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PRINT February 2002

FIRST BREAK

Peter Plagens on John Baldessari

Peter Plagens looks back on John Baldessari's first one-man shows in Los Angeles (Molly Barnes) and New York (Feigen) in 1968

JOHN BALDESSARI—“the world's tallest leprechaun,” as denizens of an earlier LA art world used to call him affectionately has been so prominent, so wry, so even-tempered, and so unselfish a presence on the scene for so long that it's difficult to realize that even he needed a break to get his career off the ground. Back in the late ‘60s, Baldessari recalls,“I was teaching at Southwest Community College in Chula Vista, but I still had to have other 'odd jobs,’ and teaching at the UCLA extension in San Diego was one of them. The new UC, San Diego, campus decided it was going to have an art department, and the powers-that-be selected [New York abstract painter] Paul Brach to head it. When he came to town he thought it would be a good idea to meet the UCLA extension faculty. Paul and I hit it off right away, probably because we both liked to tell stories.”

Brach brought in a bevy of New Yorkers to populate his faculty. Baldessari says this group was his “first exposure to New York artists—hell, any real artists at all.” Among them was the poet-artist David Antin, who was apparently a quick study on the LA scene. He suggested a dealer to Baldessari, the decidedly unditzy ditzy-looking blonde Molly Barnes. Acting as a middleman, Antin finagled sort of a show for Baldessari in the fall of 1968: a one-weeker in the gap between two regularly scheduled exhibitions. “I thought it was better than nothing,” Baldessari says. The show which contained such seminal works as the artist's 1968 painting of the November 1965 cover of Artforum, captioned (and titled) THIS IS NOT TO BE LOOKED AT—stayed up for almost a month. Moreover, it just happened to open on the same night as, and practically next door to, New York heavyweight Joseph Kosuth 's show at Eugenia Butler's edgy Gallery 669 on La Cienega Boulevard. Jane Livingston, then associate curator of modern art at the LA County Museum of Art (Maurice Tuchman held the senior position), was also a critic for this magazine. She came to cover Kosuth and ended up devoting all but two sentences of her review to Baldessari. Tuchman, Meyer Schapiro's suave protege who'd been imported from New York to lend the new museum some modernist gravitas, put four pieces on reserve. (This was the '60s LA equivalent of having Roberta Smith review your debut show and Kirk Varnedoe do a little layaway for MOMA.) Voila! A career.

Well, half a career, maybe. Success in LA in those days wasn't quite success. You still had to get on the scoreboard in grimy ol' Gotham. So, at about the same time Baldessari had his Barnes show, he was also making low-budget hustling trips to Manhattan. He went to meet artists— Edward Dugmore, for instance—whom Brach and Antin had recommended. “It didn't work out well,” Baldessari says, “because they were all painters and saw me as somebody hostile to what they did. ‘Why should we talk to you?’ Dugmore said, 'You're the enemy.'”

On the last day of one such sojourn in Manhattan, Baldessari went into the gallery of Richard Feigen (a dealer who would become even better known in the coming decades for expertly brokering everything from Fra Angelico to Ray Johnson) and left some work with his assistant Michael Findlay (another future star art salesman, now with Acquavella). Back in California, Baldessari got a letter from Findlay saying he was going to do a four-person show of Baldessari, Carol Brown, David Milne, and Ralph Pomeroy in Feigen's new “warehouse” gallery in SoHo. “I took another trip, to see the show. and went two times: The first, I saw Jasper Johns looking intently at the work; the second time, Harold Rosenberg. I thought, Jesus, it doesn't get any better than this. This is New York.” The rest fell into place when Findlay got a call from a German journalist who'd seen the show; the journalist had a friend—none other than Konrad Fischer—who was opening a gallery in Dusseldorf pioneering radical post-Minimalism and Conceptual art like Baldessari's. “That got me into Europe,” the artist remembers, “and into that important network that showed American artists in the '70s.”

Footnotes to history: Tuchman ended up buying nothing, and it would be three more years before LACMA acquired a work by Baldessari (Wrong, 1967). Molly Barnes ran on such a shoestring that the artist had to pay for the U-Haul that brought his work up from San Diego. Baldessari gave Barnes A Painting
That Is Its Own Documentation
, 1968—, in lieu of cash for the shipping. A few years ago, Barnes sold it for $750,000. “John, she gleefully told him, ”you paid for my New York apartment!

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum and the art critic for Newsweek.