Whitehot Magazine

August 2010, John Baldessari @ LACMA

Jonn Baldessari, Junction Series: Landscape, Seascape, Prisoner and Acrobats, 2002
Digital photographic prints and acrylic on Sintra; 84 3/4 x 63 3/4 in. (215.3 x 161.9) overall
Collection of Edward Isreal; Copyrithe John Baldessari
Courtesty of Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles


John Baldessari: Pure Beauty
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles CA 90036
27 June through 12 September 2010

John Baldessari is more than a well-known art-world figure. He's one of the most honored and acclaimed visual artists in the world, a record-setter at auction, a perennial museum and gallery fixture, an exhibition and graphic-design icon, Golden Lion, teacher, mentor, influencer, thinker—and, at long last, the subject of a career-spanning survey at home in Los Angeles. Plus, he's designed a sleek new (and free) app for the iPhone that gives you everything you need to build your own old-master still-life painting, in a sly homage to both the exhibition's title, Pure Beauty, and to his own work-process practice of ceaselessly, omnivorously gathering and re-assembling seemingly random found images into salient, aggregate works that show the world back to itself. Making cheerfully caustic observations such as, “I use found imagery to escape my own good taste,” and, “What I like about LA is we don’t know our art history—we can just do anything.” For example, build an app to attract audiences to an exhibition that includes early examples of text-based painting, conceptual photography, and extensive image-mining in the service of a literal and metaphoric collaging idiom that spoke directly to the emerging media obsession of modern culture.

From his early days painting, to intervening years of theory-writing and conceptual photography, followed by a fresh return to painting and ambitious sculptural experiments, Baldessari has sought to break down the barriers that separate art from life, vision from experience. “Memory can be manipulated like a stack of photographs in an archive.” This rare chance to trace his career's full trajectory in a crisply curated installation featuring many new and never-before- seen works is truly a thing of beauty—but also a bit of a honey-trap for would-be reviewers. His work, style, and ideas have so permeated the discourse on contemporary art as to render any real value judgment either redundant (supporters) or irrelevant (detractors). The inclusion of many never or rarely exhibited works that went straight from the studio into private or far-flung institutional hands provides more than a few delightful surprises; but the writing and documentation phase is an overstuffed reading room that will put the general population off. The smaller gallery installations of certain series are by turns chapel-like and exuberant; the Brain/Cloud is bizarre and a bit twee. The man’s influence is undeniable, the exhibition worth seeing on the merits; any exhibition review is really a response to the curatorial strategies employed. Verdict: perfectly serviceable.

But among all the importance, one of the most pleasant surprises was how powerful, smart, funny, and beautiful his work of the last ten years had really become. In a suite of works, the most exquisite example of which is Junction Series: Landscape, Seascape, Prisoner, and Acrobats (2002, digital photographic prints and acrylic on Sintra, 215.3 x 161.9 cm), Baldessari seamlessly conflates several threads he’d followed in his five-decade career. A series of eight rectangular, individually black-framed images is arranged so as to form a tic-tac-toe grid with an empty center. The predominantly blue and green palette is luminous, the images consist mostly of figures and landscapes, and each panel has strong linear elements; the overall effect is of stained-glass. The panels communicate with each other through a network of bold, dark lines that extended across borders—an arm, a tree trunk, a hybrid figure. The generation of new meanings through artificial proximity, the distinct sense of gathering, the embrace of pop culture memes, the coexistent romance with classic ratios and evocations of the fine, the devices to obscure identity, and the persistent sense of serious ideas caught in candid moments—all of this is “vintage Baldessari” re-emergent in fairly recent work. But in the end, all this examination, all this joy, all these old wounds re-opened, all the new appreciation cultivated, and all the media hosannas still leave the questions Baldessari raises in his work largely unanswered. Much like the hollow center square in Junction, the work casually, mischievously, leaves the problem of its own final meaning to the viewer.

Not at all with regard to Baldessari—in fact apropos of nothing but a personal desire to seek out a bit of refuge from the swirling storm of sense-making—last evening was devoted entirely to Henry Miller’s epic, beatific, incisively poetic memoir Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Now that I think about it, there’s a wonderful metaphoric link in there somewhere about perfect orange circles and their muchness, but that’s just a sunny diversion. Here’s the main thing; he was speaking at length about his rather mystical neighbor, Jean Wharton, the near self-destructive excess of her meddling generosity, and the pros and cons of searching for meaning. “She has condensed her thoughts to a crystalline substance, leaving nothing vague or obscure, yet permitting the reader to fill in for himself. The effect produced by this method has been to heighten the controversy which the mere mention of her name almost always entails… Jean Wharton is one of those individuals who, however clear they make themselves, are always in danger of being misunderstood. Perhaps this is the price one pays for being utterly lucid.” Well, that’s it exactly, isn’t it?  

Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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