PRINT October 1973

Pointing, Hybrids, and Romanticism: John Baldessari

JOHN BALDESSARI’S OBJECTS ARE interesting. It’s unimportant that they are lightweight—texts, photographs, films, and video. The innovative implications of merely using any of these notational forms have disappeared. Although since Conceptual art, the “I understand” of discussion has moved into the gallery and largely devalued the “I look” of description, Baldessari respects the look of his work. He gives not only semantic, but also syntactic value for money. What are Baldessari’s concerns? Apart from common denominators like humor, photography, words, and everyday subjects, I want to discuss three particular interests: pointing, hybrids, and romanticism. These are reflected in his works of 1972–73 with which I am primarily concerned.

When you point at something without speech you are, in philosophic terms, making an ostensive definition—a nonverbal way of picking out things in the world. Bypassing all the problems of correlation between language and objects, you point at whatever you want to draw attention to. In a number of works Baldessari returns to this nonverbal way of isolating information. Generally, pointing eliminates confusion. A victim, by pointing to a criminal in a lineup, bypasses words. In works like Lines of Force, Scenarios, and Choosing, a pointing finger is actually included in the photographs. In other works, If it is AM, if it is PM, and A Movie: Directional Piece, the pointing is implicit. Sometimes, as in Lines of Force it is pointing itself which is the subject. Often the situation is orchestrated in complex ways. In Lines of Force, nothing is apparently being pointed at. If it is, it’s outside the photograph. A series of color pocket-size snapshots displayed in a line along the wall shows a forefinger pointing diagonally across each photograph. The position and not the angle of the forefinger varies in each. The first photograph shows the hand and subsequent photographs show only parts of the finger. The finger dips and reappears as though forced out of each photograph by some sequential tension within, like the so-called invisible lines of tension you’re supposed to use in a “good” painting. Like a magnet attracting iron filings, the pointing action is so powerful that actual lines of force are set up within the photograph. The idea sounds Dibbetsy, but the implications aren’t.

The process is more complicated with Scenarios, a series of black-and-white photographs (photo-offsets) of verbal fragments taken from filmscripts. Each photograph shows a finger pointing at parts of a script. With filmscripts, words already define future verbal and visual situations, but in Scenarios a nonverbal method is literally laid on top. It’s the pointing finger that counts. Absurd, but interesting, for the information given verbally in the scripts is fragmentary anyway. Bits of information in the form of half-finished sentences out of context. Scripts are parodied further by objectifying random fragments, like “A strange gravely noise,” and “Mossie shows him a card.” The pointing finger does odd things to meanings. What Baldessari seems to be making is a witty, multilayered parody of verbal language. The linear semantic aspect is circumvented by visual overlays.

Pointing as a way of underlining information links a number of earlier Baldessari projects. At his first solo show in New York, for example, he showed a series of paintings made for him by other artists. Photographs showing everyday objects pointed at by an anonymous hand were given to “Sunday” painters to render in trompe-l’oeil. By starting with the pointing photographs, and by actually pointing out the means whereby the photographs were translated into paint, namely by the “Sunday” painters, Baldessari removes himself from the physical problems of execution. Dislocating devices, such as other people making esthetic choices for him are important, a signature device in his work. This is also true of another pointing piece like Choosing, a real game based on esthetic choices and differences in taste between two players. The game sets up a situation of ongoing choices made among chocolates. Twelve color photographs record the playing of this game of choice between chocolates limited only by supply. Choice is formalized visually by the ubiquitous finger pointing to the particular chocolate chosen from sets of three. Each chosen chocolate is then moved into another set of three, a fresh choice is made, and so on. This piece parodies the idea of serial imagery (such meta-art parodies are also found in a number of Wegman’s pieces, who perhaps not incidentally shares a California studio with Baldessari). The choice of chocolates is an ironical and mocking note within the use of serial systems. Chocolates seen close-up, with their contoured surfaces, quaint scale, and rather limited life span, displayed on ice green graph paper are glossily beautiful. I cared about which chocolate was chosen. Choosing demonstrates Baldessari’s uncanny ability to mix art-referential systems with patently nonart references.

The way Baldessari points is similar to the actor’s asides, the painter’s borders, or the photographer’s inclusion of the camera in his photographs—common devices to make apparent the boundaries of each discipline. Baldessari uses the idea of pointing in other ways. In his early 1966 painting A work with only one property, with those words professionally lettered across a white canvas, a phrase taken out of context becomes the content and form of the painting. Like Johns, who uses words formally and semantically in line with European artists such as Magritte, Baldessari also extends this use of words, coupling it with Minimalist directness. In If it is AM, if it is PM, the presentation is tacky. Three insignificant-looking photographs are stuck casually to a piece of paper with handwriting under each photograph. Part of the work’s pleasure is the throwaway nature of the presentation. I am not endorsing casualness per se. Casualness has to have a head on its shoulders too. The AM, PM pieces do.

