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Collaboration that's an ongoing conversation

September 07, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The first question of the day for John Baldessari and Alejandro Cesarco is about materials. Should the artists produce their silk-screen prints on panels of enamel-coated aluminum or a composite of corrugated plastic sandwiched between thinner sheets of metal?

Printer Jeff Wasserman, who has worked up samples at his shop in Santa Monica, explains that the composite is lighter, cheaper to ship and unbendable. If the artists want to lean the prints against gallery walls instead of hanging them, as they have discussed, the single sheets will sag, but the sandwiches will "stay straight," he says.

Cesarco isn't keen on the composite. The gallery that will show the prints has an uneven floor, he says, so leaning them won't work. Besides, he prefers the solid aluminum backing.

"It's more like a page," he says. "It doesn't have much physicality."

Baldessari is OK with that, so they move on to the question of how many editions to print.

Two sets of artists' proofs, and four sets to go out into the world? Maybe, but the artists aren't sure. Wasserman needs to know how much material to order, so Baldessari promises a decision within a few days.

This is the nitty-gritty of a collaboration between two conceptualists better known for their poetic light touch than for grappling with such mundane issues. At opposite ends of their careers, Baldessari, 76, is an L.A.-based, internationally renowned figure with a tome-like résumé; Cesarco, 31, is a New York-based native of Uruguay with a relatively short but impressive list of credits. They have joined forces in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Initiative, an international program underwritten by the Swiss watchmaker. After tossing ideas around for several months, the artists have come up with "Retrospective," a suite of 12 prints and a related booklet. The project will be unveiled Nov. 3 at Murray Guy, a gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea district, in conjunction with a celebration of the Rolex program in New York. In artspeak, retrospectives survey artists' careers, but Cesarco says the print project is about "looking back, reframing history and retelling history." Drawing upon their mutual interest in language, he and Baldessari play with slippery notions of time and memory in book-like images with cryptic messages.

In each 36-by-48-inch print, a solid-color rectangle is loosely framed by edges of an open book, printed on an aluminum panel coated in white enamel. Tiny white circles floating on the rectangles contain numbers that correspond to "footnotes" that Cesarco has written or extracted from various sources. The notes are printed below the page-like blocks of color, followed by responses from Baldessari.

In the yellow work, Cesarco states: "The gap left within us by the secrets of others." Baldessari answers: "The space between things is more important than those things." In the beige print, Cesarco offers: "A strategy of renewing the possibility of what was -- that which is impossible by definition, the past." Baldessari counters: "It is better to be a has been than a never was." But in the purple print, he responds with a photographic image pulled from his file of crowd scenes.

Why?

"Perversity," he says. "Not to be predictable."

Not exactly predictable

The collaboration isn't exactly predictable either. Visual artists tend to be loners. But the joint project is part of a corporate-sponsored initiative that pairs established and emerging artists for a year of collaboration in six disciplines: visual arts, literature, theater, dance, film and music. Launched in 2002 and now in its third cycle, the program has teamed luminaries such as painter David Hockney, architect Alvaro Siza, writer Mario Vargas Llosa and violinist Pinchas Zukerman with young professionals in their fields.

An international advisory board of prominent figures in the arts -- including architect Frank Gehry, choreographer Pina Bausch, collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund and theater and opera director Peter Sellars -- chooses the mentors. Nominating panels, each assigned to a particular mentor, compile lists of potential protégés and select three or four finalists. The panels work anonymously and do not accept applications. Mentors select protégés after interviewing the finalists.

"Alejandro seemed to be the one I could most engage with," Baldessari says. "He was the one who seemed most open. Fundamentally I do believe that art is about an idea and how it can become something very physical and concrete, or it cannot. The character it takes on depends on the artist. I think Alejandro's work is very mysterious and sly and romantic. I find it very intriguing. Secretly, I also wanted him to try something more physical. Not that that's desirable. He just hadn't done that."

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