Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Burning Man

After torching his early work, John Baldessari invented an eccentric conceptualism

Barry Schwabsky

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John Baldessari with plaque from Cremation Project, 1970.

Trying to make art creates a host of problems. One of the best ways of handling these, as John Baldessari seems to have realized in the mid-1960s, is to let the problems be someone else's. Then art becomes like the news. "I just read it and laugh," Baldessari once reflected, "say, what the hell is going on?" Not everyone reads the news with such aloofness, of course (or then again maybe we do, since we manage to down our breakfasts while perusing the latest in war, murder, and economic collapse). And probably few artists read the discourses of art—practical, critical, theoretical—with the quizzical detachment that Baldessari has brought to them.

Achieving detachment from the problems of art, of course, can mean disembarrassing oneself of the works that embody them. Baldessari famously did so in 1970, when he performed his Cremation Project, burning—as a notarized affidavit attests—"all works of art done by the undersigned between May, 1953, and March, 1966, in his possession as of July 24, 1970." It comes as a surprise to realize just how much of the artist's juvenilia (as I suppose these works produced before his thirty-fifth year might be called) survived this holocaust: As Yve-Alain Bois notes in his brief but typically spirited introductory essay to this first volume of Baldessari's catalogue raisonnÚ, as many as 132 works escaped the flames because they were in the possession of others—"nine more than those reported as having been cremated." So the young Baldessari was pretty popular, pretty successful—a good number of people must have liked the paintings he eventually disowned. For some readers, the eight pages of this volume that contain thumbnails of the 123 works Baldessari consigned to the flames, along with the pages that record the earlier works that escaped the same fate (many of them marked "whereabouts unknown"), will be among its highlights, evoking that special voyeuristic fascination with things that cannot be known directly. None of the destroyed works, and few of the surviving pre-1966 ones, have ever been reproduced before. I imagine that somewhere, someone will start preparing a dissertation very soon.

While we wait for that opus, I can at least tell you that Baldessari's work of the late 1950s is very similar to the work from the much-abused 1959 MoMA exhibition "New Images of Man"—a sort of stylized representation in which a figure is left stranded in an artistic no-man's-land between expressionist agony and academic restraint. The influence of Baldessari's teacher Rico Lebrun—whose work was included in "New Images of Man"—is patent. By the early '60s, Baldessari had left the figure behind in favor of a sort of straightened-out Abstract Expressionism, but this in turn gave way to a painterly Pop, as recognizable imagery began to return, now of objects from the everyday and with new hints of humor; one thinks of early Ed Ruscha. Speaking of Ruscha brings up an interesting little question: One of Baldessari's works from 1963 is a grid of thirty-two color photographs called The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday 20 Jan. 63. There is nothing else like it among Baldessari's early works—serial color images don't become important to his oeuvre until 1969. Since this piece was not exhibited until 1995, I wonder if Baldessari thought of it as a finished work in 1963 or only deemed it one retroactively. In other words, did Baldessari understand it as an artwork before or after the April 1963 publication of Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations or the various serial photography works Ruscha made about Southern California car culture, published as books through the rest of the decade?

Questions of this sort are probably endemic to the genre of the catalogue raisonnÚ. Pretending to bring order to an artist's oeuvre and certainty to our understanding of its scope and boundaries, such volumes instead spin off unexpected mysteries. Here's another: On pages 43–54, a dozen works on paper or canvas are reproduced, each titled "Sketch for Fragment," along with thirty-two works on aluminum called "Fragment," all dated 1966. The aluminum works are seemingly small (mostly labeled "dimensions unknown") and oddly shaped paintings/objects, mostly abstract, but a few using banal imagery of the sort found in some of Baldessari's other work of this time. They were exhibited at the La Jolla Museum of Art the same year; now all but four are listed as "whereabouts unknown," as are some of the sketches. These are some of the last works Baldessari made in the period just before the division in his timeline between the burnt and the saved. They were not burnt, but neither were they saved. They were shown and then seem to have disappeared. The book gives no indication of what happened. But the reproductions suggest that Baldessari was trying out a new direction for his work, one that might have been fruitful, but which he didn't pursue. These works show an artist heading toward the "eccentric abstraction" of post-Minimalists like Richard Tuttle or Blinky Palermo, who both cultivated an aesthetic of the fragment.

