October 6, 2008
The text paintings “by” John Baldessari are both Modernist critique and a primer of conceptual art. Executed by a “sign-painter” from Baldessari’s instructions, these works fulfill the basic tenets espoused by Sol Lewitt [“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”(1)] and Lawrence Weiner [“The artist may construct the piece … The piece need not to be built.”(2)] in that they effectively focus our attention on the idea behind the work.
For example, if we consider the physical aspects of Baldessari’s “Exhibiting Paintings”, we can see that it consists of words painted in acrylic on stretched canvas. The work then exists within the realm of painting both through its use of traditional painting materials (paint and canvas) and its address of basic pictorial elements. Thus, Baldessari’s work embodies subtle allusions to Modernism and disjunctive relationships like “figure-ground” that would become standard terminology in 20th Century discourse about painting, causing “modern” painting to be judged inaccessible to many unfamiliar with its jargon.
What could be more accessible then than words? Words incorporate legibility, carry information and involve “active” participation. Baldessari only requires his “viewers” to become “readers.” Herein lies a fundamental yet often overlooked theoretical aspect to these dead-pan paintings because they encompass distinctions between “looking” and “reading.” As Simon Morley points out, Baldessari and Weiner understood that language could “direct viewers towards becoming more than the contemplators of an aesthetic object – the model of reception within the modernist paradigm.”(3)
The reasons for such attempts to transition art’s audience from viewing to reading are obvious enough – to privilege concept over object, to engage the intellect beyond surface aesthetics – yet the “act” of reading is not truly “passive” and the legibility of an image does not inherently “carry” legibility of “meaning,” after all.
In “Exhibiting Paintings”, Baldessari’s “real” concept is hidden beneath its “art” context of art materials and institutional validation (a museum). The irony here is that a work that seems ostensibly transparent in an approach to its “reading” actually requires more language in the form of supplemental materials (critical reviews, art history, lectures) that might help us to comprehend the work’s concept and “meaning.”
Ironic as well is Baldessari’s use of text from a popular “How To” book for artists. Presumably the “expert” knowledge given here is accepted as “fact” yet we can almost imagine Baldessari’s snickers of derision as his “sign-painter” inscribes the words. Mocking these somewhat naïve assumptions about art is par for the course in “modernism” and resurrects (again) the dichotomy between the “high” and “low” arts. But perhaps semiotics is the great equalizer here, as both his contractual laborer and Baldessari are dealing with “signs,” and neither purveyor has exclusivity rights with regard to the “meanings” conveyed through their chosen system of representation – language.
Image: “Exhibiting Paintings” (1967-1968); acrylic on canvas; © Copyright by John Baldessari.
1. Lewitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, Artforum, 5, No. 10, June 1967, 79.
2. Weiner, Lawrence. “Untitled Statement (1970)”, re-printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 839.
3. Morley, Simon. Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, Berkeley, 2003, 142-143.