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.