Pure Beauty, at the Met, is John Baldessari’s first major exhibition in the last 20 years in the United States. The exhibition is a large retrospective of Baldessari’s conceptual work over the last five decades. It surveys the artist’s career, starting with his humorous how-to paintings in the late 1960’s and takes us through many years of Baldessari’s photographic, mixed media, and video work.
Baldessari taught art from the beginning of his art career. Born in National City, California, he stayed close to home as he taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA and the University of California at Los Angeles. Baldessari’s collection of how-to books on painting and photography that he gathered while teaching influenced a lot of his early paintings that mockingly share the lessons of how to be an artist and how to sell art.
Baldessari’s painting Art Lesson, 1964, spells out the rules of painting by using illustrations and text common to the lessons found in a how-to painting book. Another satirical lesson is found in his painting, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966–1968. This painting uses colors that could be found on a page straight out of a book. It is a large painting with plain black font on a creamy background. As an artist who was working against conventional formulas, Baldessari ironically spelled out three bullet points that would lead an artist to success in the commercial art world. The first tip states, “Generally speaking, paintings with light colors sell more quickly than paintings with dark colors”. This idea is absurd for a conceptual artist to consider, but the work reminds the artist to be aware of commercial influences in his or her own work. Finding it hard to sell his own work early on, Baldessari clearly didn’t follow these tips as a conceptual artist throughout his career. This work, though with little color used, is one of his many works in the exhibition that examines the purpose of color within a larger idea. Using text has been a significant tool in Baldessari’s career as a way to bring traditional photography and painting into the realm of art making. By means of pure commentary, using text, Baldessari brings contemporary ideas to stagnant art practices and commercialism.
Throughout Baldessari’s career, he combined photography with painting and text to create complex images and unpredictable narratives. He used images from popular culture as well as his personal life and created meaning by arranging these images into larger combined images. Most of these photographs are black and white and use solid colors in ways that abstract a few of the figures and objects that are important to the whole piece.
In his painting, Floating: Color, 1972, Baldessari explores the meaning of color by throwing colored paper out his window and capturing it on film. In this work, there are six photographs in a sequence in which the artist is throwing the paper one sheet at a time from the second floor of his house. Baldessari treats the paper in the photographs as abstract pieces of color rather than objects that are being tossed. Focusing on the action of throwing each color of the spectrum, the artist creates a new way for color to be used in photography. Here, color is interchangeable with movement or an object and can be captured on film as such. Within the context of photography, this work is innovating beyond explorations of light and space. It’s a combination of performance and photography to present color as more than just a hue. Color is the performance and the idea that takes these photographs into the conceptual. With the presence of the artist in the photographs, actively creating in front of us, the viewer is witness to the artist’s intentions in the content of the image as well as in the final result of the 6 photographs placed together on a wall. This clarity of intention is found throughout the exhibition by the artist’s use of text and other performances in photography and film.
A later photography work that also uses color abstractly is Baldessari’s Heel, 1986. In this work, Baldessari combined several black and white cinematic stills to make one larger composition. There are several images of feet that surround this work, including a ballerina’s pointing foot, cowboy boots, and feet in bandages. In the center is an image of a crowd with a curving red line painted over a few of the people in the crowd indicating a path that connects them all. A solid yellow dot covers the face of a man being poked by the ballerina’s foot, and a solid blue dot hides an object that an ecstatic woman is holding. Green fills another black and white image. There are a couple photographs of dogs in this composition, which correspond to the title, Heel. By composing several images into one work, Baldessari creates relationships between animal and human behaviors, and the viewer starts to wonder about both the dog’s and the human’s desire to follow. By using cinematic imagery, Baldessari is compiling examples of the personalities in popular media that are being followed and the customs that are being obeyed. By using bright colorful shapes over the black and white images, Baldessari brings the world of design into the work, which has its own customs and rules that are followed. While Baldessari hints at design with these shapes, he doesn’t exactly follow the rules by placing them to his own liking instead of where they will best fit the composition.
As the exhibition proceeds from Baldessari’s earlier paintings with text, to his photos with text and color, to his later works that were full of found images, Baldessari’s work remains strongly conceptual. The exhibition includes a full range of Baldessari’s work that questions the role and education of the artist, the use of color as a design and photographic tool, and the effect that images in the media have on us. Throughout his career, Baldessari brings a sense a humor to his works that the viewer can take away from the exhibition while digesting the artist’s more serious critical insights.