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Pandora's box, opened

John Baldessari once proclaimed painting dead. However, his new work acknowledges the medium's renewed significance. So, are his acolytes paying any attention?

October 27, 2002|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In June, a Berlin-based curator named Jens Hoffman opened an exhibition at the Project, a lively gallery in a downtown L.A. warehouse. The show's format was somewhere between a diary and a daisy chain.

Over the course of 11 weeks, Hoffman added artists to his show. By the final day, when the gallery space was full and a closing party was held, the curator had chosen 44 entries.

No. 40 was Mark Roeder. His contribution consisted of a short, typed letter. "Dear Jens," it began. "I ask that the following artists' and/or organizations' contributions be removed and further excluded from the exhibition" -- whereupon there appeared a list of eight names.

Roeder's cheeky contribution is a classic gesture of Conceptual art -- textual, ephemeral, humorous, acutely aware of its context, devoid of visual interest, mechanically produced, eloquent as an idea but not as an object. It embodies many of the hallmarks of work from the Conceptualist upheaval that began to stir internationally in the 1950s and that finally took off in the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, if a visitor to the Project encountered Roeder's piece and didn't know better, he might have thought it was 1972, not 2002.

Or, maybe even 1971. That was the year John Baldessari, the most important artist Hoffman invited to be in the Project exhibition, completed a now legendary work for a show in Canada. Back then, Baldessari had a simple plan. There were no funds for him to travel to the gallery at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. So, he instructed a group of students there to write: "I will not make any more boring art" on the gallery's walls, over and over, as if they were a class of budding Bart Simpsons.

Boring your audience was a cardinal sin, the work declared. Indeed, Conceptual art had been born of a conviction that, after a hundred years of experiment, established modern forms of sculpture and -- especially -- painting were stuck in a deep rut. Conceptualism, by suppressing art's dependence on physical form, might break up the logjam.

For the Project show, Baldessari assigned the 31-year-old Nova Scotia exhortation once again -- but with a twist. This time, it wasn't aspiring young artists who were cautioned, but the exhibition's curator. Hoffman dutifully covered blackboards with repeated promises: "I will never curate any more boring shows."

Baldessari's curatorial tutorial at the blackboard is a partly funny, partly impatient gesture, aimed at prodding the institutional art world. "I think what [Hoffman] was getting at with the show," Baldessari said while munching a tostada at a neighborhood restaurant near his Santa Monica studio the other day, "was finding descendants of Conceptual art and trying to identify that in art here." The problem: L.A. art has left that division behind.

The young Berlin curator wrote at the start of the show's catalog, "One detail about the L.A. art scene I noticed quite early in my research was that painting and sculpture still have such a strong position.... I really thought that Conceptual [art] would have washed all of that away."

Rather than embrace his encounter with the unexpected, however, Hoffman averted his eyes. He included no painters in his show.

The decision is telling. The show reflects an international status quo, which Baldessari's own radical career has been instrumental in establishing.

"I'm kind of like Dr. Frankenstein," the artist, now 71, concedes, simultaneously distraught and amused by the thought. "I didn't know," he deadpans, assuming the croaking, confessional style of the mad scientist in an old monster movie. "If only I had known! I meant well!"

New art in Los Angeles is characterized by its freewheeling pluralism. Meanwhile, Conceptual art isn't what it used to be.

In the '60s and '70s, Baldessari said, "it was a useful term for a lot of artists who were trying to get away from painting primarily, and sculpture secondarily. So then, you knew what Conceptual art meant. It meant you didn't paint."

Painting still bedevils most curators and academics. Baldessari started as a painter, and painting lurks in the wings of much of his art from the past 35 years. It's the unacknowledged elephant in the Conceptual art room.

Rules were made to be broken

Born in the working-class San Diego suburb of National City in 1931, the son of European immigrants, Baldessari majored in art at San Diego State College, minored in literature and took courses in philosophy. (He remains an inveterate reader today, his studio piled with books.) For a year he studied art history at UC Berkeley, before returning to San Diego to finish a master's degree in art, which he received in 1957.

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