New York

John Baldessari

Sonnabend Gallery

Of the work that falls under the rubric of “conceptualism,” John Baldessari’s has been among the most consistent and exemplary in terms of the attitudes that structured art during the late ’60s and ’70s. For this reason, a present view of his work allows us to reflect upon both the contribution that conceptualism has made to an understanding of art and our relationship to it, and something of its ultimate limitations.

Among the most characteristic qualities of Baldessari’s work has been its “chasteness” and “humanism.” Making no claims to be other than what they present, and cognizant of the spectators’ need to create their own space of meaning in the work, his objects have attempted to demystify the creative process. Like many artists of his generation, Baldessari has striven to redefine art outside its hermetic and habitual traditions, dramatizing the incidental and the coincidental of everyday life. His is an anthropological art, excavating the mythopoietic structures of human society—the organizing principles applied to chance and process that create meaning from non-sense—and their expression through our culture’s televisual, literary, and cinematic representations. Thus Baldessari defines art as a system of language circumscribed by codes operative both inside and outside the frame around the art object.

Typical of the artist’s work has been a Duchampian interplay of photographic images, often incorporating verbal inscriptions. Paradoxical, ironic, absurdist disjunctions offer burlesque effects through their reliance on our conscious: “knowing” recognition of repetition, difference, and the currency of art. In Baldessari’s most recent body of work the image receives no textual support other than a descriptive title. Multiple imagery and incongruity are motivated toward a discourse on male sexuality which, typically, flirts with cliché. Hair, Arm, Teeth, 1984, for instance, abandons the framing rectangle, amalgamating photographic images of two heads (female and feline) with an embracing arm into an irregular gestalt. The work refers us to sexually inscribed dualities: Beauty and the Beast, woman’s pleasure and male impotence, the vagina dentata and the phallus. The association of woman with an animalistic sexuality recurs in Man and Woman with Bridge, 1984, which presents a classic Hollywood image of idealized romance: a man and a woman locked in a visual embrace. The woman’s gaze seduces, illuminated and fully visible, while the man’s is averted and in shadow; the two looks are bridged by an inserted image of a fox crossing a horizontal pole, the animal (nature, sexuality) moving from the woman’s eyes to captivate the man’s. The visual (and oedipal) triangle formed between the gazes of viewer and couple appears literally in Starry Night Balanced on Triangulated Trouble, 1984, a work that perhaps comes close to portraying the frustration of language. A triangular frame encloses the image of a man struggling to emerge from a grounded airplane; on the triangle’s apex sits a rectangular photograph of a night sky. Although in his notes to this work the artist speaks of “having an inkling of the vastness of possibility,” the images seem rather to emphasize impossibility: Baldessari’s man is a “fourth term” delimited and grounded in the symbolic triangle, and spatially alienated, moreover, from any transcendental other.

This work makes problematic the belief of conceptually oriented artists in language’s authority to define the world and the self, and in their own control over language. If the recognition of art as part of a linguistic system allowed conceptualism to free art from the constraints of tradition, it also became the instrument of its limitation: it led to an emphasis on the symbolic, defining function of language at the expense of the imaginary—an acknowledgment of the image’s semiotic organization but a blindness to its fascinating or “uncanny” effect. Where the image is subtended by text, the text assumes authority and distracts from the image; where images are framed by the visual equivalent of a grammatical structure (such as the minimalist grid), that structure orders and subdues their potential incoherence. Thus in Kiss/Panic, 1984, Baldessari’s image fragments become motivated signs by virtue of the containing grid: the work demands to be read as a “meaningful” text. Text, context, and frame induce a stabilizing effect on the image: keeping it from tripping the mechanism that would allow it passage through the preconscious-conscious screen into the less coordinated space of the unconscious.

Baldessari’s play of associations is a play of signifiers in an already prescribed symbolic system that assumes an ultimate signified. However much the work transgresses given codes, they remain its point of departure; its illogic is determined by the logic of the ordering principle of language. But when language alone “defines” man, man loses himself in its representing power and becomes other than himself. Language can mediate man, but can define only itself. If “man” exists he is to be found where language is silent, in the space within the work that cannot be accounted for.

Jean Fisher