Thursday, December 2, 2010

John Baldessari: Pure Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum

John Baldessari’s Pure Beauty, currently on view at the MET, chronicles Baldessari’s work over the last 5 decades. Paintings, photographs, video, and collage enliven the space with a sense of humor that is exhausted by the end of this retrospective. Through his clever awareness of artistic production Baldessari charms audiences by laughing at himself (and all artist’s taking themselves too seriously.) More arresting that the humor in his work is the tendency to map geographic and psychological landscapes. In many of Baldessari’s pieces dating from the late 1960’s and continuing on through the 1970’s a documentation of space, time, and consciousness occurs on the page that invites the viewer to go on a journey. These journeys are both simple and complex, and always more intruiging than better known one liners like Tips For Artists who want to Sell (1966).

In Ghetto Boundary Project (1969) Baldessari marked the boundaries of a San Diego ghetto with silver stickers as defined by the local planning commission. This work delineates the perimeter of the low-income area but does no other investigation into the lives of the people fenced into the statistic. Making the ghetto border tangible in a space where class difference is already felt seems initially irresponsible though it sharpens the awareness of legality of poverty. The people in this community are mapped into a boundary by the state planning commission and turned into a dangerous demographic. Baldessari’s ability to call attention to this through his artistry emphasizes the ability of the artist to unabashedly call attention to social and economic dilemmas. Ghetto Boundary Project’s simple execution clearly demarcates and lives up to Baldessari’s own proverbs “Bad ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution” in that it relies solely on concept.

Another work that explores real space is Aligning Balls,(1972) a series of photographs that record the location of a floating red balloon through the sky. The small photographs arranged horizontally on the wall, connected by a thin pencil line, are whimsical enough to capture attention and hold that grasp through the arbitrary mapping of the red balloon. Aligning Balls is a striking piece because self awareness and aesthetic success. Again Baldessari speaks to the process of art making through the composition of each photograph, the red balloon placed randomly in the picture’s frame. The balloon, quickly moving through the air, had to be captured with agility – without time to plan the composition or any other formal techniques. Though the majority of these photos pictorialize a simple blue sky, two have palm trees peeking into the frame: involving California, a state that Baldessari lived and worked for much of his life.

Goodbye to Boats (Sailing In) (1972-73) navigates both a psychological and physical distance. This series documents Baldessari replicating the emotional act of his father waving goodbye to his mother on a voyage to Europe. Baldessari’s anonymous repetitive salute obliterates the sadness and anxiety usually felt when bidding a loved one farewell. While Goodbye to Boats is heavily imbued with memory and the erasure of memory it remains a carefully composed,formally successful group. There is little variation from photograph to photograph but enough to keep viewers looking closely and comparing each photo to its neighbor. The photographs serve as a marker of time between his parents parting and his reenactment; and the time between when the first photograph and the last were taken, time that has dulled the intensity of a once potent emotion. The inability to see Baldessari’s face heightens the anonymity of the sequence making empathy easy to achieve. Baldessari also alludes to the affect of physical distance: with the artist’s back to us we look with him onto the sea and experience the familiar awe of the ocean and the long journey one must take to cross it.

Mobilizing more traditional forms of mapping, Baldessari does not neglect the landscape of the mind as this motif emerges. In Word Chain: Faucet (1975) and Word Chain: Sunglasses (1975) Baldessari plays a game of free association with his colleagues. Free association is a technique used in psychoanalysis that allows the associater to navigate their own mindscape without restrictions. This journey might begin with a memory or a prompt, and in Baldessari’s case a word. Word Chain: Faucet traces the thought pattern of the individual in a circular form, connecting each thought with arrows. Next to this web is a page of similar size mapping out the same ideas through illustrated pictures and photographs. Though these images do not make logical sense they become a pictorial collage of the assciator’s mind. Through this work Baldessari moves closer to the removal of his own hand in the creation of his work.

More akin to what he is known for, Baldessari’s A Sentence of Thirteen Parts (With Twelve Alternate Verbs) Ending in Fable (1977) Uses humor to negate the artificiality of TV emotion. In this foldout accordion book television stills are paired with words like “fearful” or “sad” mocking the Hollywood ruse on human emotion. These words map and distinguish the changing emotions of these modern day fables by allowing the viewer to participate in a story that eventually reveals its own falsehood. By allowing participation Baldessari becomes removed from the path any given person may take and so accomplishes what projects like Ghetto Boundary Project do: existing as more than an ornament in the real world.


  1. This is a nice overview of the exhibition and I think you chose interesting pieces to discuss. I also like his mapping of ‘geographic and psychological landscapes.’
    This kind of work shows Baldessari’s abilities to delve into and say something deeper, which leaves a longer lasting impression on me than much of his more famous, humorous work. Be careful of typos. Also, there are a number of places where there needed to be commas. This as well as some of the phrasing made reading the review a bit challenging. Overall good, but I think it could have flowed a little bit more smoothly.

    1. BOM, O fLUIDOR geral o bom, desafiar o geral o pouco o professor virtual...sabendo bem o bom, desafiador mas acho (nao acho) querendo ser o dono suavemente as regras...4/2(3) na 4 = 2