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.


Emily Chimiak said...

your discussions here and at the museum are great. clear and interesting.

when i returned from the museum talk, i was asked about the painting. 'very exciting!' 'what does it look like?' 'boring'

the painting is easy to overlook. it is bland in color and it is composed of commonly used symbols, a standard font. the painting forces you to read the words, because there is nothing to distract your eyes. the content of the message is equally unmemorable.

it is discussing the baldessari's idea that brings this painting to life.

i thought it was interesting that there are typos in the message. another laugh at the 'expert' how-to book?

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Many thanks for your kind words. Perhaps the "landlord color" makes it "boring?" For more on the typos and a theory on their "cause-and-effect" visit this site.

Nikad said...

I've been thinking about about John Baldessari's painting since it was discussed on Friday. Well, actually I've been thinking more about the frame of "Exhibiting Paintings" more than the paint itself.

My curiosity piqued when a Hirshorn staff member told an anecdote about the painting. Apparently a museum patron complained to an employee about the typos on the sign downstairs. Hirshorn staff later realized the "sign" in question was in fact Baldessari's painting.

I can begin to see how the patron mistook that painting for a sign. For this confusion, I blame the frame.

Consider this: if the painting was hung sans frame, it would reveal itself as a canvas. A canvas then signals 'painting.'

If the frame existed by was thicker, more ornate, colored differently than that "landlord" yellow, it would read more as a 'frame.' A frame then signals with a painting is within it.

However, "Exhibiting Paintings" was a presented with neither of these options. It had a frame- but it was hardly noticeable. It is a thin, less than one inch thick, straight-edge, wood frame. It is a natural light wood color, somewhere between the white of the walls and yellow of the canvas.

Ultimately, it is rather aesthetically insignificant. I would not be surprised if I was the only one there who considered its role.

The frame did not have the presence of a frame. It was indeed more like a signpost that houses an informational sign.

I assert that, by removing or replacing the frame, "Exhibiting Paintings" would register more as an exhibited painting. (One that note: I think if this piece was more painting-like spectators would be more understanding of the "typos" - like this blogger in particular.)

Now, the question is, who chose the frame? Is this frame part of the intellectual/aesthetic design of Baldessari himself? or a bizzaro choice by a Hirshhorn curator?

Emily Chimiak said...

I didn't consider how the frame contributed to the sign.

Are there examples of other artists that use frames to give a painting the appearance of another object?

i vote that baldessari chose this frame. the hirshorn crew would not have dared to frame it because the purpose of the artwork at the Hirshorn is different from piece to piece... the paintings are not there to look nice.

i wonder if baldessari had intended you to notice the frame at all, or if you have just added richness to his artwork with your clever observation.