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MOCA show's gentle jab at departed artist-trustee John Baldessari

August 07, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art," published in obscure art journals in 1969, became widely influential.
Sol LeWitt's "Sentences on Conceptual Art," published… (Associated Press )

In what can only be seen as a gentle jab at internationally acclaimed artist John Baldessari, who set off a wave of protest against the new pop-culture direction being taken by the Museum of Contemporary Art when he resigned from its board of trustees last month, MOCA has now scheduled a day-long pop music event inspired by a famous Baldessari video.

MOCA's "Songs on Conceptual Art," announced Tuesday, is billed as "a one-day concert and accompanying album by a collection of innovative musicians and artists inspired by John Baldessari's video of the artist crooning Sol LeWitt's landmark list of 35 'Sentences on Conceptual Art.'"

LeWitt, known as an "artist's artist" who was instrumental in establishing Minimal and Conceptual art, died in 2007 at 78. The free album, funded last spring by an online appeal on Kickstarter, was a graduate school project by Crystal Baxley and Stefan Ransom, art students in Portland, Ore.

LeWitt's 1969 text was first published in small American and British art journals but quickly became influential among a new generation of young artists in the 1970s. In it he outlined a variety of philosophical observations about the then-current state of art, when the institutional dominance of American abstract painting was being challenged on many fronts. Among the sentences are statements such as "Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution" and "Irrational judgments lead to new experience."

Baldessari's witty video, made three years later, is a wry tribute to LeWitt's profound impact on art's direction. A grainy, homemade, black-and-white production, it stands in stark contrast to slick commercial entertainments then prominent on network television, such as ratings juggernauts "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour" and "The Partridge Family." A music video before there was such a thing, it smartly lampoons popular culture by setting LeWitt's philosophical meditations against the breezy diversions of pop music.

 "I think that these sentences have been hidden too long," Baldessari says at the start of his 13-minute video, reflecting on their wide circulation in the relatively small art world. "[Perhaps] by my singing them for you these sentences will be brought to a much larger public."

In resigning from MOCA's board in July, the artist cited the ouster of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel and the scheduling of an exhibition on the effect of disco on culture in the late 1970s and '80s as motivations.

"When I heard about that disco show I had to read it twice," the artist told The Times. "At first I thought 'this is a joke' but I realized, no, this is serious."

MOCA's program, a straight music event, seems unaware of the razor-sharp subversion in Baldessari's acclaimed art, which for more than four decades has drawn on mass media, including Hollywood B-movies, show tunes and other aspects of popular culture. The museum's "Songs on Conceptual Art" show, scheduled for Saturday from 1  to 7 p.m., will feature nine performers including Giggles, Jordan Dykstra and the LA Ladies Choir.


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