Art / by Jack Ruttan

No More Boring Art

John Baldessari at the Musee d'Art Contemporain, fall, 1991.

When I went to meet John Baldessari at the Musee d'Art Contemporain, the gallery was still being set up for his retrospective, which when this comes out, will have opened last Sunday. He's a big, white-haired man with the patient voice of a teacher. He held up a bottle of orange juice to demonstrate, first, orange juice, then holding it higher, orange juice as art. The fame and influence he has acquired in his life seems to him like a pleasant surprise. He didn't expect it when starting out, so it comes as a bonus in work he would do anyways.

He says that in making his art, he looks at everything with 360 degree vision. The work reflects this. All of his images are second hand, taken from movie stills or news photos, or snapshots not meant to be composed or "arty." He doesn't physically create the pieces of art himself, rather he directs it, like the maker of a film. Most of his work is devoted to looking at, analyzing, and in the end changing the way we perceive pictures.

He makes much of his art by choosing a certain part of a picture, then cropping it or framing it in a particular way. He pares away at his images until what's left is just the essential. Baldessari says his work is layered like an onion. You can go down into it as far as you like. His method can be seen in a work called Two Stares Making a Point But Blocked by a Plane. Looking at it, your first impulse is to lift the white square to see what the two men are staring at. Frustration ensues when you realise you'll never find out. "Aha," you sigh like the Zen Master's pupil, your reaction is what the piece is about. Then, as in a good mystery story, there's the final twist. That carelessly placed white square is lined up exactly with the edge of the wall in the bottom of the picture. You're set wondering all over again.

These are fascinating games, but after a while you ask if games are all they are. The pictures seem brilliant on the surface but shallow underneath, like one-liners by an art-world Woody Allen.

Baldessari's later work is more substantial. With it, he uses the vocabulary of tricks he taught us in his earlier years to a more serious purpose. Again, the pictures have you looking up, down and sideways, but the subject matter at hand is more disturbing. Faces are blotted out not by squares but by circles that resemble bullet holes. A red Sigmund Freud drips blood on the face of a broken statue. Concentration camp victims are piled up under a photo of shelves at a grocery store. No longer mainly intellectual art pranks, the pictures are expressions of sadness and anger.

Obviously, different people will get different things out of these pictures, depending on how deep into the onion a viewer wants to go. An early motto for Baldessari was "No More Boring Art," and he lives up to it. There is no right or wrong in this quizmaster's exam. As he puts it, the boundaries for interpreting his work aren't limitless, but most people end up in the ballpark.

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