New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

The Spectator is Compelled... John BaldessarI at the Met
John Baldessari
Pure Beauty
Reviewer #1
John Baldessari, The Spectator is Compelled..., 1966-1968

Pure Beauty, a large, traditional, life-retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, is a chance to absorb the work of John Baldessari, one of the founding fathers of post Duchampian conceptualism. As an artist and teacher he had a great role in bridging the worlds of modern painting and photography –bringing some of the rougher edges of photography into the traditional art world, as well as making photographers aware of the concerns and conceits of artists in the post abstract expressionist world.

The earliest pieces in this show are photo-based works. “The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving From Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, January 20, 1963, like most of Baldessari’s titles, describes exactly what the piece contains. I will leave it to California historians to sort out the precise relationship to Ed Ruscha’s “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations” which also appeared in 1963. But the detached, ironic pose of both works is blaringly similar. In both, traditional photographic esthetics of composition and tonality are discarded, and the photograph becomes more a symbol of some larger truth, not something that has intrinsic interest in and of itself.

Baldessari is a droll companion. The early video “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art”, 13 minutes of Baldessari’s left hand writing out that phrase over and over again on a pad, was still getting chuckles on a recent Sunday visit. His “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell” was still being read thoroughly.

 by unidentified photographer.
John Baldessari, Kiss / Panic, 1984

During the 1970’s and 80’s, however, his work started to take on a more specific and institutionalist frame, often addressing a formal artistic concept and pushing it to it’s logical, albeit absurd, conclusion. The concept of ‘alignment’ was articulated in several pieces, with a red ball photographed numerous times and the resulting prints framed on the wall, the balls placed along a straight line, regardless of their position in the print. Various games were devised and photographed. And the humor, which was always a saving grace in his work, started to get more esoteric. Always about art, it now started to take on the character of office humor, more and more relevant to teaching art at college and less and less concerned with a wider world.

In what may be a final phase (although the man is only 79 with no signs of slowing down), he has produced large, multi-paneled work, generally filled with carefully arranged crops from film-studio publicity photos, to which the viewer is asked to attach a story. Doing so presumably leads to the appreciation of its lack of intrinsic meaning.

Certainly the influence of Baldessari can be seen throughout the artistic community, but has he influenced the photographic community equally? I think not. Although many of Baldessari’s strategies were taken up by more traditionally trained photographers, (one immediately thinks of the Bechers) there is still a fundamental interest in content in the photo world. (This, of course, is photography’s underlying strength.) There is also a robust tradition of what only can be described as visual pleasure – not something unknown in the general art world either, of course. Thus despite the intelligence, wit and self-awareness of the artist, that lack of visual pleasure is why this show comes across as astringent and thin.

John Baldessari
Pure Beauty

Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Wednesday, October 20 to
Sunday, January 9, 2011
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.