PRINT December 1989


Imagine the damage caused by a theft which robbed you only of your frames, or rather of their joints, and of any possibility of reframing your valuables or your art-objects.
—Jacques Derrida1

One of the pleasures of John Baldessari’s work is that it can be enjoyed just as readily by laypeople as by conceptual cognoscenti. It doesn’t require esoteric knowledge of semiotics, deconstruction, and dialectical materialism to relish Baldessari’s cunning wit and visual pranks. Pelicans Staring at Woman with Nose Bleeding, 1984, is funny as a simple, absurdest juxtaposition of visual signs, whether or not one “gets” Baldessari’s sly parody of the (Michael) Fried-ian absorptive gaze. But once one catches on to Baldessari’s higher level of play, the quick read and good-natured chuckles seem all the more remarkable; here is a master of the sophisticated insight served up as an accessible sight-gag.

In many ways, researching and writing about Baldessari in order to illuminate that mastery is an allegorical procedure almost identical to the artist’s own artmaking strategy. One extracts historical, biographical, and critical fragments from the Baldessari bibliography in much the same way that Baldessari rummages through his library of film stills for appropriate(d) images. This raw material is then sorted, arranged, and reconstituted in the form of a narrative that could be provisionally “framed” as post-Structural, a narrative that subverts traditional binary oppositions such as meaning/form, inside/outside, content/container, signified/signifier, represented/representer. The writer must juggle a variety of seemingly contradictory themes and influences—Hollywood B-movies, Marcel Duchamp, slapstick jokes, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name just a few—just as Baldessari exploits and manipulates the conflicts and correspondences within his chosen raw material.

Here’s the problem: having done all this, one still hopes to discover means and ends, centers and margins, some locus of a priori meaning. But because Baldessari’s work is predicated on a linguistic structure that defies its own prevailing system of logic, the effort proves futile. Insofar as Baldessari’s project requires (of both the artist and the viewer) a “lodging [of] oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it,”2 his body of work is about perpetual deferral, a celebration of an endless semantic quest for its own sake. Interpretation as allegory will inevitably follow suit: both the art and its interpretations become manifestations of the same unfulfilled desire. A possible solution? Rather than exercising the Kantian role of judge—the mediator who bridges the abyss between understanding and reason—we can concentrate on the abyss itself. In other words, we can try to remove the traditional interpretive frames in order to understand the need for frames in the first place. By relying on allegory’s juxtaposition of signifying fragments—implicit in Baldessari’s strategy of montage—we can generate a provisional discourse for “tracking down the tracks” that are Baldessari’s frustrating but rewarding oeuvre.

By late ’65 I was finished with painting. . . . I was attempting to make something that didn’t emanate art signals. The only art signal I wanted was the canvas.
—John Baldessari3


Historically, Baldessari is grouped with language-based Conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Douglas Huebler, Robert Barry, and Lawrence Weiner, whose work emerged in the mid to late 1960s. Heavily influenced by the biases of Marcel Duchamp, particularly his abhorrence for retinal art, Baldessari’s work of this period thumbs its nose at conventional notions of the “pure” artwork (e.g. Mondrian) in favor of a “pure” rhetoric. As the artist himself puts it, “I sought to use language not as a visual element but as something to read. That is, a notebook entry about painting could replace the painting.4

Baldessari’s series of mid-’60s “Word Canvases” were the result; deliberate efforts to foil conventional notions about what—and how—a painting “communicates.” These random snapshots, or staged photographic setups, juxtaposed with text, simultaneously contrived to illustrate and undermine, even embarrass, their own assertions. In Wrong, 1966–68, for example, Baldessari, at least according to the received wisdom of standard photo manuals, commits the cardinal compositional sin: he poses his human subject in front of a palm tree so that the trunk appears to be growing out of the man’s head. Click: WRONG. Well, maybe not. Because the photo is also a didactic illustration of its own esthetic shortcomings, the compositional alignment is, in another sense, absolutely right. In that respect, the stern esthetic dictum “wrong” trips over itself.