Baldessari did not become an eccentric abstractionist but a Conceptualist—albeit, nonetheless, an eccentric one. A lot of his work from the late '60s reads like satire of the sort of quandaries he had been facing for most of his adult life, not only as an artist but as an educator—in fact, mainly as an educator. As a young man with little idea of the art world ("I didn't even know who Matisse or Picasso were when I went to college," he says) or of the possibility of making a career as an artist, he took a degree in art education, not studio art. "I wouldn't say to people that I was an artist, I would say I was a teacher," he notes. And, of course, he stayed a teacher, becoming as renowned in that role as he has been for his art. The text paintings Baldessari produced between 1966 and 1968 are all about the nostrums and shibboleths of basic art education—ideas that Baldessari the student had undoubtedly heard many times and that Baldessari the teacher might have passed along in turn, despite whatever doubts had developed in the back of his mind. Composing on a Canvas, for example: "Study the composition of paintings. Ask yourself questions when standing in front of a well composed picture. What format is used? What is the proportion of height to width? What is the central object? Where is it situated?"—and so on. Good questions, which become puzzlements when they have been incorporated into something that is ostensibly a painting (acrylic on canvas), but to which they seem to have no relation—a painting without composition, without a central object, etc. The visual experience of a painting without these aspects is like the aural experience of one hand clapping. In these works, I infer not so much a mockery of the artists still caught up in these presumably passÚ and pedantic problems as Baldessari's relief at having found a way out of them.

Still, the recurrent focus on the gesture of pointing, and therefore on the idea of choosing (in the face of an evident indifference toward the items to be chosen from), leads to the question that seems to bedevil Baldessari, at least in this period: Is there any nonarbitrary basis for an aesthetic preference? The academic formalist exhortations quoted in the text paintings are all ways of trying to convince the would-be artist that there is some way to produce a work in which there is a consistent, internally motivated relation between parts such that the whole can be nonarbitrarily deemed a success—a faith that modernist self-critique had by this time left in tatters. "Do you sense how all the parts of a good picture are involved with each other, not just placed side by side?" reads What Is Painting, 1966–68. At times, Baldessari seems to propose, by contrast, a kind of semiotic self-consistency as a possible criterion, for instance through defining a task in such a way that the work self-evidently fulfills it, as in the photographic series Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (Best of Thirty-Six Tries), 1972–73, in which the task is not fulfilled by the actual formation of a square (which would be nothing short of miraculous) but simply by the evidence of having tried. Yet we are never really convinced that the artist takes such criteria seriously; rather, he is inventing criteria just to show that it can be done so easily—he is taking the piss, as my English friends would say, out of the very desire for artistic criteria. Oddly, it's just here that Baldessari the teacher emerges in Baldessari the artist. "I decided to make teaching as much like art as I could," he tells Christopher Knight in a 1992 interview, and "my art would be an example or a metaphor for the things I was dealing with in class." In his art, Baldessari is the best kind of teacher, which is not the one who shows you what to think or what to do, but rather the one who helps you see for yourself why what you are doing or thinking isn't working. It's up to you to figure out what to try next. That might mean looking not for a solution to your problem but for a way to off-load it.

Whether the best kind of teacher makes the best kind of artist is another question. That he makes a fascinating artist, of that there is no doubt. I'm afraid, though, that the next volume of Baldessari's catalogue raisonnÚ will show how easily his ironic self-consciousness could itself congeal into a new form of academicism.

Barry Schwabsky is The Nation's art critic and coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.