John Baldessari, Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (Best of 36 Tries), 1972–73, 8 color photographs, 89 1/2 x 13 3/4".

John Baldessari, Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (Best of 36 Tries), 1972–73, 8 color photographs, 89 1/2 x 13 3/4".


John Baldessari

mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien
Museumsplatz 1
March 4–July 3, 2005

Curated by Rainer Fuchs (Vienna) and Peter Pakesh and Adam Budak (Graz)

Also on view at Kunsthaus Graz

A photo and a word. A four-by-five-foot stretched canvas with a deadpan black-and-white photograph printed on its acrylic surface, showing a lanky westerner standing in front of a palm tree that seems to be growing out of his head, confronted by the single word WRONG neatly lettered below. Critics have come to see this 1967–68 work as John Baldessari’s signature piece and taken it as a laconic gag, one of a series of droll Conceptualist challenges aimed at the compositional standards of conventional photography. This casts Baldessari as a kind of Will Rogers of Conceptual art, and what kind of Conceptualism is that? California Conceptualism, for most of us, who saw it further develop with William Wegman’s loyal Weimaraners, Robert Cumming’s nutty installations, Eleanor Antin’s “100 BOOTS” 1971–73, and Lowell Darling’s political campaigns. Cartoon Conceptualism, for Joseph Kosuth, who preferred the turgid theorizing of Art & Language and his own pedantic prose.

But if Wrong is Baldessari’s signature piece, is it as simple as an arrow directed at a meaning? Another work from around the same time (1967–68) casts doubt on this—a text piece that has lettered on its otherwise blank white ground


a claim that becomes absurd once you ask yourself what this one property could be, which might be that it’s manifestly false, and then retreat to wonder if, in fact, the text presents a claim at all or merely an invitation to try to imagine a work possessing one property only—and its difficulties. The bluntness of this text’s assertion, if it is an assertion, and its dubiousness connect it directly to Wrong, about which we can reasonably ask, “What’s WRONG?” and answer, “You think you’re looking at a photograph, but it’s a painting.” Or, “You think you’re looking at a painting, but it’s a photograph.” Or, “You think you’re looking at a provincial artist in a drab little city cracking a joke at his situation.” And you’re RIGHT. But you’re also WRONG, because he was employing a cutting-edge art-world strategy for attacking received meaning. So the artist’s ploy of being WRONG for making a photograph and WRONG for making a painting was precisely RIGHT for making the kind of critical art that Conceptual art was claiming to be. It seems like we’re dealing with another form of the Cretan Paradox—in which Epimenides tells you, “All Cretans are liars”; if he’s telling the truth he’s lying, and if he’s lying he’s telling the truth. So Wrong may truly be a signature piece, in that all of Baldessari’s incursions into video, photography, and painting have been very obviously WRONG, because he stumbles as precisely as a silent-era film comedian into the orderly discourses surrounding the genres, leaving the kind of cheerful mess that is usually RIGHT.

How RIGHT? Viewers of the forthcoming Austrian retrospective of Baldessari’s work, the first since the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1990 survey, will find out. Mounted at two museums in two cities, the exhibition brings together some two hundred works in all media. In Vienna, MuMoK will show work made between 1962 and 1983; the Graz Kunsthaus picks up from there and brings us up to the present. So view- ers in Germany and Austria should have ample opportunity to consider the meanings provoked by this California master of paradox. With luck, viewers in the United States will also have a chance to consider this retrospective at a later date.

David Antin