New York

John Baldessari

Sonnabend Gallery

Much so-called Conceptual art, regardless of the form it takes, is monumentally humorless. The smallest, most incidental occurrence, when singled out as a subject of artistic concern, assumes an intellectual gravity and importance that stifles any urge to smile. John Baldessari aligns his work against such current, facile high seriousness. His repertoire of fragmentary, puckish gestures cuts across most Conceptual territory and celebrates “unimportance” with irony and humor.

His recent show contained evidence of this quicksilver intelligence, but it also signaled, perhaps, a slight change in direction. As in the past, the works were mostly in series, a wry commentary on the obsessions which often lie behind serial art. An obvious example was a work called “Structure of Color Series” (the title reeks of esthetic seriousness)—six color photographs of a pretty girl eating fruit. The colors of the fruit constituted the work’s premise: red = apple, orange = orange, yellow = lemon, green = lime, and purple = plum. Blue is, of course, a problem. Baldessari blithely ignores it by using a bright blue pear. The gesture is characteristic of the superficial dumbness that pervades his art and makes it so accessible and amusing.

But this dumbness also masks more serious ideas that put us in touch with the vagaries of our subconscious processes in gentle but provocative ways. His target is the daydream, that mental whiling away of time that one never really acknowledges consciously, but often indulges in as a private, unimportant antidote to boredom. The implications of the fact that there is no natural blue fruit are by no means cosmic, but the idea might well intrigue one in an idle moment of rumination while, say, riding the subway. (Thinking of an artist for each letter of the alphabet is a foolishness I’ve engaged in myself under such circumstances.) Such pieces are executed with a disregard for photographic technique that lends them a snapshot quality—lotsa Kodachrome blue sky.

Many of his new works, however, reveal an increased interest in the photographic medium, both in the technical manipulations which he uses and the visual impact of the resulting images. His “Strobe Series/Futurist” comes as a surprise, not entirely pleasant, to one accustomed to the casual posture of his previous work. Here strobe lights and time exposures record objects in motion with startlingly graphic effects. The nature of the action recorded is characteristically banal (knocking over blocks with a stick; rolling two ping-pong balls from different angles and trying to make them hit each other), but the slickness of the images gives rise to the nagging fear that Baldessari just might be selling out to “art.”

The “Thaumatrope Series,” in which paired objects were split into separate photos (a bird and its cage; a horse and its rider), lacked the pungency which we have come to expect, as did the “Pathetic Fallacy Series,“ where faces connoting certain moods were double-exposed on inanimate objects (Wistful Chair; Glowering Hair). In both works the interest in photographic gimmickry overwhelmed the rather conceptually flabby subject matter.

In two of the new pieces the relationship to art sources has shifted, turning from funky dialogue with contemporary art ideas to the exploration of art historical subjects, as in the “Strobe” series’ Hommage to Balla and the study after Botticelli’s Primavera of a model with flowers spouting from her mouth. The results are not “dumb,” in the Baldessarian sense, but merely contrived and uninteresting. Much of the show suffered from similar deficiencies.

In his attempt to construct and estheticize images, Baldessari seems to have lost his grip on the conceptual incisiveness which informed his earlier work. The selection and presentation of eccentric information has given way to formal concerns which are not handled with his customary aplomb. With an artist of lesser talents there would be greater cause for alarm, but Baldessari’s wit, though dormant for the time being, surely will not be able to restrain itself for long. There is still ample evidence of its existence.

Nancy Foote