By Oliver Godsell
The circular form is an inescapable presence within our existence, from a full moon down to the molecules that form our environment. Many artists have embraced this as a modular means to communicate a variety of messages about the world we live in – yet only in the dots of American artist John Baldessari has this tangible pre-form proved both iconic and prolific.
John Baldessari rose to prominence in the late 1960s amalgamating Pop Art’s use of imagery from mass media with Conceptual Art’s use of language – the result is a unique body of work that has become a hallmark of Postmodern Art. Baldessari began his career appropriating and captioning photo-based art; advertising, movie stills and shots from his hometown in National City, California. He took intentionally bad compositions and called them ‘wrong’ and gave ‘tips for artists who want to sell.’ Ultimately, what Baldessari is doing is formulaic – at every instance, he is rejecting the prevailing view and finding a new one by stepping out of conventions and assumptions. His work is generally seen as more playful than analytic; yet if we cut another tangent across the field of his production, an entirely different set of strategies and ideas are revealed.
Circular adhesive dots placed over faces are a predominant feature of Baldessari’s work from the mid-1980s onward. Having based himself in Los Angeles, with Hollywood visual cosmology at his disposal, Baldessari was celebrated for his emblematic way of treating faces and effacing individuality. In the words of the artist, he had ‘levelled the playing field.’ More so, this device illuminates the way we prioritise our vision, when the ability to gauge facial expression is removed – the viewer is compelled to look elsewhere (stance, dress, ambience) – in order to read past the clichéd image. More than random application, his coloured dots are utilised in a symbolic way, colour coding people: red/dangerous, green/ safe, blue/ platonic, and yellow/ crazy.
Baldessari’s dots flatten the image and superimpose an abstract pattern, provoking both aesthetic and sociological analysis onto the image. The overlaid pattern invites us to connect the dots, searching for clues of some kind of elusive diagram. Humour is an inherent by-product of his absurdist ideas that function as both funny and serious at the same time. A believer that words and images are equal in weight; satirical deconstruction of tradition is evident in his work. He foremost contests critic Clement Greenberg’s belief that art is about aesthetic impact, not ideas. Going so far to directly reference him directly in Clement Greenberg (1966 – 68) – a text painting consisting of a quotation from the influential art critic. Just at the moment when Greenberg was campaigning for the flatness of the picture plane, Baldessari confronts the viewer with an implacable image of industrial flatness. The quotation about the instantaneousness of aesthetic judgement is considerably slowed down by the reading process. Both establishing and undermining trademark Greenbergian formalism – Baldessari wryly exposes the arbitrariness of such declarative determinations of artistic value. Additionally, the playfulness of his dots would propose a mode of representation, akin to, yet directly opposite the conventional New York school of conceptualism.
His work, The Fallen Easel (1987), a nine-part colour lithograph and screen print, depicts many of the issues that his work has dealt with over the years. There are fragments of different images probably cut from B-grade movies stills, magazines and various other sources from popular culture – picked from his archives and remodelled in very idiosyncratic ways. There is a gun in one frame. Three faces concealed with dots in another. The space between the images is empty. Baldessari uses multiple frames to propose relationships among fragmentary images. The viewer’s mind is powerless to search for meaning and cohesiveness in this elaborate composition, even though nothing within them says that they ever belonged together.
Continually seeking to re-define the creative process and expand on accepted notions of art via his widely recognised and celebrated approach, Baldessari goes beyond garnering critical acclaim by masking his subjects with coloured dots and displaying text-based works on billboards. In recent years he has revealed his technical ambitions, creating an iPhone app in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) – In Still Life (2001-10) – the first ever released by a contemporary artist. It allows users to interact, re-arrange all thirty-eight items to recreate Abraham van Beyeren’s Banquet Still Life (1667). According to Baldessari, ‘the lobster is the most important object in the painting. I’m just anticipating everyone trying to make the lobster dance.’ His generation has seen these technologies grow from their infancy, discovering that with so much free flow of information, the viewer can be given just a hint of something and imagine everything else. This is all part of his long-standing philosophical fascination with the part to the whole. Often questioning, ‘How much can I leave out of something; when does it cease to be whole.’
His influence upon social media also has him feature in the occasional viral video. Tom Wait’s narrated A Brief History of John Baldessari – a compact and captivating six minutes chronicling his life and art. The subversively comedic account is provocative, down to earth and surreal. The short film prods at the notion that art is solely for critics, academics, and other artists. Art, in Baldessari’s world, speaks to everyone. Waits speaks to various landmarks in his career from receiving the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement award at the Venice Biennale (2009) to 1970 whereby he notoriously cremated all his paintings made between 1953 and 1966. He keeps the ashes in a bronze urn the shape of a book: suitable for the library shelf in his Santa Monica home.
John Baldessari has changed the way we understand art, image and text for nearly five decades. His use of language and image intersect a point between philosophy, contradiction and paradox. His work is notable for its early grasp of the role that photographs – both found and made, still and moving – opened art to a wider audience and the strangeness of everyday life. Baldessari was a standard for the Conceptual Art revolution, when the art object was in disrepute and ideas were pre-eminent, going on to influence an entire generation of artists including Cindy Sherman and David Salle.