New York

John Baldessari

Sonnabend Gallery

Over the last 15 years or so, John Baldessari’s contribution to the development of post-Modernism has become increasingly evident. That Baldessari considers his art making and his teaching to be a unified practice points up his modest pragmatism: art and ideas are to be used rather than fetishized. In a manner deceptively whimsical and open-ended, he has staked out the present modes of critical inquiry (photo deconstruction, investigation of mass media, appropriation, and allegory) with uncanny rigor.

Out of an early affinity to John Cage’s esthetic, Baldessari works from direct, literal perceptions of the world, finding his subject matter in immediate experience. For him, however, bypassing the calcification of art-historical genres and canons leads not to a fascination with randomness but to the question of the role of the unconscious in shaping what finally congeals into an image. Baldessari focuses on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the text or picture—i.e., the very “stuff” of the signifier. It is this materiality that counts in his work. In comparison, the normative idealization of such materiality as pure message—as a kind of free-floating conceptual meaning—seems impoverished. (In My Files of Movie Stills, an informal lexicon of film images that he assembled in 1985, only “upside down” and “unconscious” appear under the letter U.) Baldessari’s treatment of images is disarmingly simple: to reveal what a camera ultimately records, regardless of the intent; to see images as things, just as the unconscious does. In this way, his photo constructions break down customary concatenations of signs. For these, film stills afford the best raw material because of their largely overdetermined character; wrest a scene away from the plot’s clutches and latent meanings become startlingly clear.

Not surprisingly, given the openness of his approach, Baldessari eschews tendentiousness (political, esthetic, or otherwise); nonetheless, he demonstrates a near-fatal addiction to jokes, which are tendentious in their allusions to otherwise inexpressible thoughts and desires. The joke’s economy of means is necessarily intensive (as Freud insisted), yet also necessarily discreet. That is its subversiveness, which neatly complements this particular artist’s characteristic modesty. Detractors complain that it’s too easy to “get” Baldessari’s art—without bothering to consider the tacit dialectic of presence and absence implicit in representation. His throwaway punch lines leave viewers on their own; far easier to fall back on an overly slick appearance or a stolidly correct slogan.

Formally, what Baldessari calls “this year’s line” is somewhat different from its predecessors. In the mixed-media photo-collages shown here, all from 1987, there are more color photos than before (actually, mechanically tinted black-and-white prints), and selected areas of many of the photos have been painted out by hand. The latter give the work the garish look of early Pop art. (“Why did the Conceptual artist take up painting? He thought it was a good idea.”) These painted sections, most of which are neatly hard-edged, intimate doodling in their obviousness. Many are face-obscuring dots. Specific instances include a row of ridiculous pouf buttons on a mime’s blouse extended to mask his face in Couple, the filled-in eyeglasses in Planets, the blocked-out pictures in Bloody Sundae. In each case the almost offhand mark obliterates the salient focal point, ironically leaving the chore of expressivity to the “framing” material that formerly buttressed it. Moreover, this gesture allegorizes how the path of the artwork into the world and into history (pace Marcel Duchamp and Maurice Blanchot) effaces the artist’s personal attachment to it. This includes definition of meaning as well as ownership. The author is first separated, then ultimately excluded from the work as it assumes an objective status, despite the cocoon of publicity that might initially celebrate that author as “a personality.” This anonymity seems to have something to do with the function of sublimation in building all that is enduring in culture. Baldessari treats it with appropriately dry amusement.

John Miller