John Baldessari: Pure Beauty

Added by GF Wahlquist on July 7 2010, at 3:45 am
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  • Most of Los Angeles has been eagerly awaiting the opening of the LACMA/Tate co-organized John Baldessari retrospective, Pure Beauty. It's impossible to overstate the influence Baldessari has on Los Angeles artists. Even those who never studied with him and whose own work is far afield from his concerns and strategies can't help but pay homage. Although brilliant, I don't think this is because Baldessari is the best artist to ever come out of California, or even LA, but probably because he manages to combine rigor, inventiveness, humor, and an open spirit in a completely inimitable fashion. It doesn't hurt that his work is more accessible to young art students and the otherwise shallow pool of collectors based in the city. (Let's be honest - I personally prefer the work of Paul McCarthy, but one can only sell so many giant inflatables of Santa Claus holding butt plugs or sculptures of George Bush fucking a pig in this town.)

    Pure Beauty occupies the entire second floor of LACMA's BCAM, although you get the impression that with Baldessari's voluminous output, they could have filled the whole structure had they wanted to - which probably would have been preferable to Jeff Koons' idiocy going on upstairs. The exhibition tracks roughly chronologically, beginning with paintings from the 1960s that somehow escaped Baldessari's infamous cremation of all the paintings he produced as a young art student. Strikingly, many of them exhibit the same subjects and color palettes as very recent work. I elected to view the exhibition in reverse, which was an interesting exercise in genealogy, which, being the good Nietzschean I am, is how I prefer to approach things anyway.

    Sad to say, I find Baldessari's most recent work to be the most uninteresting, probably because it seems the most formal. My significant other found the ears, noses, and body parts in multicolored reliefs compelling, but I chalk this up mostly to his being a photographer. There is something obviously optical about them, but optics has never interested me personally. I don't doubt that they're good, they just don't seem to pack the punch I expect from the artist's work - similarly so Brain/Cloud, 2009, a room sized installation comprised of wallpaper depicting palm trees against the sea, a giant relief of a human brain, and a projection on the opposing wall. The projection is of a camera aimed at the brain relief with a few moments delay, which I suppose mimics the delayed reaction of the clouded mind. However, having seen a similar delayed camera/projection piece in MOCA's recent Dan Graham exhibition (a much earlier piece, and a much more spare one), I felt unimpressed.

    The further afield the work, the more compelling I found it. Baldessari's works from the 1970s and 1980s are particularly magnificent. The works from the 1980s are redolent with the juxtaposition of sex and death, which yes, I suppose was done by Rosenquist before, but never in such a particularly aggressive fashion. It occurred to me while looking at the works that Baldessari's works of this period are strikingly similar to the work that followed shortly thereafter by Gilbert and George. Some enterprising young curator ought to formulate an exhibition.

    I have always had tremendous fondness for the artist's John Baldessari Sings Lewitt, 1972. The playfulness and mocking of the piece gives way into a meditation on the similarities and differences between drawing, writing, and the voice. It's quintessential Baldessari - generous, funny, and unassuming, but simultaneously critical and austere.

    (Click for link to video.)

    Unfortunately, while I'd like to write more thoroughly about the rest of the works in the show, LACMA hasn't posted any more images online, and I left my copy of the exhibition catalogue (which features absolutely wonderful contributions by David Salle and Russell Ferguson, as well as John Welchman) in Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco. (Expect a post on an event with Aaron Shurin and Rebecca Solnit at SFMOMA in the coming weeks). So I'll leave you with this thought - it seems to me that Baldessari is constantly negotiating the boundaries of conceptualism, photography, and painting. Usually the works stretch the boundaries of two at a time. For example, in the text paintings of the late sixties, there is often a confluence of painting and conceptualism (Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, or a piece quoting Clement Greenberg), with photography occasionally thrown into the mix (Wrong); the most recent works seem to be returning to this painting/conceptualism vein, although this time with the emphasis on the painterly in a strangely photographic way (optics). I myself find the works of the 1970s particularly compelling because the emphasis seems to be more photographic. I suppose that's the test that a body of work presented in a retrospective ought to meet - is there something for those of us who care about photography? Sculpture? Painting? Performance? Not that more media is necessarily better - I'll take a first rate painter over a sophomoric artist working in multiple media (I'm talking to you, Picasso) - but for an artist who basically invented the concept of post-studio education (although he credits Carl Andre for this), we'd expect nothing less.