The series that for me begins John Baldessari's important work were painted canvases with words physically lettered by sign painters, the first of which had the ironic statement "A TWO-DIMENSIONAL SURFACE WITHOUT ANY ARTICULATION IS A DEAD EXPERIENCE." (1967) A previous attempt of his own, "Suppose it is true after all? WHAT THEN?" hand painted with a heavily worked surface proved personally disappointing, the form and method conflicting with the objective use of language that he preferred to employ. For him, the solution was to remove his own hand from the construction of the image, to employ a commercial, lifeless style so the text would impact the viewer without distractions. The use of canvases as the supports was still, at this point, a possibly unnecessary conceit, an "art signal" that these were, in fact, to be categorized as art.
      These were obviously about art, with deceptively simple statements that referred not only to contemporary art theory (or quoted from it) but took on an ironic self-criticism, or illustration of concept in the fact that these statements were painted and presented as art objects. One work, Painting for Kubler, 1967-68, gave the viewer theoretical instructions on how to view it, on the importance of context and continuity with previous works, a straightforward presentation of legitimate art concerns that become somewhat hollow and ridiculous when made that obviously self-referential.
      Related to these text paintings were canvases that had a photo-emulsion image paired with a line of text. This juxtaposition of the semantic (language, logical, structured, translatable, setting out actions) with the aesthetic (untranslatable, referring to states of mind) is a concern that Baldessari explores with much of his work, in the way that one can stand in for the other, and in the way that one can dictate or inform the other. His photographic California Map Project found the letters that spell "California" geographically near to the very spots on the map that they are printed. In a wonderful use of images as information holders, the Binary Code Series, alternating photographs are used to stand for the on-off state of binary code (such as a woman holding a cigarette parallel to her mouth or dropping away).
      A series with an image of an object such as a glass, or a block of wood, and the suited phrase "A glass is a glass" or "Wood is wood" combined with "but a cigar is a good smoke" and the image of the artist smoking a cigar raises such questions. Touching on Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," the images stand in for the objects, and furthermore, they are no more than what they are, yet, for Baldessari at least, the object of the cigar is an experience that transcends the object itself.
      One reason language is interesting to Baldessari is because of its similarities in structure to games, with a system of rules that you must play along with. In this spirit, many of his works are sequences showing attempts at accomplishing an arbitrary goal, such as Throwing 4 Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line, in which the artist attempted to do just that, photographing the results, and eventually selecting the "best out of 36 tries", with 36 being the determining number just because that is the standard number of shots on a roll of film.

      Much of his game playing involves pointing, not only to tell us what to look at, but to make selections and comparisons, often simply for the sake of doing so. In a segment from the video How We Do Art Now, entitled Examining Three 8d Nails, obsessive attention is given to minute details of the nails, such as how much rust they have, or descriptive qualities such as which appears "cooler, more distant, less important" than the others. Considering how no one compares nails in such a way, the humor is easy to find, but it leads to reflection on our manner of approaching contemporary art, and why we think we can find certain qualities in one object and not another.       Baldessari's Commissioned Paintings series took the idea of pointing literally, after reading a criticism of conceptual art, that all it involved was pointing. Starting out with photos of a hand pointing at various objects, he hired amateur yet technically adept artists to paint the pictures, to each of which he then added a caption "A painting by..." In this instance, he has been likened to a choreographer, merely directing the action while having no direct hand in it. The amateur artists are artistically akin to the sign painter in this series, chosen for their pedestrian methods that were indifferent to what was being painted.

      A main turning point came when he began to turn to photography for image sources, rather than construction through painting. Paintings take too long; what he was concerned with was not making an object, but rather with working through an idea. Perhaps all of his works could be seen as experiments--in many, the very work itself is a premise that, once stated, invalidates itself through its execution. In others, there is nothing but process, a journey through the permutations that questions other processes, or suggests them. As in science, the results are only as sound as the methods. His methods seem to be always asking "What if...?" or "What is it if I..." The purpose of art, he has said, is to keep us perpetually off balance. His personal goal is to make sure things are always difficult.       That's certainly something I can appreciate. With complacency comes stagnation. I don't think that his approach is simply to seek novelty, or the unusual, just to keep us guessing by pulling from a bag of tricks. There's definitely a more focused method than that, one that has a plan of attack against expectations that he'd like to see violated. I'd say that he wants to provoke awareness, of the assumptions that we bring when we view something, in terms of deciding not just what it might be saying or depicting, but what it actually is in relation to us and to the one who is presenting it. Essentially, he's trying to reinvent the wheel.


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