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Use Your Faculties

John Baldessari quietly urges 'Read/Write/Think/Dream.'

July 30, 2001|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you've ever been a student of John Baldessari's--when he was a member of the original faculty of UC San Diego's art department more than 30 years ago, or during his 20 years at the California Institute of the Arts, or now that he's a part-timer at UCLA--chances are you've had assignments returned to you with his rubber-stamped responses imploring you to "Learn to Think" or "Learn to Dream."

If you're a UCSD student now, or ever will be, you'll be greeted by Baldessari's blunt challenges every time you set foot in the campus library. The words "Read/Write/Think/Dream" run bold as commandments over the Geisel Library's front doors. The stark concrete and glass entry has been transformed by Baldessari into a provocative threshold of words and images, translucent overlays and crisp descriptions. His installation recently became the 15th work in UCSD's acclaimed Stuart Collection of sculpture.

Some might read Baldessari's words as inspiring, others as intimidating. It was the artist himself, however, who felt daunted situating a work in such an auspicious campus setting.

"Students can be very critical," he noted, sitting by as hundreds filtered past his work just after it was installed in mid-July. Many smiled. Some stopped and looked briefly pensive.

"I know students are ruthless--which is why I like to teach. Otherwise, you can start taking yourself seriously. So it's a good thing to subject yourself to that. Keeps you humble."

Baldessari, the drollest of a generation of Conceptual artists to have emerged in the 1960s, was nothing if not humble when Stuart Collection director Mary Beebe approached him in 1994 to consider doing a piece for the campus. Well-established for making photo-based paintings that test conventional assumptions about art but that, nevertheless, hang conventionally on the wall, Baldessari hesitated about his appropriateness for the commission.

"My first answer to her was, 'Mary, I'm not a sculptor.' When she said that it doesn't matter, she had me stumped, and I had to deal with that for a while. She's an amazing person in terms of her patience and persistence."

Beebe and Baldessari had known each other since her previous position at the Portland Center for Visual Arts, so this courtship began casually, when the two crossed paths at social occasions. Long gestations, though, are common for works in the collection, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall. Most works have taken several years to come to fruition, and Beebe is undeterred by artists who initially resist because they don't identify themselves as sculptors. Elizabeth Murray's "Red Shoe," installed here in 1996, was the artist's first freestanding sculpture. William Wegman worked primarily in photography and video before creating his parody of a scenic overlook in 1988.

"A lot of the time," Beebe explained, "we approach artists who have not done traditional sculpture. We're more interested in how they think than in what they've done."

That has led to an evolving collection that transcends traditional norms for sculpture and also defies the sanctity of an enclosed sculpture garden, meshing with the 2,000-acre campus environment. Some pieces incorporate sound, and several function architecturally. Alexis Smith's 560-foot-long, tiled "Snake Path" (1992) winds its way up a slope to the Geisel Library, past her huge granite rendition of Milton's "Paradise Lost" and around a precious Edenic garden, both reminders of the tenuous relationship between innocence and knowledge. Jenny Holzer's granite table, also from 1992, stands in a shaded courtyard, its densely incised truisms--"Abuse of power comes as no surprise," "Action causes more trouble than thought"--inviting provocative discussion to continue outside the classroom. Other works, by artists including Kiki Smith, Bruce Nauman, Terry Allen, Niki de Saint Phalle and now Baldessari, resonate with the everyday activities of their sites.

"Read/Write/Think/Dream" features, on either side of the library's central doors, photographic portraits of students bonded to the glass. On the building's facade, they are standing. On a smaller glass wall inside, others are seated.

"After thinking about this idea and that idea, it seemed the one thing, in terms of content, that really wasn't addressed by all the existing pieces [in the Stuart Collection] was the students," recalled Baldessari, a tall, unassuming man of 70, dressed much like the students around him, in T-shirt and khakis.

"And it seemed to me, having taught so much, that schools lose sight of them. Students seem to be there sometimes for the sake of the buildings and the instructors. So I wanted to foreground them. Once I had that in place, it became almost a formal issue of using them architecturally, like columns."

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