Another word canvas, Looking East on 4th and C, Chula Vista, Calif., 1967, juxtaposes a grainy, vérité-like shot of an anonymous telegraph-pole-lined street with the title as caption, “burdening” this random image with, as Roland Barthes puts it, “a culture, a moral, an imagination”5—in this case, the recognized conventions of urban landscape paintings. By developing the snapshot directly onto a conventionally stretched canvas coated with white primer and photoemulsion, Baldessari further encodes his image within the rhetoric of painting. Mechanical reproducibility, with its connotation of limitless copies and withered aura, as characterized by Walter Benjamin, is transgressed by Baldessari’s presentation of this word canvas as a unique art object. Looking East thus aligns itself with the tradition of photographic and painted visions of urban modernity, from Nadar to Wayne Thiebaud. Or does it revel in its difference? Like Wrong, Looking East is all about blurring the distinctions between traditional esthetic dos and don’ts.

For a second series of word canvases, Baldessari limits his own role in the creative process, in the best Duchampian tradition, to pure strategist: he farms out the canvases to a sign painter. With paintings/signs such as A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation, A Work with Only One Property, Pure Beauty, and Painting for Kubler, all 1966–68, the artist simultaneously spoofs Structuralist rhetoric and the ideals and concerns of the autonomous Modernist artwork—particularly the then current influence of theorist George Kubler, author of The Shape of Time, 1962, with its theory on the cyclical nature of art styles. With a quote from Kubler’s influential text (beginning with “This painting owes its existence to a previous painting . . . ”) taken out of context and presented as the art itself, Baldessari, as Marcia Tucker has pointed out, “pinpoints the absurdity and non-functional quality of formal esthetic thought without reference to a real object or event.”6

More interesting is Space, 1966–68. Here the text flatly states: “MANY ARTISTS HAVE PONDERED OVER THIS PROBLEM. THEY HAVE EMPLOYED COLOR TO HELP THEM CREATE SPACE, LIKE CÉZANNE, OR PERSPECTIVE, LIKE UCCELLO. IN HLS CUBIST PHASE PICASSO TRLED THE EFFECT OF CUBES. TO ME THIS IS NO PROBLEM AT ALL.” Of course there is no problem, because space, like language, Baldessari asserts, rather than a distinct relational or representational parameter, is a neutral semantic playground. Space is only the necessary “frame” for a declaration that has as much to do with what is missing—in this case, an image—as with what is actually present.

A seminal work of this period is Semi-Close-Up of Girl By Geranium, 1966–68. Baldessari again farmed the work out, a text that reads like a sequential storyboard for a movie: “FINISHES WATERING IT—EXAMINES PLANT TO SEE IF IT HAS ANY SIGNS OF GROWTH, FINDS SLIGHT EVIDENCE—SMILES—ONE PART IS SAGGING—SHE RUNS FINGERS ALONG IT—RAISES HAND OVER PLANT TO ENCOURAGE LT TO GROW.” Language operates in the absence of objects, arousing but simultaneously frustrating our desire to see; our only option is to read this painting as we read a novel or a poem. And who, then, is responsible for creating the image—the artist or the viewer?

In the field of allegorical intuition the image is a fragment, a rune. . . . The false appearance of totality is extinguished.
—Walter Benjamin7

Wrenching forms, words, and images out of their original context, Baldessari is an odd sort of vampire: while he digs his fangs into his chosen materials to drain them of their lifeblood, he keeps his tongue securely in cheek. For the real victim, in fact, is not the original vitality of Baldessari’s appropriated materials—now offered up as fragments of forces dead or outdated—but Modernism’s assertion of the organic, integrated symbol as the locus of meaning. Since the beginning of this century, the rehabilitative power of allegory, taking the form of montage, has emerged as a prime weapon of resistance to Modernism’s totalizing and universalizing program.8 Opposing the organic symbol with the material fragment, montage seeks to demonstrate that meaning does not emanate organically from within the given subject, but is instead created, constructed, or construed in the relationships of seemingly isolated parts. Objective reality, in these terms, reveals itself as a neutral building material—literally an empty sign—for the purposes of meaning production and reception. This understanding has freed artists like Baldessari to operate simultaneously as dis(a)ssemblers and celebrants of structures of meaning, agents in the field of free-floating contingencies that make possible reality’s (re)production.

Debate about the efficacy and implications of such an approach has been, of course, a staple of early–20th-century discourse.9 On the one side, there is Georg Lukács—defender of 19th-century realism—arguing that montage can only represent, through its fragmentation, a reification of the worker’s already alienated condition under late capitalism. On the other hand, we find Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno as advocates of montage, expounding on its potential to transform received information, especially mimetic realism, and, in the process, opening up language itself to a critique of its social and ideological constructs. Baldessari leaps boldly into this debate—which has informed much of the art practice of our century—by offering works that simultaneously acknowledge, honor, and spoof both positions.

