Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Form follows meaning

The John Baldessari retrospective "Pure Beauty" at the Met (formerly at Tate Modern and LACMA) features more than 120 pieces spanning the Californian artist's career of nearly half a century. Walking into the galleries, one of the first things you encounter is The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January 1963 - a grid of photos Baldessari took when driving on the highway. The process sounds almost like a road trip game: take a picture every time you pass a truck. There’s nothing about aesthetics here, but the concept and disciplined structure of the exercise. It reminds me of Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), only this Baldessari piece was three years earlier.

Now you know what you are getting yourself into. The show is handsomely installed, yet it's not there to please your eyes, but to provoke your brain. Regarded as a pioneer of Conceptual Art, Baldessari has always prioritized idea over form, or say, started from the meaning of art, and the expression came from it.

Meaning: text and/or image

If meaning is always pre-eminent in Baldessari's art, why is the show called “Pure Beauty”? Actually, the title reflects humor and the ironic quality that is central to his work. It comes from an early work in the late 1960s, where he simply painted the words “PURE BEAUTY” on a canvas. Text is not something beautiful by the traditional definition of art, but this particular phrase conveys the meaning of beauty. Baldessari equates visual and textual languages, sending the message without necessarily making a pretty object. He believes that this is the most "artless" but purest solution to make art.

Another good example of this typical Baldessarian subversive wit is Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (1966-68). It's ironic for an artist who doesn't sell too well to give commercial tips / art maxims to other people, let alone the fact that the text was painted on a large canvas. Some of these "tips" sound amusing and absurd but at the same time so true. In the I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971) video piece, Baldessari repeatedly wrote the sentence “I will not make any more boring art.” Writing lines is a classic form of punishment in schools, because it's boring. Here Baldessari used it as an expression of oxymoron: the promise not to be boring isn't boring because it is.

Baldessari later switched to images - another source of direct communication - and constructed collages with stills from obscure B movies. By superimposition and juxtaposition, he destabilizes the significance of these found images, and re-appropriates them with new meanings. In Man and Woman with Bridge (1984), for example, the fox turns the stare into an ambiguous act of magic, affection, seduction, lust, trickery, or deceit. It's intriguing to see things that don't usually come together easily being so associated when they are put in the right tension.

"I really care about meaning in art," Baldessari once said, "I want things to look simple, but to raise issues, and to have more than one level of comprehension." In his art, simplicity and complexity co-exist paradoxically side-by-side. It's straightforward and at the same time profound and thought-provoking. The interpretation is open to viewers, and in a way they participate in the process of creating the new story.

Prima Facie (Third Stage): From Aghast to Upset (2005) exemplifies the open-endedness of interpretation. A single facial expression can imply so many possible underlying emotions, and some of them are even contradictory. Baldessari listed them alphabetically (a neutral order) next to the portrait to suggest, rather than to dictate, the possible readings of the face.

Baldessari sometimes opens the door to multiple readings by omitting information in the artwork. The signature is the color dots on people's faces. To him, what is left out can be as significant as what is left in. Missing pieces invite speculation. In The Duress Series (2003), the entire body of comedian Harold Lloyd was flattened into pure-colored figures of motion. But the simplification of form actually intensifies the moment because the physical stress or danger of the body is made even more vivid.

Form: structured with coincidence

Although The Backs of All the Trucks and early text paintings clearly show his intention to ignore aesthetic concerns, Baldessari's works are still full of striking visual/formal energy. Frames of different geometric shapes are collaged together with bold color paints blocking out parts of the image. When you think more about it, these oddly composed forms are actually strongly structured around certain intentions, even they are based on random information or coincidence.

Three Red Paintings (1988) shows how coincidence is adopted by Baldessari as a primary compositional tool. Three images are hung side by side, two askew, to make up part of a rectangular frame. Inside that imaginary frame is painted red to indicate the re-appropriated continuity of the edge. Here, three individual instances come together because Baldessari sees the one accidental common component of their contents.

Aligning Balls (1972) consists of 41 photos of a ball up in the air. The frames are hung completely out of alignment. When you see a hand-drawn pencil line on the wall, you discover that the dancing frames are actually the result of aligning the balls. Now you want to learn about the process of making: the photos are what Baldessari got when he tried to capture a ball he threw up in the air in the middle of the frame. All of a sudden, you realize this entire assembly with "no proper composition" is in fact determined by the combination of the forces of throwing, gravity, the flow of air, the speed of the artist's reaction and movement, and the shutter of the camera. A new order is created from a deliberate choice of accident.

Baldessari's work is cerebral as well as visual, playful as well as serious. In a world full of overtly fashionable but meaningless forms, it feels refreshing to let your brain run along with your eyes. This is actually odd and sad.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Communication in architecture

Storefront held a dialogue between Bernard Tschumi and Peter Cook last night. It was kind of a loose chat and it didn't really have a theme. But as I went through my notes, I actually found a hidden threat: the conversation had a lot to do with different means of communication in architecture. That makes sense. The event was supposed to be a book launch for Event-Cities 4 after all.


There are telephone book kind of books - simply documenting projects with drawings and images. There are shopping catalog kind of books - grouping buildings according to their use, size, or location. And then there are story book kind of books - trying to construct a narrative with the materials at hand. Event-Cities 4 is more like the last type. Tschumi said, "When you practice, you have no time to theorize things. But when you are making a book, you start to realize the hidden consistent passion or idea behind the projects. In that sense, book-making is like conceptualizing a concept." Making a book allows you to think retrospectively and summarize what you have done in a way that might imply directions in the future.

Peter Cook saw this process of editing post-rationalization, while he also said concept is pre-rationalization to begin with. Perhaps we can say Archigram valued "the moment" more than what's before or after. But to me, whether post- or pre-, rationalization is not a bad thing. The key is whether the pre-construction or re-construction of narrative still conveys the truth of "the moment," reflecting what really happened in that particular set of circumstances. The act of editing should be the application of a new layer of meanings on top of the old ones, rather than replacing them (i.e. not simply to make things sound better intellectually).


Peter Cook entered this topic by quoting Tschumi: "The most precise architectural diagrams have nothing to do with forms or with words. They precede form and word; they are the graphic translation of thought." Cook argued that precision is a lost art now because it requires boring insistence. To be precise, you need to be thoughtful even with the selection of diagrams. In Tschumi's opinion, a diagram can be about relations - how the parts are grouped and interact; or about movements - arrows that could be corridors, stairs, or elevators; or simply a red cross on the things that you don't want to do. It doesn't need verbal explanations or formal expressions.

Tschumi said, "Architecture is not the knowledge of form but a form of knowledge." When asked what has changed in the way of thinking through the years, Peter Cook said, "When I was younger I was interested in architecture. As I get older, I am more interested in people. And with that I start to inhabit the diagrams." Architecture is not about the object. It's a container, an instrument. As Cook said, architects "manipulate" people.


Peter Cook is not an abstractionist. He prefers anecdotes to diagrams. To him, anecdotes are just another medium to tell the story, and they are more fun and potentially more effective.


Tschumi sounded terribly annoyed by the return of what he called "violent metaphors." "Bird's nest," "Water cube," "Sails"... A name of the form is not an architectural concept, especially when it is largely arbitrary. He gave insights on its cause: metaphors are potent because mass consumption has made images the most direct and effective communication tool. In our fast-paced information-loaded society, people desire answers, not questions. And metaphors go straight to answers - not much conceptual thinking is required.

I have to say, not all of the accused architects are responsible for the metaphors. Many of those are just nicknames other people come up with. I remember Luis Mansilla talking about how the local newspaper described MUSAC as waves, flowers, etc., and that was never part of their concept. But he appreciated different interpretations. People want to talk about it, and the formal/visual aspect of things is the easiest to grasp onto. In a way, this is not architects manipulating people, but people manipulating architecture.

Peter Cook was completely comfortable with metaphors. I guess part of the reason is that metaphors sound rather anecdotal. And mostly, it tells the fundamental difference between an enthusiastic celebration of high consumerism in the 1960s vs. the abstract philosophical discourse on architectural semantics in the 80s.