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John Baldessari

October 7, 2009

Jacqualyn Lindo

Professor Novakov

Art History Seminar

October 5, 2009

John Baldessari

In one room of the John Baldessari’s exhibition “ John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, written in a strip from ceiling to floor was “I will not make anymore boring art.” From my visit to the exhibition, Baldessari certainly kept his promise. While walking through, taking notes on all his pieces, I drew little stars next to four:  The Fallen Easel, Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue, Six Colorful Gags (Male) and Some Narrow Views: (Either Tall or Wide). These four I felt would give a good representation of his work to someone who had never seen his whole collection and the made a big impact on me. To me (don’t repeat “me” too man times), they showed his use of framing and cropping, and his use of color and text, that brought up important questions for the art world and made him such an important artist. These pieces will be discussed later. (awkward sentence. Rewrite)

Looking back on the show, any piece that had a person with their face blocked out by a solid shape of color, like Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue, managed to be burned into my memory perhaps more than if I had just seen their faces.  Explain why here .These shapes of colors ended up being more memorable to me than their actual identity.  In some of his other pieces whole faces where blocked except for noses or ears, probably the least identifying part of the human face, unlike eyes or mouths. It fascinated me seeing so much identity taken from these pictures, but I didn’t care, because they ended up just giving themselves a new identity.  One the viewer could make up if they wanted to.

There was one room in the show called “Being John Baldessari Art Studio.” It was an interactive space created for anyone to enjoy and experience the process that Baldessari would use to create his work. I was able to experiment with magnetic shapes of color on top of found photographs. The aim was to change the interpretation of the photo using these shapes. Also, in the studio was a live screen-print making demo. The demonstrator was (remove the word “very” wherever it appears) friendly and answered all of my questions. There was also a little drawing table and lots of fun objects just laying around the room. Baldessari’s show hosted  Jordan D Schnitzer’s (give us some information about the collector here) collection of over 100 prints from the 1970s to the present. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release) It was a great experience getting to encounter the formalist ideas and questions that almost hit you in the face in Baldessari’s collection of work.

John Baldessari, born 1931 in National City, California, referred to himself as a “closet formalist” in a 2009 filmed conversation with Constance Lewallen, adjunct curator at the Berkeley Art Museum. He uses the art of printmaking and found photographs to create a different way of looking at art. He plays with and alters the formal qualities of these popular culture images and in doing so alters our interpretation of them, for this he was identified with the Conceptual Art movement. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release) Baldessari studied art history at University of California, Berkeley, after majoring in art at San Diego State College and then received his master’s degree in art from San Diego State Collage in 1957. He was inspired to continue with art, by a group of juvenile delinquents (expand and explain) he taught in the summer of 1959, that only seemed engaged in the subject of art.(Bashkoff/Baldessari 19) He taught at the California Institute of the Arts from 1970 to 1988 and at the University of California, Los Angeles since 1996. Baldessari has received many awards, such as the California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts in 1997, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Americans for the Arts in 2005.  (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release) Baldessari has worked with a number of premier publishers, including Arion Press of San Francisco, Brook Alexander Editions of New York, Cirrus Editions of Los Angeles, Crown Point Press of San Francisco, Edition Jacob Samuel of Santa Monica, Gemini G.E.L. of Los Angeles, Mixografia of Los Angeles, Multiples, Inc. of New York, and Peter Blum Editions of New York.  (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release)

Baldessari has been working exclusively with photography since 1970, when he abandoned painting. (explain why he did this) (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release) With the help of a friend in the advertising business, Baldessari gained access to cut up fragments of posters and billboards, which he would use to create his compositions like the collection in the recent John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation exhibition. (Fineburg 374) Baldessari says, “What got me interested in found imagery was that it was not considered art, but just imagery, and I began dumpster diving in photo shops.” (Bashkoff 23) Jonathan Fineburg in Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being, describes Baldessari’s methods:

“He sees in a kind of fast surface scan, picking up images that can be reconstituted at a distance and in the privacy if his imagination. As he told the art historian Coosje van Bruggen: “It’s like when I am in airplane cabin and overhear two conversations: one says’ something and another one says something else. I could have not have thought up those phrases on my own, and I respond to it by connection one to the other, taking both out of their own context and by making them a part of my imagination.” (Fineburg 374)