Confidence tricks in all shapes and sizes, the jokes of a man who has lost his roots; blind alleys but paths everywhere—no aims but destinations everywhere. Montage can now work wonders; in the old days it was only thoughts that could dwell side by side, but now things can do the same, at least in these flood-plains, these fantastic jungles of the void.
—Ernst Bloch10

Ernst Bloch was writing about James Joyce’s Ulysses. But he could just as wellbhave been describing Baldessari’s project. The Surrealist underpinnings of Baldessari’s work have frequently been discussed.11 There’s no missing, for example, the similarity between Baldessari’s recent works—in which he blocks out his figures’ faces—and Man Ray’s series “Hier, Aujourd’hui, Demain,” 1930–32.12 Certainly Baldessari shares with the Surrealists a fascination with the character and effects of montage itself, summed up by the 19th-century poet Lautréamont in the phrase “as beautiful as the fortuitous meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” And it is montage’s “cultivation of the effects of a systematic bewildering,” as Max Ernst put it,13 that aligns Baldessari’s work with early registers of the shock of modernity, its fragmenting effects on the individual psyche—from Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, 1869, to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of things past, 1912–27). Both of these writers gave voice to an experience of alienation that, paradoxically, made possible unexpected correspondences hitherto repressed or buried in the unconscious. If, in some sense, Baudelaire and Proust objectified the word, Baldessari “textifies” the object, and always in order to generate, as Mallarmé put it, “a rich and enigmatic language of ambiguous and multiple suggestiveness, freed from the limiting confines of single and literal meanings.”14 In this context, one might argue that René Magritte’s La Trahison des Images (The treachery of images, 1928–29), is the grandfather of Baldessari’s work, as text and image of pipe duel each other into a semantic impasse. There’s a crucial difference, however. Surrealist (and Dada) practice set out deliberately to demolish the prevailing symbolic order, to order fragments without any eye to a pictorial totality, and generally to blur distinctions between image and word. But as John Welchman has pointed out, “There is a paradox in this account . . . which is that the would-be spontaneous message of a surrealist text or painting is necessarily encoded in the very forms (words and images) of the symbolic order that it has attempted to sidestep or avoid.”15

Baldessari, by the early ’70s, chooses to make this dilemma, this problematic allegiance between anarchy and order, the focus of his work. Rather than attempting to overcome the limits imposed by competing systems, he opts to teeter, explicitly and mischievously, between the two; just as the work approaches the brink of absurdity, a prevailing order always reins it back in. In Aligning Balls, 1972, for example, three photographs of a floating ball against different backgrounds are arranged in a line on the gallery wall. Instead of aligning the photographs by the top or bottom edge of the picture frame, Baldessari used the balls themselves as his focus, as if linking them by an invisible horizontal line. Because the balls are in different positions within the frame in each photo, the picture frames are arranged out of alignment, floating up and down the wall like some strange form of musical notation. The flip side of Baldessari’s toss is Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line, 1972–73, in which the balls are photographed in midair—in an attempt to capture them lined up. The permutations are not as endless as one might think, however, since Baldessari imposed on his exercise the structural parameters of the best of 36 tries—the number of shots on a roll of film. Unlike the Dadaists or Surrealists, Baldessari is always raising questions about formal issues as an entry and conduit into chasing deferred meaning. And like those flying balls, standards of quality get tossed around like the weighty toys that they are. Which arrangement is best? Which gesture succeeds? Which fails? What is the most economical?16

The basic fact was true, and remains true to this day, that the juxtaposition of two separate shots by splicing them together resembles not so much a simple sum of one shot plus another shot—as it does a creation.
—Sergei Eisenstein17

Like Lukács, the great film theorist André Bazin was an advocate of artistic self-effacement before reality. The individual film shot was, for Bazin, a simple unit of mimesis that, linked together with others, produced longer mimetic sequences. The ontology of the film image, then, is inseparable from that of its model, nature; cinema is merely a recreation of the world in its own image. According to Bazin, the individual shot, inflected with the long take and deep focus to produce a foreground and background of the mise-en-scène in the same sharpness of focus, determines the film’s authenticity.18

Filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, on the other hand, saw the shot as incomplete in and of itself. Eisenstein (like Vsevolod Meyerhold and Brecht) deemed reality alone inadequate to the task of producing sufficient emotional impact (shock), so art’s job was to exaggerate and schematize it. Thus the jerky, stop-motion technique with which the marble lion in Potemkin, 1925, springs to life as a symbol of awakening proletarian consciousness draws attention to its own artifice, and acts as a synecdoche for the dialectical language of the film as a whole.

For Eisenstein, maximum shock was generated by cutting together two shots of dialectically opposite realities: for example, the mother holding the baby and climbing the Odessa Steps in Potemkin, shot from above, cut with the line of troops descending the steps, shot from below. The resulting synthesis—two tides and generations of class history in collision—is greater than the mere sum of parts, as if 1 + 1 suddenly equaled 6, 7, or 8. As Eisenstein explained, “In art it is not the absolute relationships that are decisive, but those arbitrary relationships within a system of images dictated by the particular work of art.”19

There’s a sly logic, then, to the fact that the photographs that have found their way into Baldessari’s montages of the ’80s are film stills, culled primarily from Hollywood B-movies. These might serve as the quintessence of the frozen Bazinian mise-en-scène—except that Baldessari crops these images, fragments them, and juxtaposes them with other stills from other movies. Bazin, the paragon of realism, is literally “Eisensteined” here. Moreover, as John Miller has noted, “As such, the radicality of the film edit or cut comes to constitute not only Baldessari’s formal paradigm but also the critical component of his work as a whole.”20 The ordering, arranging, and correspondence-making that have been the province of the filmmaker become the domain of the artist—and the viewer.

Barthes has pointed out how closely such a strategy resembles that of the Brechtian epic theater, with its plethora of estranging and distancing devices designed to force the audience to think about the socioeconomic context of production as much as the plot itself: “Brecht indicated clearly that in epic theater (which proceeds by successive tableaux) all the burden of meaning and pleasure bears on each scene, not on the whole. . . . The same is true in Eisenstein: the film is a contiguity of episodes, each one absolutely meaningful, aesthetically perfect, and the result is a cinema by vocation anthological, itself holding out to the fetishist, with dotted lines, the piece for him to cut out and take away to enjoy.”21 Baldessari takes this strategy one step further, however, by drawing attention to the semantic power of the art institution itself. The autonomous tableau formed by each photographic fragment is circumscribed first by the juxtaposition that constitutes each work, then, progressively, by the gallery walls, the museum, and the art press—generating a narrative chain that culminates in articles like this. There are enough different contextual parameters along the way for fetishists of every stamp to find something to extract and enjoy.

Stares (with Lamps), 1986, is a good case in point. Eight separate film stills, cropped into thin horizontal strips of different lengths within a rectangular frame flanked by lamps, are stacked to give an impression of receding into the distance (stairs?). All the characters in the centers of each strip have been blocked out in white paint, so that only the faces at the periphery remain. These are composed to give the visual impression that they are staring across the horizontal space at, or away from, each other. Baldessari is careful, however, to repudiate any sense of symmetry or balance, center or margin, by adding two more offset horizontal strips above the frame and to the right. This is a work that shouts (to use an aural metaphor to complement the staring of its subject) its constructed, artificial nature; we can almost hear Baldessari declaring, “There were hundreds of possible structures and correspondences that could have been created with this same material. This is what I came up with. If you think you could do better, try it.” So much for photographic reality being ontologically inseparable from nature, much less from the nature of its previous presentation.

Yet one must also remember that Baldessari’s fragmented shots are film stills, not moving pictures, confronting us as manifestations of that condition Barthes has called “the filmic.” Extracted from their syntagmatic sequence, they are freed from the exigencies of a specific time and place. They now have no filmic narrative past, nor future, and the viewer finds his or her center of gravity shifted from “the element between shots—the shock” to the element “’inside the shot.’22 However, by juxtaposing different stills, different centers of gravity, Baldessari succeeds in reasserting the space between (albeit heterogeneous) shots once again. Abyss and frame become interchangeable according to allegorical context; the filmic falls prey once more to yet another arbitrarily imposed metanarrative.