In Scenarios, Baldessari conditions verbal information visually. With the AM, PM pieces he does the opposite: words condition images. Here pointing is implicit; arrows mark the photographs. Fingers are absent. In the first photograph of a landscape, arrows isolate visual information. Brief verbal information of what’s going on at those points is given: mundane information like “If it’s AM, the man who runs the upholstery shop has done his work for the day,” or “If it’s PM, the drive-in movie will close its gates at 7 o’clock.” It is not the banality of the information that’s interesting but the verbal focus of attention on parts of a photograph. The written information determines how you look at the work. A witty comment on “seeing is theory-laden activity.” What one sees is determined by what one knows. But Baldessari doesn’t labor the point. No punishment, no having to read tedious catalogues of color-coded and annotated perceptual responses on every wall of the gallery. Visual appetite cannot support too much verbal information disguised as visual. Written information—especially shown on walls—is less important than the idea of underlining visual information verbally. This understanding allows for dialogue similar to a Johns painting like False Start, with its mismatching of image and word. Like Johns, Baldessari doesn’t get hung up in one category being more important than the other.

In the second AM, PM piece is a single photograph of a window. This time rather than dealing with selected information, the whole photograph is conditioned by either AM or PM information. You can see the window in two ways—either with the AM knowledge that a man will water his garden in front of the window, or the PM information that a couple next door will argue. Finally, in the third photograph of an area of pavement, the idea is extended into autobiography. You have little doubt with all the references to smoke and cigars in the rest of the show that the PM information about a man smoking his cigar passing this pavement is Baldessari himself—like Alfred Hitchcock who momentarily appears in each of his films.

In the AM, PM pieces Baldessari is willing to explore different ideas, but not necessarily to reduce them to a tedious formality. Anonymity of presentation, tersely serving a point, and swift getaway are characteristic of Baldessari’s best work. What he sacrifices in a stable look he gains in freshness.

Baldessari’s early California map project leads me to talk about hybrids. Each letter of the word “California” was marked through a variety of means at the actual locations in California. These locations corresponded to the place on the map that each of the letters of the word “California” was printed. For this reason the work was construed as an Earthwork. Clearly it was not this alone. More reasonably it can be seen in the Johns tradition of one commonplace and set system determining another. The California map project is close to Rauschenberg’s Factum I and Factum II. A model of dualities—a hybrid—has affected Baldessari’s work before and since. Baldessari makes hybrids of ideas and forms; more importantly, he does so with a Minimalist concern for appearance, concern that is not the simple-minded consideration some take it to be.

Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That Are Different consists of two pieces—one based on memory and the other on sight. Each hybridizes two kinds of ephemera—clouds and cigar smoke. The sight piece consists of four color photographs of Baldessari trying to duplicate the structure of clouds with a puff of cigar smoke. He allows himself more than one try. The memory piece shows a portrait of Baldessari with snapshots of clouds stuck to his forehead. He blows cigar-smoke formations imitating the cloud configurations visible in the snapshots. As spectators we can measure his success or failure. What could be more absurd than trying to match clouds with smoke, attempting to match one ephemeral situation with another? Yet, however preposterous these ideas are separately, as hybrid they are ingenious, and serious. The photograph of the cloud is a visual record of past action as well as an index for present activity. Blowing the cigar smoke, recording past and present within a gestalt raises many questions about identity and process.

Throwing Four Balls in the Air To Get a Straight Line joins a game structure with a mental yardstick—straightness. By allowing himself a certain number of tries to get a straight line and by only showing those results closest to it, Baldessari raises questions about formal decisions. Which is best? Which succeeds? Which fails? “The breakdown of systems is as interesting as their creation.” So with crooked lines. Baldessari, in his attempt to throw four balls into a straight line, and the companion attempt to throw three balls into the air to get an equilateral triangle make challenging photographs. Red balls are highlighted against the blue California sky—color fields with inflections. They’re stunning photographs. Each group of balls is also measured against a mental straight line and triangle. Each shot is slightly and subtly different.

One of Baldessari’s simplest hybrids is Palm Trees in the Wind in which acetate grids are superimposed on a set of photographs of palm trees. Without the grid the differences between each blowing tree would seem negligible. With it, each shot is transformed. The noting of small differences as with the throwing pieces becomes itself an intriguing pursuit. Although a simple notion it acts out one of the morals of Baldessari’s Fables: “Never underestimate the value of an idea.”

