as a metaphor of the supposed complexity of Baldessari's work.
Actually, it turned out fine. The catalogue by Coosje Van Bruggen came galumphing in at the 11th hour. A few helpful insights are wedged into its dogged prose. And the show does what it is supposed to do. It clarifies the artist in a way no number of single gallery exhibitions can. One is tempted to say it immediately promotes him from the most underrated of major California artists to the most overrated, but that's a bit too facile.
For anyone not wired to contemporary art, John Baldessari is a 58-year-old artist who grew up in the anonymous grubbiness of National City with expectations of going no further in life than teaching high school and making a bit of a local reputation as an artist. He pursued both dreams and wound up a figure of international reputation. Teaching--at CalArts instead of Chula Vista High--he evolved into a kind of guru. His influence, both direct and oblique, is downright astonishing. You can see his fingerprints on virtually every member of the younger generation who continues to dominate the high-risk lane of today's art from Cindy Sherman to Robert Longo. Nobody knows how long this will endure in the quick-extinct ambience of the times, but it is nonetheless an accomplishment.
What did he do and how did he do it?
We think of artists as making their mark by adding something, something original. Baldessari has functioned by subtraction. Subtraction is not original in contemporary art; it comes from abstract Minimalism.
Prior to this revealing show, one had the impression that Baldessari's art had at least the virtue of not looking like anyone else's. It still doesn't, but now it's clear that its look comes from a synthesis of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptualism combined and systematically wrung out like a sponge until Baldessari got it where he wanted it.
The earliest works on view are late-'60s canvases bearing either lettered mottoes, grimy photographs or both. Their debt to Ed Ruscha is clear in one called "Pure Beauty," but Baldessari makes it his own by subtracting Ruscha's visual charm and turning it into a set of ironic "art lessons," purposely dumb like quotes from cheap, How-To art manuals. One begins significantly with the title, "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell." In another, the artist shows a tatty snapshot of a man under a palm tree. The whole thing is labeled "Wrong." It's amusing, but it's also in the business of amputating art of certain components, its idealism and visual impact. The work is anonymous and impersonal, like the efforts of a shy person in a faceless suburb, a do-it-yourselfer trying to teach himself art despite utter ineptitude.
Baldessari was decades ahead of the pack when it came to practicing what is now called Deconstruction. He beat the kids by a mile in using other people's art for his own, you know, Appropriation. In 1968, he reproduced a Frank Stella and called it "A 1968 Painting." In 1969, he commissioned paintings from 14 artists. The 13 on view each show a Photorealist image of a hand pointing to something: a stove burner, an extinct light bulb. Each bears the caption "A Painting by . . ." with the artist's name affixed. But they become Baldessari's--or nobody's--subtracting individuality and inventiveness from the list. The artist's job is to point things out.
At this point, Baldessari's quest is basically fulfilled. He has unhooked art from the tethers that bound it for centuries to physical substance--to paint, wood, or marble--and reduced it to a set of images that are only one step from being as disembodied as a movie or television picture. He invented a visual form that communicates through montage, juxtaposition and implied word associations. It beams to a television generation rather than a museum crowd. Try watching an old movie with the sound off and in a few minutes you will see lots of Baldessaris flickering through it, powerful subliminal symbols like those of advertising.
He has said, "I guess I'm using images from movies, from newspapers and so on because there lies the arch-power of language. We can't sit down and talk in Sanskrit, we have to talk in a language that we know." It is interesting, but it isn't art.