Baldessari is exploiting the capability of the lowest common denominator of the narrative chain to counteract the signifying function of the totality. In these terms, his montages might remind us of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, whose One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil, 1969, for example—with scenes of the Rolling Stones endlessly rehearsing intercut with agitprop Third World sloganeering—never adds up to anything more than a series of autonomous fragments arbitrarily strung together. Instead of 1 + 1 equals 6, 7, or 8 (as in Eisenstein’s montage of shock), for Godard “‘One Plus One’ does not mean ‘one plus one equals two’. It just means what it says, ‘one plus one’.”23 As Peter Wollen points out, “For Godard, conflict becomes not simply collision through juxtaposition, as in Eisenstein’s model, but an act of negativity, a splitting apart of an apparently natural unity, a disjunction.”24

But Baldessari’s strategy is ultimately more liberating that Godard’s. A closer parallel might be the films of Nicolas Roeg, whose almost subliminal intercutting of violence into sex scenes, or mergings of one identity with another, set up limitless reverberations of meaning, often irrational, always ambiguous. And a literary companion might be Jorge Luis Borges, whose universe is frequently a series of mental processes geared toward mystical amazement. However, whereas Borges grounds his reader within the confines of his carefully constructed labyrinth—in effect trapping us in a narrative maze of mystification—Baldessari encourages us to apply our own frame of reference to the information given, to expand and contract, to fill in or widen the gaps, to remake and remodel his fictions until they become representative of our own personal and ideological concerns.

Take Mountain Climber, 1988, for example. Baldessari has arranged four (blown-up?) separate stills on a wall to create a constructed allusion to fragmented cinematic space. Near the floor, an L-shaped panel featuring the images of a birthday cake and a candelabra abut an image of a deep-sea diver in his expected element. Up into the air rise the diver’s air hose and the candles, but while the latter might suggest a “grounding” (the family waiting at home? for the diver’s birthday party?), the diver’s line travels across the wall to another panel featuring, simply, a vertical line against a distant landscape. Here is an in-gallery jump-cut. But there’s more. Since the stacked panels form a rough, angular, mountainlike shape, we’re drawn out of deep waters to another site entirely. That association is completed, in fact, by a fifth panel, placed near the ceiling, which depicts a mountain climber, literally and figuratively scaling the gallery wall. His rope continues the suggested spatial trajectory of the skin diver’s hose. Here, Baldessari has abandoned huge chunks of visual data. Gaps in the composition can only be filled in by the literacy of the viewer, forging a conspiratorial bond between “director” and “audience” as “producers” of the fun. And the compositional space that surrounds the images becomes, in this case, indistinguishable from the space that constructs them, promoting a free play between inside and outside that can never be resolved.

It is fundamentally problematic to assign a fixed meaning to a procedure. [Ernst] Bloch’s approach is more appropriate here, for he starts out from the view that the effects of a technique or procedure can vary in historically different contexts. He distinguishes between montage in late capitalism and montage in a socialist society.
—Peter Bürger25

The philosopher Richard Rorty has drawn an interesting distinction between two types of language philosophy, a distinction that applies equally well to language-based Conceptual artists. Rorty contrasts what he calls “systematic philosophers,” those who develop arguments and constructs, and “edifying philosophers,” those who “are reactive and offer satires, parodies, aphorisms.” The latter are “intentionally peripheral. . . . [They] destroy for the sake of their own generation . . . [They] want to keep space open for the sense of wonder . . . that there is something . . . which . . . cannot be explained and can barely be described.”26

It is in this camp that Baldessari surely takes his place. At the same time that he delights in unadulterated and absurd sight-gags, and childlike improvisation and hyperbole (that airplane turning into a seagull, that diver into a mermaid in his Concerning Diachronic/Synchronic Time: Above, On, Under (with Mermaid), 1976, for example), he can just as easily be aligned with the approach of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—not the foreboding, close-to-silence Wittgenstein of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus, 1921, but that of the Philosophical Investigations, 1952, in which, as Allan Megill has pointed out, the philosopher’s quest “is a dogged and aimless crisscrossing of territory—the journey of a mapmaker or a land-surveyor, not of a traveler from one place to another.”27 Baldessari, in fact, echoes in his own jokes and badinage what he finds so appealing in Wittgenstein, what he has called, with affection, the “flat-footedness” of the philosopher’s style. And as the artist has said, “I think of humor as going for laughs and that’s not my purpose. I see my work as issuing forth from a view of the world that’s slightly askew.”28

But a world view that’s slightly askew does not necessarily prove intractable to a world that is askew. Advertising techniques and MTV are proof positive that the innovations of the Modernist avant-garde, even those of Godard, are now the very stuff of the culture industry. Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s warnings, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1947, that the structurally dominating socioeconomic context of capitalism will inevitably co-opt and transvalue all strategies of resistance have proved prescient. Baldessari’s esthetic and position in art history are no exception. His montage is dangerously close to many current advertising strategies, offering presumably shocking explosions of meaning that may merely feed the distracted glance of the passive audience: a situation ripe for the subliminal seductions of forced consumption.29 (Baldessari seems to be aware of this danger. His “Embed Series,” 1974, for example, with its secret textual messages not-so-invisibly airbrushed and double-exposed into photographic images, is an obvious attempt to explore the resonance of subliminal motivation.) Yet still one might accuse Baldessari of setting up a similarly seductive power play, that in the cause of Conceptual art itself. His work has certainly spawned enough neo-Conceptual clones to warrant being labeled a “style,” so there is a very real danger that textual free play can become the textual foreplay of semantic masturbation.

As a result, Baldessari seems to have undergone a partial retreat from the dangerous cult of the art object in the gallery context, to embark on a turn toward that other august institution of the fetish: the library. By hybridizing art and literary codes, Baldessari now seems to be attempting to use montage as an intertextual alternative to art-market co-option, in short to return his art a little closer to the pocketbook of the man in the street. Recently this has taken the form of a series of book illustrations for Arion Press’s republication of Laurence Sterne’s shaggy-dog story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,30 1759–67. In many ways Sterne’s work is a post-Structural narrative written 200 years ahead of its time. Satirical, witty, full of puns, red herrings, and sexual innuendo, it is a novel that, as Terry Eagleton suggests, “impedes its own story-line so much that it hardly gets off the ground.”31 Baldessari’s “illustrations” are essentially reduced versions of his wall pieces, playing off Sterne’s literary jouissance with obvious relish. They hardly illustrate in the conventional sense of the word, however: cropped 20th-century film stills are hardly a suitable mimetic representation of 18th-century English country life. Yet these dialectical collisions fold filmic, advertising, and Conceptual-art language into Sterne’s text in much the same way that Jacques Derrida graphically juxtaposes texts by Plato and Mallarmé in The Double Session, 1981, to strike unpredictable sparks.

A good example: at one point in Tristram Shandy, Sterne gives us the abbess of Andoüillets attempting to coax an obscenity from a young girl through the wiles of fragmentation and repetition. “Bouger” (to move) is repeated to the point of meaninglessness as the abbess continually says “bou,” and the girl, “ger.” The same is then done with “fou” and “ter,” which rhyme with “bou” and “ger” innocently enough, so that “fouter” (to fuck) is simultaneously deconstructed and exclaimed in all its glory. Baldessari presents this scene as a pink-tinted nude couple kissing, except that they have been separated with an X-Acto knife and the man, displaced, floats above and to the right of the woman. The composition is “completed” by two pictures in green of another separated couple puckering up. The woman (facing left) is placed top left, the man (facing right) bottom right, creating a nominal frame to the pink couple. They are, however, effectively kissing the edge of the page. The visual correspondence with Sterne’s text is not exact, merely an association. The “meaning” of both, however, is expanded significantly—through audience participation—by the relationship.

Baldessari has recently enlarged selected illustrations from Tristram Shandy to create wall pieces, including the kissing couples. Divorced from their textual and literary context, the images now take on an independent life of their own, their “meaning” either irrevocably altered by their new context (if we don’t know their original source) or infused with other associations (if we do), such as the notion of the magnified book-illustration (contingent) as exploded “painting” (seemingly autonomous). In either case, the work is now an image missing its text, a neat symmetrical reversal of Baldessari’s ’60s “Word Canvases,” which were essentially texts missing an image. From this it is clear that “Baldessari’s narratives,” as Craig Owens puts it, “are not only elliptical; they are also profoundly circular, always returning to their origins, simply restating the problem posed at the outset. They are not, however, static, because the unspoken question that motivates them has, through the narrative process, found language.”32 It is perhaps through the always potentially subversive power of the text itself that Baldessari will attempt—like the Symbolists and Dadaists before him—to stave off the co-opting effects of the corporate art world in which he functions. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen, for even the production of deferred desire has a nominal price tag, with or without the frame.

Colin Gardner, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, is a visiting lecturer at the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 18.

2. Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: at the University Press. 1978, p. III.

3. John Baldessari, in Jan Debbaut, ed., John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, and Essen: Museum Folkang, 1981, p. 6.

4. Ibid.

5. Roland Reeks, “The Photographic Message,” Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill & Wang, Inc., 1977, p. 26.

6. Marcia Tucker, “John Baldessari: Pursuing the Unpredictable,” in John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1981, p. 42.

7. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, London: Ness Left Books, 1977, p. 176.

8. See Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston: David Godine, 1984, pp. 203–35.

9. See particularly Perry Anderson, Rodney Livingstone, and Francis Mulhern, eds., Aesthetics and Politics, London: New Left Books, 1977, and Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism: An Historical Study of Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, and Adorno, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

10. Ernst Bloch, quoted in Georg Lukács, “Realism in the Balance,” in Anderson et al., pp. 34–35.

11. See Robert Pincus-Witten, “Blasted Allegories! The Photography of John Baldessari,” in John Baldessari, New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, pp. 51–61.

12. I am grateful to Buzz Spector for this observation.

13. Max Ernst, quoted in Charles Russell, Poets, Prophets, and Revolutionaires: The Literary Avant-Garde from Rimbaud through Post-Modernism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 137.

14. Stéphan Mallarmé, quoted in Lunn, p. 45.

15. John C. Welchman, “After the Wagnerian Bouillabaisse: Critical Theory and the Dada and Surrealist Word-Image,” in Judi Freeman, The Dada & Surrealist Word-Image, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989, p. 74.

16. Far further discussion see James Collins, “Pointing, Hybrids, and Romanticism: John Baldessari,” Artforum XII no. 2. October 1973, p. 55.

17. Sergei Eisenstein. “Word and Image,” in The Film Sense, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1942, Meridian Books. 1957, pp. 7–8.

18. See André Bazin. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” quoted John Baldassarl, Concerning Diachronic/Synchronic Time: Above, On, Under (with Mermaid), 1976, six black and while photographs, OX x 13 7/8," each in Brian Henderson, “Two Types of Film Theory,” in Movies and Methods: An Anthology, ed. Bill Nichols, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976, p. 392. Bazin, as quoted by Peter Wollen, believed that this strategy “maintains the dramatic unity of a scene, . . . permits objects to have a residual being beyond the pure instrumentality demanded of them by the plot, and . . . allows the spectator a certain freedom of choice following the action.” See Wollen, “Introduction to Citizen Kane,” in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies, London: New Left Books, 1982, p. 51.

19. Eisenstein, “Color and Meaning,” in The Film Sense, p. 150.

20. John Miller, “The Deepest Cut: Montage in the Work of John Baldessari,” Artscribe, May 1989. p. 54.

21. Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” Image-Music-Text, p. 72.

22. Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills,” Image-Music-Text, p. 67.

23. Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Richard Road, Godard, Bloomington: Indiana Unisersity. Press, 1970, p. 150.

24. Wollen, “The Two Avent Gardes,” in Readings and Writings, p. 99.

25. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 78–79.

26. Richard Roey, Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1971–1980, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982, p. 27. Quoted in Welchman, p. 75.

27. Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985, p. 272.

28. Baldessari, quoted in Hunter Drohojowska, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art: A Profile of John Baldessari,” LA Weekly 6 no. 33, 13–19 July 1984, p. 8. David Shapiro has also pointed out that Baldessari’s journey of inquiry has closely resembled that of Wittgenstein, insofar as “the early Wittgenstein searched for a perfect code of representation; the late Wittgenstein matured into a grand collapse of anthropocentric acceptance of games. Baldessari’s art seems to have progressed from the empirical dreams of a pet feet code to an eruptive acceptance of imbricated and transgressive codes.” David Shapiro, “John Baldessari, Le Demier des Symbolistes,” Galeries Magazine no. 19, June–July 1987, pp. 70–72.

29. Miller, “The Deepest Cut.”

30. See Baldessari, Photo-collages for Tristram Shandy, San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1988.

31. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. p. 4.

32. Craig Owens, “Telling Stories,” Art in America 69 no. 5, May 1981, p. 132.