the baldessari retrospective pretty much put me over the moon. i believe he is one of the few conceptual artists that most viewers of art can appreciate. that is not to say his work is easily digestible, for it is & it isn’t (it’s sticky & haunting, in a good way). your first impression of his work at this decade-by-decade retrospective is of his early ‘sign’ paintings; they are witty & irreverent & i believe that the comedy at the surface makes it easy to say, “i like this guy.” what happens afterward is that his joke (like all good jokes) is based on the truth.
they’re also a little slippery (like a piece of fruit you’ve just bitten into); you think you’ve got a handle on his subtext & intent, & the meaning suddenly starts to drip down your chin & onto your hands & you grapple with it as if it might slip right out of your hands & land with a plop on the floor at your feet.
baldessari makes you look at art in new ways & to re-consider how & what you believe is art. two works from the 70s illustrated this; one a linear series of 41 color photographs of a red ball that had been thrown up against the blue, blue sky, each photograph connected by a ‘thread’ of graphite so that the balls all formed a straight line (some photos were higher/lower than others to achieve this effect). each photo was spaced exactly the same distance from the following one in an open invitation to travel its entire length (possibly 20′ or 30′) as you bear witness to its trajectory in each photograph. the revelation, for me, was that when you stood back from the work, it was a sinuous line of blue, a shallow wave coming ashore. beautiful.
the 2nd: “wrong” from 1966-68, one of the sign paintings that also incorporated photographs features a photograph of the artist taken in front of a suburban tract house. he is positioned so that a palm tree appears to grow directly out of his head (which is ‘wrong’), but it is also wrong that an artist (a successful one at least) would be living in a suburb, & in a suburb in southern california (not new york). but yet, the viewer, although ‘in’ on the joke, is still forced to decide whether it is the truth or not. (hint: it is.)
baldessari has stated that “a word can’t substitute for an image, but is equal to it.” his heavily ironic appropriation of quotes from art critics (& theoretically art historians–shudder) confront the notions of art & aesthetics held sacrosanct by these writers.
but, because he lets us all in on the joke, that fresh approach is completely democratic & as i said at the beginning of this post, it is completely approachable by all viewers regardless of sophistication, education, knowledge. the combination of the narrative power of images with their counterpart, the associative power of language make baldessari, i believe, a touchstone for post-modern art-making.