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I confess to a personal prejudice in favor of John Baldessari. He's the 79-year-old California artist who's the subject of the retrospective exhibition, ironically entitled (we'll get to that) "Pure Beauty," on view through September 12 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. First, he's the author of one of the funniest impromptu lines I've ever heard in casual conversation. He and I had been invited to be jurors for the annual student art exhibition at Arizona State University in Tempe. After a long day's selecting--during which undergraduate volunteers would haul works of art into our view, pause so we could evaluate them, and then carry them, as it were offstage--John and I were walking to a party for participants given in one of those gigantic apartment complexes commonly adjacent to big universities. One of the student assistants joined us at an intersection's long red light. Not sure exactly who Baldessari was, she asked him, "Oh, Mr. Baldessari, do you live in the complex?"
"No, my dear," he said looking down from his six-foot-six height, "I live in the simple."
Second, he gave me another nice nugget, this one for a Newsweek piece I was writing on the phenomenon of very hip artists (e.g., Elizabeth Peyton, Raymond Pettibon, et al.) doing gift items for contemporary museum shops: "I've always said that every artist ought to have a cheap line."
Third, he provided me with a nice little insight into the way certain schools or styles of young artists are produced via unintended consequences. His riff went something like this: "A bunch of college art teachers of my generation were enthralled with Earthworks and big examples of installation art. In their classes, they showed their students photograph after photograph of them. So, after graduation, what did those students go out and produce as their own oeuvres? Photographs."
All that said, I'm an abstract painter--a messy one, un-ironically serious about its existential profundity as an art-making mode. Baldessari is a conceptual artist, a clean-and-neat one (yes, there are messy conceptual artists, or at least messy conceptual works of art, e.g., Christopher Wool's and the late Dash Snow's), who makes fun of artists like me and of art like the kind I make. But Baldessari is both good and good-spirited in what he does. During the two decades--the 1960s and '70s--I spent as a working artist in Los Angeles, Baldessari was pretty much liked and admired by almost all of us artists--including breast-beating romantics, skillful technicians, minimalist philosophers, and political provocateurs. When Baldessari said things such as, "Given the choice between an elegant idea and a dumb idea, I'm going with the dumb idea," we knew exactly what he meant: that he'd foresake pretentious tour de force in favor of getting bluntly to the point. For instance, his painting, "Pure Beauty" (1966-68), consisting of those two words in black capital letters on an otherwise blank, off-white canvas, pokes a well-aimed elbow in the ribs of all those painters (me included) who'd like people to swoon over the visual rhapsody of their pictures. (It's also a clever way of demonstrating that everybody carries a different idea of "pure beauty"--the one prompted by reading those two words--in his or her head.) Baldessari is also a self-effacing, equal-opportunity subverter of artists' conceits, as when he writes the sentence, "I will not make any more boring art," multiple times on a single surface.
But Lance Esplund, the Wall Street Journal's otherwise sensible and open-minded art critic, not only doesn't get Baldessari, but he doesn't get that the world of contemporary art not only accepts and accommodates Baldessari's work, but actually needs it--just as the world of The New York Times-type journalism needs The Onion, or the world of clenched-jawed television political punditry needs The Daily Show. And, in all three cases, would be incomplete without their astute hecklers. In reviewing "Pure Beauty" in the WSJ's August 17th issue, however, Esplund barges heedlessly into print in full, indignant Roger-Kimball-The-Rape-of-the-Masters mode:
"'I am making art' [the title of a work in the show] is the monotone mantra of this flatlined exhibition--and of Mr. Baldessari's equally flatlined oeuvre, through which the artist has concocted a world-famous career making art about the death of art. Embracing irony, accident and chance, Mr. Baldessari repeatedly reduces artists, art and culture to the level of the absurd. Dance, sculpture, theater, photography, film, graphic design, performance art and poetry, as well as 'serious' conceptual art--the basis for his own artistic endeavors--are all mocked and dismissed by Mr. Baldessari, and ultimately reduced to ashes along with painting."
Baldessari said that his famous "post-studio" courses at CalArts (he was a great teacher there and at UCLA and his students included the likes of Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and David Salle) were based on the premise that "there is a certain kind of work one could do that didn't require a studio. It's work that is done in one's head. The artists could be the facilitator of the work; executing it was another matter." This is reasonable in the extreme, as any artist (in the broad sense) who's ever heard her musical composition fully orchestrated in her head before it was ever played, who's ever seen his poem fully formed in his mind before it went to print, who's seen her geometric abstract painting as plain as day in her imagination before it was hung on a wall, well knows. But to Esplund, Baldessari's statement
"...raises the question of conceptual art and conceptual artists in general: Why do they bother? Why do conceptual artists continue to employ finite resources and materials, not to mention occupy valuable space in museums, when, unlike other artists, the conceptual artist has an infinite amount of perfectly adequate space available to make and exhibit art in his or her head? Of course the answer is that Mr. Baldessari's antiart stance, through which he spurns the art establishment, is just that--a pose, a ruse. He craves the recognition of the very institutions he so self-consciously rejects."
The answers--beside Esplund's meretricious accusation of bad faith--to the WSJ critic's transparently rhetorical questions are themselves so obvious--conceptual artists have more than one idea per career and "bothering" helps them proceed to the next; conceptual artists want other people to see their ideas and they can't communicate telephatically--that it's painfully clear Esplund is practicing a willful obliviousness. The critic ends his Hilton-Kramer-without-the-wit review by taking a swipe at Baldessari's 1970 act of burning the paintings he made from the time he graduated from art school in 1953 to his starting over again as a conceptual artist in 1966: "Once you have seen [a few of the surviving pre-1966] pictures it is easy to understand why the artist decided to burn, rather than keep them. Cremation was the right--if not the ethical--choice. He should have stopped there." Esplund catches himself in his own clever trap. If Baldessari's early paintings weren't any good, his decision to quit being a painter-painter was the right one. If they were any good, then a few artistic virtues from them probably carried over into the artist's conceptual work. (For me, a few too many; from the 1980s on, Baldessari has a tendency to over-design.)
Baldessari is a comic conceptual artist, and what makes one laugh, chuckle, or merely nod in wry agreement is, if anything, even more peculiarly subjective than what makes one cry. To critics such as Esplund, who seem to think that the only kind of art worthy of being installed in museums is art that's Serious with a capital "S," Baldessari isn't funny. Worse, Esplund sees him as insulting to all those serious artists and all those serious museums (such as LACMA) whose pretentions are often the target of Baldessari's Onion-like satire. To borrow the title of one of Baldessari's word paintings: Wrong. We serious artists aren't insulted. In fact, we're a bit grateful to Baldessari for periodically puncturing those balloons of pretention that occasionally float between us and our work. As for museums, they tend to return to their customary offerings of big-canvas tragedy--and life in the brown-varnish "complex"--all too regularly. Thank goodness for Baldessari's "I live in the simple" monitor.