Through the 1970s Baldessari investigated conceptual and minimal art and taught what he calls “pot-studio art,” which basically means an art form away from painting. (Bashkoff 22) In 1969 he tried to sell his paintings, and then in 1970 he “cremated” all of his paintings and then had the ashes put into a book-shaped urn. He had no interest in the materialistic elements of art, but rather, as he explains to some who asked if he kept his work, “I said no, because it is the investigation that is of interest to me.  To see if I can do something, to see what’s on my mind.” (Bashkoff 22) During his investigation of the “variability of language” he would study how words and images stand in for one another. But by the 1980s he wanted to use images without text, explaining that “when he started using language in the 1960s, text had already been used by some Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, and Pop artists, but it had not been given priority as the subject of painting.” (Bashkoff 22-23) In the 1990s Baldessari would begin creating three-dimensional prints utilizing a unique process of printing from metal molds with the Mixografia Workshop. (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Press Release)

The Fallen Easel (1987), a color lithograph and screen print in 9 parts printed on aluminum plates and paper was the first piece to hit you walking into the exhibition.The fallen easel in one frame echoed in other shapes in the composition, becomes an arrow that leads the eye to into the next frame, a pointed gun. The gun with only a hand as an owner,  then leads the eye to the next frames and then to the easel shaped arrangement on top that points back in the direction of where we started. The three figures on the right have their faces blocked out removing their identity from the piece. All you have left to look at are their clothes. All identity is taken from this piece, as it is in most of his pieces.  This makes the viewer try to make their own narrative and form their own answers. Even though we are left to make our own narrative, we will still never know the answers to what is going on. As Jordan D. Schnitzer, the collector of Baldessari’s prints, said in the introduction to the exhibition, “”It forces us, the viewer, to realize that in today’s world where we want all the answers to every question instantly, that maybe, just maybe, ‘what appears to be may not be.” (Schnitzer) In other words, as viewers, we may be trying to make a story out of Baldessari’s compositions, but there really may not be one. Baldessari wanted to use these frames as part of the work, because, as he explains in a video of a conversation with Constance Lewallen about this show,  he never wanted to use frames because he saw them as a way to define art. If you put a frame around a photo and hang it on the wall, it must be art. So he would rebel and just hang his pieces with a piece of tape. He explained that since his work was deteriorating without protection, he would need to start using frames. So in this piece he used the frames as part of the art instead of using them to define it as such.  Baldessari also explained in the video that he wanted to escape the “standard height with formats” he wanted to get away from the results you would get from a typical camera frame. (FORA.tv – John Baldessari) This would explain the playful cropping and altering of the photos in this work.

Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue (2005), a Mixographia (explain what that is here) print on handmade paper, is one of a six-part series. It is another example of Baldessari blocking out everything iconic or recognizable in a picture. The original information left for the viewer are “all you’re getting to see is their clothing, which is not the best in the world, but it’s what you get”as Baldessari said in his conversation with Constance Lewallen. Lewallen and Baldessari also talked about how you get to see stonehenge as just a shape, and you recognize that it’s an iconic shape. (FORA.tv – John Baldessari) Baldessari is famous for blocking out human faces. He does this because he sees faces as cliches. They are our identity and are sometimes iconic. So, like he blocked out Stonehenge, he also blocks out faces. I noticed in Stonehenge (With Two Persons) that what is left for the viewer to see, the clothing of the two people, is 3-dimensional, but the colors placed over them is flat.  It looks like the circles of color are actually holes, but then that feeling is thrown off by the flat Stonehenge shaped color which is obviously in the background. This relationship between space and color is another idea Baldessari liked working with in some of his other pieces.

