PRINT May 1989


John Baldessari's Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. Reissue of the 18th-century novel in a limited edition of 400, illustrated by John Baldessari. San Francisco: Arion Press, 1988, 3 vols., 620 pages, 39 double-page photocollages.

DISCOMBOBULATED FROM THE MOMENT of his conception, Tristram Shandy, the unfortunate hero of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century epic, assays his “Life and Opinions” through a multiplicitous discourse that collapses the conventional discretions of past and present, fiction and real life, and experience and memory. Through its narrator’s constant interruptions, digressions, and reversals, Sterne expresses his own sense of the random, multifarious, and fragmentary quality of experience. Contributing to the general profusion of the book is Sterne’s deliberate violation of typographic and signature conventions through strangely placed italics, capitalizations, asterisks, ellipses, and dashes; blank, black, and marbled pages; simulated legal documents, sermons, and passages in foreign languages; and chapters of wildly varying lengths. In its odd and often dazzling array of structural and narrative effects, Tristram Shandy prefigures such Modernists as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf.

Arion Press has just published a deluxe edition of Tristram Shandy, “illustrated” by John Baldessari. This three-volume set includes an authoritative facsimile of Sterne’s original text, bound in green calfskin and marbled paper over boards; a paperbound critical essay by Sterne scholar Melvyn New; and an accordion book of Baldessari’s photocollages, interspersed with Shandean quotations. The three publications share the same 6 3/4 by 10 1/4-inch format and are contained in a single slipcase.

Sterne measures up as one of literature’s most ribald punsters. This country parson was a master baiter of lines to dangle before his voracious readers, exciting their prurient appetites through ironic redistributions and doublings of meaning. In a similar fashion, Baldessari’s cropped and rearranged photo-images offer a visual rhetoric of sexual innuendo and deferred gratification, revealed through carefully executed compositional and installational strategies. While the wry Baldessari humor is an excellent complement to Sterne’s affectionate bawdiness, the decision to publish these images under separate cover simply acknowledges that Tristram Shandy’s typographic experimentalism makes it a book that illustrates itself.

Not that Baldessari’s exercises aren’t themselves enjoyable. His initial spread features two film stills, one above and the other on the left, facing some lines of text from the first chapter of Volume I, in which Mrs. Shandy’s incautious interruption of her husband’s act of engendering—”Pray my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?”—is blamed for the subsequent ruffling of young Tristram’s “animal spirits.” Both Baldessari images show male figures standing next to clocks, but while the faces of the timepieces are clearly visible, the faces of the men are obscured by circles of red (above) and green (beneath). The clock on the wall in the upper scene has no hands; its time is out. One of the three clocks seen in the bottom image is held up in the white-gloved hand of a tuxedoed figure. There is plenty of time here.

The pictures and accompanying excerpts are arranged sequentially, following Sterne’s story line, such as it is. Baldessari’s retinue of effacements and obscurations perform a service similar to that of Sterne’s suggestive rows of asterisks, arousing libidinal interest through implications of moral censure. That these excisions have apparently been made on behalf of public morality is crucial to the understanding of Sterne’s humor. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once put it, “we have only to suppose society innocent, and then nine-tenths of this sort of wit would be like a stone that falls in snow, making no sound because exciting no resistance.”

Tristram’s eccentric Uncle Toby, who is fond of riding a hobbyhorse, is one of Sterne’s most amusing characters. Toby’s extraordinary ingenuousness is manifested through his constant misunderstanding of statements and actions by others. He is the perpetual innocent before whom Sterne’s wit is given form. Baldessari’s still of a bathing beauty astride a toy horse is paired with a passage concerning the “communication” between rider and hobbyhorse, giving an erotic charge to Sterne’s reflection on how the “heated parts of the rider . . . By long journies and much friction . . .” come to be filled with “Hobby-Horsical matter.” Any possibility of misreading these lines as expressing the pleasures of child’s play is finally offset by the censorious blue circle covering the woman’s face.

Baldessari’s book is wonderfully well printed. The sumptuous mat paper gives the duotone black images a velvet glow. The overprinted colors are crisp and perfectly registered. The heft of the volume and the seamless flow of its accordion-fold text body join to convey a sense of graphic luxury. Against the lavishness of this presentation the kitschy thinness of the film stills is exaggerated; their indifferent quality as photographs per se is rendered all the more obvious. But this doesn’t tell us something about Baldessari’s source material we don’t already know. The deliberately mediocre printing in such earlier Baldessari books as Brutus Killed Caesar, 1976, or Close-Cropped Tales, 1981, is all of a piece with the found images they contain. The exotic format here is also preceded, with variations, by the overlapping vertical and horizontal accordion-folds of Fable, 1977.

Baldessari has made an appealing homage to Sterne’s lubricious yet sentimental world. His images maintain a hortatory distance from its antique convolutions, while the Shandean quotes invest his pictures with subtle historicism. Like the Sterne volume it accompanies, Baldessari’s Shandy is an admirable production; elegant in the hand and beautifully prepared for the bookshelf. But unlike Sterne’s tale, which is also available in a number of inexpensive paperback editions, these photocollages are peculiarly rare. Was it so long ago that Baldessari wrote, “. . . since a lot of people can own the book, nobody owns it. Every artist should have a cheap line. It keeps art ordinary and away from being overblown”?

Buzz Spector is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles.