New York

John Baldessari

Sonnabend Gallery

It was even more difficult to know how seriously JOHN BALDESSARI wished us to take his “Fugitive Essays”; perhaps because the confusion, even in the end, was not so bittersweet. The subject of the humor appeared to be characteristic Baldessari—banal or conventional ways of ordering information. But Baldessari’s elaborate alternative did not point us in the direction of another: the methodology misfired.

On the gallery walls, at three different heights, were photographs of three different “types” of information, in three different types of corresponding frames. One didn’t have to decipher the code—the press release, written by Baldessari, left (purposefully, one supposes) nothing to the imagination. At the highest level, near the ceiling, hung the “irregular” pieces, photographs of what the artist categorized as “foreboding, anxiety, the Dionysian, chaotic, unexplored,” represented by close-ups of a hornet, a rhinoceros, a caterpillar, etc., in geometrically “irregular” frames. Mid-level were the “regular” pieces, in small square or rectangular frames—photographs of a human arm, a human back. Such regularity, Baldessari explained, is characteristic of “classic, salon-type photography and subject matter.” And at the bottom hung the symmetrical, “Appollonian” pictures of geometric shapes, representing “control, reason, passivity.” The release further elaborated, just in case we might have missed the already belabored point, that these were “. . . essays on escape. Fugitive to mean temporary discourse, not the final word . . . A literary term since these are visual poems.”

If we take this coding seriously, we find ourselves beginning to ponder something as profound as the correspondence between the hair on a human arm and the texture of a paper towel, both hung mid-level. To attempt a humorous reading is equally puzzling. If Baldessari had wanted to amuse, he should have given us a clue. One hates to feel as if one is misunderstanding difficult poetics, but that was not the case here. Baldessari, in humor or seriousness, in this show managed to obscure his point. We are left wondering why an artist of Baldessari’s ability applied to his own art the kind of restrictions that he so wishes to escape.

Joan Casademont