11 October 2009


"If I saw the art around me that I liked, then I wouldn’t do art."

John Baldessari (b. 1931) is an American conceptual artist from National City, California. He studied art at San Diego State College, exploring painting, photography and textual art. As he reached artistic prominence, his art moved in all directions- photography, printmaking, installation, sculpture, film and video, still maintaing a strong interest in linguistics and semantics. His work is streaked with irony,  humor, and double entendres,  his message riddled with scorn for the popular. Highly analytical, Baldessari's work creatively depicts societal contradictions and incongruences in ways reminiscent of Art & Language. Baldessari has remained faithful to imagery, distinguishing him from the typical conceptual artist. His work is at times arbitrary, humorous, frustrating, exposing, alluring, discomfiting and confounding. 

Four Men (With Guns Pointed at their Heads), 1988

The Artbook chose a piece of his that juxtaposes the unsettling imagery of faceless men at gunpoint with the nonchalant American diner/cafe experience. There's emphasis on both the conceptual irony as well as the composition. The visual experience is fractured, giving Baldessari complete control over how the viewer is perceiving and adjudicating his work. 
(I think he intended the composition to resemble a hand gun)

From the Whitney Biennial: 

"For the last five decades, John Baldessari has constantly reinvented himself, working in a variety of media and forms including painting, photography, books, sculpture, and exhibition design. Although typically associated with Conceptual art, the only consistent aspect of the artist’s work—aside from his commitment to mining the archives of art history and the mass media—is his defiance of expectations."

I found a series of Baldessari's work that I liked in particular, entitled "Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Forehead." He recently exhibited (through August 2009) this series at the Mai 36 gallery in Zurich. Here, like many of his other pieces including the one by the Artbook, he uses recycled photographs in conjunction to one another to create odd, sometimes antithetical relationships, engaging compositions, and eye grabbing color combinations. His works seem at once allegorical and completely nonsensical, creating a type of visual syntactical dissolution.

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Three UFOs Aloft

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Three Persons (with Boutonnieres and Handshake

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Woman (with Semaphore Flags)

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Two Arms (Pointing in Opposite Directions)

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Person (in Palm of Hand)

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: Man Looking at Figurine
Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: People (Upside Down),

Raised Eyebrows/ Furrowed Foreheads: (with Apple)

The rest of the pieces below come from MoMA's collection. In picking these out, I tended to gravitate towards the visual representations over the linguistic, but I did include one of his text pieces to give a more well-rounded sense of his work. He has been very prolific in his lifetime; this is only a small representation of a much greater body. 

Untitled, 1973

Two Figures (With One Shadow) from the portfolio Hegel's Cellar, 1986

Untitled, 1986

Untitled, 1986

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1988

Untitled, 1989

Untitled, 1989

Study for Splattered Faces, 1990

Junction Series: Landscape, Seascape, Bodybuilders (One Flexing for Admirer), 2002

He also has some great conceptual film pieces, which can be found at this link and are conveniently accompanied by short descriptions. I really appreciated his piece entitled, "I Am Making Art," (can be seen by clicking the "video" icon next to the title at the above link) in which Baldessari repeats the title phrase while making slow, jerky movements with his body. I was able to find an excerpt of another one of his films on youtube, which I've included below. Enjoy!

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