New York

John Baldessari

When, in 1971, John Baldessari made a video titled I will not make any more boring art, he wasn’t kidding. Sure, he was delivering a cheeky one-off that poked fun at Conceptual strategies even while deploying them, but he was also making a promise to himself and his audience to keep things interesting. A case in point some three decades later: the artist’s recent exhibition of new work, which bears the bona fide Baldessarian stamp of pointed humor and unwavering formal invention.

Baldessari’s oeuvre has been continuously fueled by words and images that catch the artist’s roving eye for an extra millisecond, slowing his continuous scanning of art history, popular culture, and everyday life. Plucking such persistent anomalies from the gorged stream of free-flowing stuff, Baldessari’s delight has consistently been in highlighting the communicative haziness immanent to every seemingly straightforward sign. Indeed, his found images—so often harvested from the ostensibly populist fields of television, magazines, newspapers, and Hollywood movies—prove no less opaque than the most obscure high-art inventions. It’s been noted over the years that Baldessari’s works—from early text-based to subsequent image-only—carry semiotic thrust, though the nature of any resulting “sentences” is, tellingly, less agreed upon. Since the ’70s, disparate photographic images have been paired, overlaid, and overpainted, while organized structurally into grids and rows, or with a horizontal element bisecting a vertical one. Another mode of such “writing” was later effected by way of the artist’s signature dots, which seemed to serve as effusive punctuation marks (sometimes rather tautologically effacing faces). Those rebuslike works prompted a kind of spontaneous word association, whereby viewers tried to “sound out” what they saw. While not wholly resistant—every one of Baldessari’s works is chock-full of internal rhymes—there is ultimately no cracking the code.

Baldessari’s newest works feel less like linguistic constructions with nouns, verbs, and adjectives ready to be prodded into meaning. Instead, they take on the characteristics of those hems and haws, hesitations, and stutters that are as much a part of communication as any words in the dictionary. (These likely fit into the category “accompaniments of the utterance” identified by the philosopher J.L. Austin.) Two interrelated series (all works 2004) populated Baldessari’s exhibition: large-scale, three-dimensional, single-image works and vertical columns made up of stacks of individually framed, subtly tinted pictures. Hybrid photo-paintings from the first series used color (a vivid orange in particular) to replace things and people, with each place-keeping shape emitting different intensities of chromatic buzz. Large Glass (Orange): And Person (Duchampian pun surely intended), for instance, features a close-up black-and-white profile of a man with a heavily clefted chin, the rest of his face eradicated by an enormous white dot, his fingertips resting lightly on the razed contours of an enormous—though now absent—goblet. Literally cut out of the composition, the glass becomes, paradoxically, all the more present, its schematic silhouette overflowing with the glow of bright pigment emanating from the surface below.

The stack works are afflicted with the most severe “stutter.” In pieces like Six Rescues: With Boats and People (From Blue to Violet) and Ten Suitcases: With People (Black and White), the artist mines the effects of difference and repetition, exposing an aesthetic lexicon that is at once expansive and completely self-referential. As with similar works from the ’70s, here Baldessari catenates multiple instances of a single motif—whether women’s eyes, thick ropes, or red lines—not to garner any cohesive definition of each category but, rather, to evince from them unexpected tongue twisters.

Johanna Burton