Six Colorful Gags (Male) (1991), photogravure, color aquatint, and spit-bite aquatint is He explains, in the 2009 video with (only mention a person’s first name once) Lewallen, that the colors he uses have no relationship to what is pictured, he simply uses sequences of color, primary and secondary from the color wheel.  (FORA.tv – John Baldessari) Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press in San Francisco, says that Six Colorful Gags (Male) “seems to have emotional content. But it takes only a brief examination to discover that the emotions are simulated… by actors. Brown recommends that when looking at Baldessari’s work, you should begin by taking “a step away from emotion.” (Brown)

Some Narrow Views: (Either Tall or Wide) (2004) is a set of ten photogravures with letterpress. Each piece is either a vertical or horizontal section of a picture with a letterpress word under them.  The ten words used are: motion, between, doubt, stuff, temptation, abandoned, perplexed, bait, erect, confrontation. Standing in front of each of these pieces I could remove either the picture or the word and still get the same emotion or what ever it is the word under each meant. This, I believe, was what Baldessari was trying for. He says in his conversation with Lewallen that, “The word and the image are interchangeable.” He explains that the word describes the emotion, and the pictured emotion describes the word. He is naming them instead of letting them explain themselves.  (FORA.tv – John Baldessari)

I believe John Baldessari’s work has had a huge impact and contribution to the modern art world.  His ideas made art about ideas and investigations instead of materialistic objects.  The ideas became the art, and because of this if you ever had to ask yourself something was art, if it had an idea behind it or involved an investigation of something, than the answer would be yes. His work made the connection of popular culture to art. Remember, He became interested in popular culture and found imagery because “it was not considered art, but just imagery.” (Bashkoff 23) In an interview with Lewallen in 1991 for Crown Point Press, Baldessari asked, “If one would remove chunks from a conventional novel, at what point would it become gibberish?” (Brown) I believe this is one of the strongest investigations out of Baldessari’s work was seeing how much content he could remove from an image before it wouldn’t make sense. It is a brilliant application to art and contribution to the world of art.

Work Cited

Baldessari, John. John Baldessari somewhere between almost right and not quite (with orange). Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004. Print.

Baldessari, John. “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation In Conversation” Constance Lewallen and John Baldessari July 9, 2009.” Conversation with Constance Lewallen. Legion of Honor- Exhibitions. 2006. Web. 3 Oct. 2009. <http://fora.tv/2009/07/09/John_Baldessari_A_Print_Retrospective#fullprogram.

Baldessari, John. Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue. 2005. Mixografia print on handmade paper. 29 x 32 inches. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Published by Mixographia.

Baldessari, John. Some Narrow Views: (Either Tall or Wide). 2004. Set of ten photogravures with letterpress. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Printed by Jacob Samuel.

Baldessari, John. The Fallen Easel. 1987. Color lithograph and screen print in 9   parts printed on aluminum plates and paper. Over all: 74 x 94 inches. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Printed by Fracesco Siqueiros, Robert Hammond and Robert Dansby.

Baldessari, John. Six Colorful Gags (Male). 1991. Photogravure, color aquatint,   and spit-bite aquatint. 47×54 inches. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Printed by Lothar Osterburg.

Bashkoff, Tracy and John Baldessari. Not Just People Falling off Horses- John Baldessari somewhere between almost right and not quite (with orange). Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim Museum, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004. Print.

Breuer, Karin. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation- Introduction. San Francisco: Karin Breuer, 2009. Print.

Brown, Kathan. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation- John Baldessari at Crown Point Press. San Francisco: Kathan Brown, 2009. Print.

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – de Young – Legion of Honor Legion of Honor. Press Room: John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation. Media Contacts: Robin Wander and Cheryl McCain, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 3 Oct. 2009. <http://www.famsf.org/fam/press/press.asp?presskey=358>.

Fineberg, Jonathan David. Art Since 1940. Grand Rapids: Laurence King, 2000.   Print.

“FORA.tv – John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective.” FORA.tv – Videos on the People, Issues, and Ideas Changing the Planet. Web. 05 Oct. 2009. <http://fora.tv/2009/07/09 John_Baldessari_A_Print_Retrospective#fullprogram>.

Milant, Jean. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D.Schnitzer and His Family Foundation- John Baldessari at Cirrus Editions. San Francisco: Jean Milant, 2009. Print.

Remba, Luis. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation- John Baldessari at Mixografia. San Francisco: Luis Remba, 2009. Print.

Samuel, Jacob. John Baldessari A Print Retrospective From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation- John Baldessari At Edition Jacob Samuel. San Francisco: Jacob Samuel, 2009. Print.

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