New York

John Baldessari

Sonnabend Gallery

John Baldessari has trained generations of audiences to look behind the curtain of appearances and question how meaning is generated. He attends to the forgotten corners of images, to puns and juxtapositions that pry a cockeyed poetry from the banal, and in so doing, he has consistently upheld the basic tenets of Conceptualism: its concern with tautologies, linguistic conundrums, and the self-referentiality of image-making. His recent show presented work from almost thirty years ago, a series of paintings anchored to a rigorous theoretical framework that is, nevertheless, entirely explicated on the invitation card.

In keeping with the artist’s no-brainer honesty in titling, the series is called “The Commissioned Paintings.” In the text on the invite, we learn that when the artist was a kid, he would go with his father to country fairs where he often spent time looking at the work of local painters. When he decided to execute the series in 1969, he tracked down some of these artists (whose names he had written down) and gave them slides he had recently taken. In the slides, he had instructed an artist friend to “walk around and point at things/events that interested him in his visual field.” Baldessari says that the idea came from painter Al Held, “who is reported to have said ‘All conceptual art is just pointing at things.’” Baldessari goes on, “Each painter was asked to copy a slide of his or her choice and not try to make art out of it. Each was paid a fee. When completed, each painting was brought to a sign painter who affixed the artist’s name.”

The recent exhibition comprised eleven of the fourteen works Baldessari made in this way. Each approximately five-by-four-foot canvas presents a minor still life—a banana in a bowl; paint marks on a table; an encrusted stove top—into which a hand reaches from the right side of the frame, pointing to a particular, though unremarkable, spot. The objects are rendered with workmanlike accuracy in comfortable, Norman Rockwell-like palettes. Each scene is isolated on the top half of a plain white ground, and in the blank space beneath is a caption in plain black capital letters—“a painting by Anita Storck”; “a painting by Pat Perdue”—that functions as the title for the respective work.

The series offers a beginner’s lesson in the nuts and bolts of Conceptualism. The ideation is broken down step by step: the sensibility that chooses and points, the photographer who frames, the painter who renders, the (second) painter who names, leading back to the artist who points not to random areas of interest in the everyday but to the strata of representation, both visual and linguistic, which shroud and shape that interest into what we call art. When the works were first shown in 1970, questions of connoisseurship, authorship, high and low, etc. may have prevailed. But what these paintings offer today is a reminder that blatant silliness can coexist with complex thinking—that the grace and totality of well-made objects are, sometimes, the best expressions of representation’s basic instability.

Frances Richard