Los Angeles

John Baldessari, It’s Possible, Although . . . , 2015, varnished ink-jet print and acrylic on canvas, 54 1/2 × 71".

John Baldessari, It’s Possible, Although . . . , 2015, varnished ink-jet print and acrylic on canvas, 54 1/2 × 71".

John Baldessari

Sprüth Magers | Los Angeles

John Baldessari, It’s Possible, Although . . . , 2015, varnished ink-jet print and acrylic on canvas, 54 1/2 × 71".

Writing in these pages in 1995, art historian Lane Relyea remarked, “When you’ve experienced as much success as Baldessari has, you probably aren’t too worried about how urgent and timely your art looks, yet, without even trying, Baldessari’s still does.” Between then and now, the artist has rooted his legacy in Los Angeles, both as a significant pedagogical figure and as the subject of numerous touring museum retrospectives. This recent exhibition at Sprüth Magers, which inaugurated the gallery’s California venue, presented sixteen large ink-jet prints on canvas. All of the works featured found photographs while making room below the images for white strips on which captions were painted in Baldessari’s characteristically relaxed sans-serif typeface. As if to emphasize the work’s collaged nature, and continuing his practiced transgressions against painting’s historically accorded aura, the artist covered certain forms and areas of negative space within the prints with thick, sinewy expanses of acrylic. How timely—how urgent—does this art look today?

In Phil Works in the Kitchen . . . (all works 2015), a man rests on a red cushioned sofa with a leather duffel bag tucked beneath it. A field of white paint covers the space between the man’s crossed legs and the seat, while a wide white bar in the composition’s lower quadrant obscures part of the luggage, causing it to appear clipped. A similar play with depth appears in the upper left corner, where what would be the image’s background is covered in swaths of splashy kelly green. This scene, bereft of any affect, is captioned below it with the text PHIL WORKS IN THE KITCHEN SCRUBBING POTS AND PANS. Another work, Julie Climbs in Behind . . . , shows a cropped view of a man speaking at a pulpit, surrounded by microphones, his oxford shirt and tie respectively painted bleached white and the same green shade. Below the image is the phrase JULIE CLIMBS IN BEHIND THE WHEEL AND DRIVES AWAY. This graphic strategy—a typically Baldessarian one—was deployed to similar ends in each work in this exhibition, with forms such as footwear, bodies, and automobiles half shown and half concealed, and joined to language that could not possibly corroborate meaning. The artist’s conceptual gesture, illustrated repeatedly across each wall-mounted work, suggested how any attempt at close reading, at drawing together these montaged elements toward cohesion, is undercut by the very representational and linguistic structures through which these elements are perceived—and which are themselves contextually dependent.

Baldessari has worked to purify, refine, and distill this idea over decades of production, demonstrating that images and language evoke infinitely heterogeneous meanings. When does such a conceptual procedure, executed so precisely across media, become its own kind of image—gaining a legibility that is a testament to its iconicity? It’s worth asking whether these dozen-plus works appear to nudge the oeuvre over a delicate threshold, wherein the procedure of this approach (one that takes aim at our shared fictions of meaning) could be applied more broadly to what we mean when we affirm the collectively celebrated value—the legendary significance—of an “artwork by John Baldessari.” What exactly is gained today by continuing to exploit the capacity of images to free themselves from meaning? To avoid a stance? To dislocate reception or deflate allegory? For decades, artists and thinkers have deconstructed images from popular realms such as television, magazines, and film, while placing doubt on the broader possibility of representation meaningfully transforming reality. As would-be spectators occupy the sites of both image production and image reception, representation appears to harbor some of the strongest potential for the dissemination of knowledge and politics. An insistence on blasting such structures of meaning reads now as a sly prank aimed at disarming our potential for social transformation.

Nicolas Linnert