John Baldessari

Jack Wendler Gallery

I went to England this summer to make film loops of girls lifting their skirts, and possibly to write a bit, but the only interesting art I saw that wasn’t stuck in the didactic Conceptualism of the ’60s was a modest show by John Baldessari. After seeing English Conceptual work seemingly done by prematurely aged academics, which the English art world puts up with with the same stoicism as the English public did the three-day working week—and also not seeing many girls whose skirts I wanted to record myself lifting—Baldessari provided a breath of fresh air.

His work involved altered photographic identities (mainly his own) in three ways: 1) mechanically; 2) by words; and 3) by objects. Mechanically, he had a professional retoucher airbrush a series of color, and black-and-white photographs of himself; with words, Baldessari has people’s faces hidden by cards showing names and dates held by an anonymous hand; and with objects, Baldessari hides his own face with an assortment of hats held in exactly the same position. Sounds simple, but visually they’re nice. The hidden faces in a 12-part untitled piece with cards, for example, is like a film clapperboard gone wrong. Surely you shouldn’t cover the faces! Cards with names and dates don’t clarify but mystify. You have to take the different names and dates on trust. Is Randolph really behind the card, second photograph from left on the top line? Is Chris really behind the card, fifth photograph from left on the bottom line? Were all the photographs really taken on the 4th of March, 1974? And so it goes!

The two most successful pieces were the altered color and the hat self-portraits. The color was most sumptuous, and the hat one the most enigmatic. Color photographs of the ubiquitous John Baldessari, staring straight ahead, are subtly retouched to vary Baldessari’s features—color of skin, hair, etc. At first glance, they look alike. However, once you start checking the 11 variations against the control photograph, interesting and sometimes hilarious differences between each of the 11'' x 14'' photographs become apparent. More enigmatic are the black-and-white portraits in which Baldessari strikes seven identical poses covering his head with a different hat. You’re told; you also think: but do you know Baldessari’s behind the hats? And if he is, is he the same guy?

––James Collins