John Baldessari and Daniel Buren

Matrix Gallery at Wadsworth Atheneum

The Matrix Gallery is a section of the Wadsworth Atheneum which has provocative shows for the region it serves, although its choices are fairly New York establishment. What was interesting about this particular show was the presentation of two artists, and two artists whose art is obviously so different. John Baldessari’s photographs were chosen to point up his interest in color. Some of the newer sequences were shown at the Whitney Biennial; others were more than five years old. Color is a feature of his work that most people have not discussed, except to call it “sumptuous,” which doesn’t say a whole lot. Baldessari uses color in two distinct ways, although they happen to coincide every now and then. One: color is a property of a thing, and is never an abstraction. Two: the photographic process can make color ambiguous—the color we see is not necessarily the color of the thing. A corollary to the first is that sometimes one cannot be systematic about color if it must be shown to be an attribute of real objects (the blue pear in Structure by Color). Further, color is just a property which goes along with the object; it cannot be made to “express” emotion, or bring the viewer to some emotional response (Pathetic Fallacy Series, where “peach” cannot elicit a response of “stoicism”). The Car Color Series (Volvo, dirty and polished) lays the ambiguity right at our feet: the color of a thing (car) is presented out of context (in close-up); while unseen processes change the color and surface from one shot to the next. Needless to say, Baldessari continues to bring things off with considerable panache. No surprise there.

Daniel Buren was no surprise either, except that he seems never to tire of doing the same old thing. You can look at Baldessaris again and again, but Buren wears thin. A lengthy description of what Buren was trying to do takes more time than viewing the “work.” What he was trying to do, he says, is “thrust the viewer into a dialogue with museum spaces.” That is stretching the meaning of “dialogue,” or thinking that spaces can talk. But really, what he’s doing is calling our attention to something. He surrounds a number of spaces or paintings with his striped cloths. The best parts were the undone sections of cloth which fell off the wall into/onto a Rauschenberg; and those which “framed” two very large tapestries, both of a revolutionary American nature. What I still can’t figure out is: why striped cloth? Why black and white striped cloth? Why that width?

So we have two very different spirits. Buren even frames one of Baldessari’s sequences. I doubt if any viewer takes Buren seriously, since one only thinks about framing and the sequences of paintings in a museum for a very short time until consciousness sets in and one realizes it’s virtually a priori—someone’s got to arrange the stuff. It is fact, like pointing, a tautology. Buren’s frames become objects, just Art, too. They intrude or recede irrespective of whether we give them any thought as ideas.

Baldessari is the opposite: no point can be made without the photographs. They are not about museum space per se, but include the contemplation of spaces which can be any space (Baldessari uses the artist’s studio). Further, he gives the consequences of real sequence: he draws us outside the museum to other spaces and frames his photographs with the ironies of successive perception. Buren’s heavy-handedness can’t compete with Baldessari’s carefully thought-out, but fanned-out meanings; Buren frames his own works as he frames others. It’s as if he didn’t know the meaning of English slang “frame.” If an artist is going to point, I’d rather it be at a blue pear than at the floor of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Jeff Perrone