Among the most personal of the hybrid pieces are those in which the contents of the photographs determine actual arrangements on the wall. Two works demonstrate this: A Movie: Directional Piece and Trying to Roll a Hoop in a Perfect Circle. Baldessari is an avid reader and a collector of all kinds of literature and images. A well-known photograph situates him in a studio surrounded not by art objects, but by piles of magazines and books. Television is a source of imagery that he uses as a library. All the photographs for A Movie: Directional Piece come from it. Considering television the new Renaissance window on the world, Baldessari monitors three sets with the sound off. Automatic Nikons are positioned to photograph anything. A Movie: Directional Piece uses fragmentary images of actors and actresses, drawn from numerous late night movies and arranged in a circle. About 5’ across, the circle consists of equally spaced small photographs positioned directly on the gallery wall. Baldessari uses the direction each figure, or group of figures is looking toward as a device to establish the circle. One photograph “looks” at the next, and so on. This directionality is further emphasized by the addition of an arrow on each photograph. “Looking” is another way of pointing. Trying to Roll a Hoop in a Perfect Circle is less evocative, more process orientated and does the same thing. The attempts to roll a hoop in a circle are photographed. They determine the position of the, photographs on a facsimile circle drawn on the wall.

Painting and sculpture are rejected in Marxist argument because, irrespective of content, as objects they develop property value. This view can now be applied to photographs, works that despite their infinite reproducibility, have also, ironically, acquired property value as art. Photographs are displayed and sold as valuable objects. Similarly film clips and videotapes enjoy the same status. Baldessari’s photographs, though means rather than ends, are still objects, ironical ones. Like Andy Warhol, his use of film mocks the frozen moment by using sequence and infinite repeatability to question its object nature. For example, Scenario (Film Strip) shows bits of film on the wall as objects. Film strips about two feet long are hung casually on the wall with category descriptions like “Rocks,” “Words,” “Mountains,” “Clouds,” and “Sunsets.” Again as Warhol employs the repetition of identical imagery, Baldessari parodies it but with a different twist. I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art is a title, a piece, and a claim he steadfastly refuses to obey. This sentence is shown on a video, endlessly typed. This is quite different from Warhol, who infinitely repeats an act not normally meant to be repeated. Baldessari crossbreeds an idea from educational punishment with art and acts it out ad absurdum.

Baldessari’s film loops are precise, short and witty. They contradict a trend of much art film—punishment by length, audience as victim. Each clip of about three minutes is infinitely repeated. Showing them in daylight (possible with both video and film clips) avoids the gloom of the gallery as substitute movie house. Though the idea of hybrids applies to the clips, they are not physically so, but read as such by the spectator. Baldessari presents dualities. His films implicitly accept the duality of language structure, simple ones, for example, yes/no, on/off, hot/cold, which have generated so much pertinent contemporary artwork.

I think of Baldessari as a painter who happens to use photographs. Painting in only a simple sense deals with canvas, paints, and easels. Johns showed this years ago. The word “painting” is interchangeable with visual models. It’s important for painting that some kind of rule structure linked to the visual world be set up. In any pluralistic situation, the kind of rule structure is less important. The use of dualities is only one such simple rule. Water to Wine to Water is a “painting” using film. It employs a simple chemical trick—mixing two clear liquids to get a colored one and this colored one to get a clear one. Three wine glasses with a hand lifting and pouring is all that’s shown. The false title—as with so much of Bruce Nauman’s work—is important. Is it really wine, one wonders? The film loop Easel Painting, again shows Baldessari’s love/hate relationship with a conventional notion of painting: a close-up of fingers being plunged into a box of yellow and green powdered pigment; a spread of color viciously attacked by anonymous fingers spilling powder everywhere, fingers alternately coated with different colors; and spilt color in a random mix on the table.

My favorite film clips are Time-Temperature and The Hollywood Film. Time-Temperature is a sumptous color close-up of ice blue sand falling through a measuring glass; next to it blood red mercury rises rapidly in a thermometer. Two systems of measurement—temporal and thermal—are brought into physical and ideational conflict. Time passes. Temperature rises. Words are no substitute for things. You’re forced to make mental jumps between two systems. Hollywood Film, the most multilayered and elusive film, is simple looking. The film shows two kitsch Hollywood-star buttons of a man and a woman—I don’t know who, and it doesn’t matter, they’re clearly stars—being slowly turned over (by the hands featured in all the films) to reveal mirrors on the other side. Close-ups of the stars are shown for a minute or so to allow one to dredge up memories of transient glamour. Then each button is turned slowly to reveal a mirror bathed in light. You don’t see yourself. All you see is dazzle. You too can be a star. But can you? Are stars just dazzle? Baldessari doesn’t even allow the viewer one brief glimpse of glory on the flip-side of stardom. The whole idea is treated with such wit and brevity that it makes its point succinctly and evocatively.

