Los Angeles and the Loneliness of Images by Bessie Zhu15th December, 2010
Thoughts on John Baldessari: Pure Beauty
The Overlap Series: Jogger (with Cosmic Event), 2000-1, via The Met.
Something about the sun, the sprawl, the lanky persistence of palm trees and the hugeness of the sky in Los Angeles is very humbling. The space-to-individual ratio is very different than in New York, and it effects your perception of yourself. You don’t exist relative to other human beings, you exist in the space of yourself–that loneliest of geographies.
I’ll never forget the passage in Kerouac’s On the Road, when he talks about Los Angeles. When previously I had dismissed him as an uninteresting chauvinist, how he got Los Angeles made me a fan for life. He wrote:
I never felt sadder in my life. L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities: New York gets godawful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. L.A. is a jungle.
Baldessari makes me homesick for that jungle. There is a casualness and irreverence in his work which is made possible by a systematic gravity and a real understanding of art history and criticism. Baldessari recognized that the seriousness of art could only effectively be addressed with a sense of humor and self-deprecation (very Southern Californian). Take, for example, Baldessari’s text-centric works, where dingy white canvases proclaim false didacticisms in cutesy sans-serifs, Pure Beauty (1966-68), Everything is Purged from this Painting (1966-68), etc. and compare them to the strange and silly seriousness of his peer-in-beard Lawrence Weiner, Bronx-born. Weiner is a bumper sticker, Baldessari a comic book–funny, substantive, accessible, not dumb.
Everything is Purged from this Painting, (1966-68) via the Tate Modern.
There exists in his works a rare modesty and decided lack of self-importance, and I believe it’s a function of Californian geography. Works like Portrait: (Self), 1974 are studies in the mutability of self and the deceptive power of images, but also a mocking denial of self-importance. Identity, in the broad sense, becomes unimportant in his works, because it is situation and circumstance which is humanist and makes the loneliness of post-modernity bearable and, sometimes, funny. Situation is created in the vague narratives Baldessari creates through highly identifiable cues. Pistols, embraces, automobiles, a circle of red, a slash of magenta–universal evocations of things anyone can feel. In the loneliness of Los Angelian imagery, we are (I am) reminded by Baldessari’s works of our common capacity to real emotion.
Baldessari understands space like a true Californian. It is evident in the way his frames interrupt the geometries of other frames in his montages, and the importance of empty space, how it punctuates. It is the gallery wall between Baldessari’s compositions. It is how a plane of color replaces a face. It is the jagged blue against those palms.
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through January 9, 2011.