Saying Baldessari has a romantic streak that gives his work its evocative range is not derogatory. Evocative or romantic imagery, though in no sense a subject in itself, is clearly a factor in the way Baldessari’s work functions. Romantic art’s emphasis on emotion rather than intellect seems far from a Conceptual art that supposedly rejects esthetics. Since Baldessari doesn’t appear overly concerned with labels or constricting ideologies, he nonetheless has a richly evocative streak. By modernist standards his approach would be considered subtractive. Surprisingly it is additive. It’s the iconography that brings you up short. Baldessari, like a number of artists, reacts against an iconography devoid of direct references. He welcomes and extends reference. Clearly it’s his choice of subject matter—clouds, smoke, food, and gestures—his game-playing hedonism, and his sumptuous color photographs that encourage this richness of reference and experience. His ideas, often simple, sometimes banal, are transcended by emotional power. In The Mondrian Story, two large photographs each show the bottom half of a figure wearing white pants, one in a flower garden, the other on a lawn. The first is washed in pink light reflected from the flowers, the other in green light reflected from the lawn. The acting out of Mondrian’s observation that he used to get his trousers “stained” green by reflected light from the grass and Baldessari’s stunning photographs evoke a typical multilayered range of references. They make nonsense of Conceptual art considered solely as a series of intellectual moves.

In A Cigar Is a Good Smoke several photographs of Baldessari smoking are abutted against different objects like paper, chalk, and pens. One photograph, for example, shows another of a piece of paper in the left-hand corner and, on the right, yet another photograph of the artist smoking. A caption reads “Paper is paper but a cigar is a good smoke.” The captions change with the different objects shown, for example, “Chalk is chalk but a cigar is a good smoke.” Like Magritte’s painting, “This is not a pipe,” it sets up a poetic range of reference that eludes normal art references, curiously art-related by virtue of the depicted objects—chalk, paper, and pens. The most seemingly absurd of Baldessari’s pieces is Goodbye to Boats, which consists of color photographs of Baldessari waving goodbye to boats. Waving goodbye to boats triggers the kind of gut response that airports and railway stations invariably do—Jungian overtones of departure. It’s evocative on so many levels, and Baldessari has done it in such a deadpan way (with his back to the camera, and the boats just far enough away to become symbols of departure) that it allows the spectator to generate his own responses. Intellectually the idea isa bummer, evocatively a stunning success.

I’m amazed that Baldessari hasn’t been taken seriously as a Conceptual artist. Some hardcore Conceptualists have dismissed his work on the damaging grounds that it is amusing. Such political ploys attempting to pass off “philosophy” as a natural heir to art can now be seen for what they are—political ploys. Could the reason for such slights be that Baldessari’s early word paintings were too close and (to think the unthinkable) more interesting, and also genuinely earlier than Kosuth’s work, for example. Baldessari obviously has scars from the political infighting of the late ’60s. He has paid his dues. The early strategy of Conceptual artists (primarily Europeans) was to create an elite of Conceptual artists who didn’t make objects, as well as an elite cadre within the movement itself who regarded writing as the purest form of Conceptual art. Although they meted out A’s for philosophy and C’s for psychology, it didn’t really matter whose writing it was. The Xerox machine, the instant author, was always at hand. Everything from paraphrase to plagiarism became the hallmark of excellence. All else, including the use of any kind of visual phenomena like diagrams and photographs was labeled unserious or naive. To have said Baldessari’s work couldn’t be taken seriously because it uses photographs or is amusing was not art theory or art criticism, but a strategy aimed at discrediting him as well as others. This ploy can now be seen for the deception it was.

That Baldessari has taken a buffeting politically is particularly clear in the last work I want to discuss: Ingres and Other Fables. The Fables sum up the gambits of an art sector obsessed by “making it” through the support structure of art. In parable form Baldessari tells of the infighting and intrigues of Conceptual art, and its pitched battles over the symbols of power via language. The particular made universal. On one level, the Fables are a continuation of meta-art, and use existing art information as subject matter; on another, they succinctly compile contemporary issues and problems of artists and art objects. Above all, they are a political response to injustice, although Baldessari himself has never emphasized this view. The Fables consist of ten parables, each illustrated with a photograph that points to an object in the story. Most of the fables serve as a spur for Baldessari. Stories of contracts not signed because of lost pens, of artists waiting to develop insight and maturity before showing, of egocentric artists who can’t tell the difference between historical and hysterical, and of artists who steal art, are told with wit and brevity. All are punctuated at the end by pertinent morals. Knowing Baldessari’s history, his age, his painting experience, and his early Conceptual stance, a moral like “Beware of artists with golden tongues,” has a particular poignancy.

The sheer amount of Baldessari’s work has meant omissions and cursory coverage in this article. I see Baldessari’s pluralism as only part of a general reaction against the elitist and increasingly overweight support structure of much Conceptual and contemporary art, the dialogue itself bloated and divorced from the art and increasingly forced into a narrowing formal and ideological straitjacket. If works of art are a hypothesis about what art can be, Baldessari has shown that objects don’t have to be without reference, tedious, or difficult to be important—and interesting.