A Mindblowing Piece of Conceptual Art by John Baldessari
I thought it might be helpful to really try to dig into the deep thinking of one of the greatest conceptual artists of the 20th and now 21st centuries. Naturally, he hails from Los Angeles, California where the most deep-thinking artists in the country have resided. I heard Baldessari speak to my art class in the mid-70s and he struck me as being severely mentally impaired and talking complete drivel. But then, I hadn’t been through the four-year program that would clue me in to just why I was an idiot and Baldessari was a genius.
Unfortunately I remained an idiot through my entire undergraduate years. I never really got conceptual art at all… I tried everything… I pissed into a trash can and poured it down the stairs of the art building. (I unfortunately was ahead of my time in discovering piss as a viable art material) I stuffed raw hamburger meat behind my canvas and cut through the canvas with a knife. (It was a comment on the tyranny of McDonald’s hamburgers.) I ejaculated into a bowl of jello while screaming “Death to the Establishment!” (This one got me arrested and I was left unable to explain my meaning to the art faculty). So through the mysterious workings of cruel fate somehow my work was outside the bounds of acceptable conceptual taste at the time.
And so I gave up on it, never to reach the heights attained by John Baldessari and many others of his caliber. Every conceptual artist deals profound philosophical issues and doggedly pursues them with the rigorous thinking of a Descartes filtered through the advances made to his contribution by thinkers like Jacques Lacan and Michel Houllebecq. But unlike the latter, whose thinking erupts in fireworks of illumination, John Baldessari focusses his thinking more deeply and narrowly. As he explains in the video below his works deal with the eternal question that has bewildered philosophers through the centuries: “What is the difference between a part and a whole?”
While he hasn’t solved the riddle you can see in the video below that just the pursuit of it has produced art of remarkable poetic power (if you happen to revere the poetry of Rod McKuen and William Shatner, that is).
So listen carefully. I’ll print the entirety of his statement underneath the video as the blinding insights he’s imparting will no doubt have you reeling to the point you’re unable to take them in.
“One of the underlying themes of my work over the years I think is trying to figure out in my mind the difference between a part and a whole.”
The “underlying themes” are of central importance to works of contemporary art as there’s nothing much to look at on the surface that’s of any interest. Part of what makes Conceptual Art so profoundly compelling is that the surface is so mind-numbingly boring that one is forced to confront the “underlying themes”. If one were to pass a work like those on display in the Baldessari retrospective at your local shopping mall one would no doubt pass it by with no more than a glance. I have no doubt that unenlightened and ignorant art shoppers would be more transfixed by the display of Lego Art or Santa and his Helpers ChristmasWorld. Thus they would be missing the work of one of the Greatest Artists of our time entirely! What fools these shoppers be!
But thankfully for them, our major Museums are able to separate out these works of conceptual genius from the vulgar and mundane displays at a shopping mall. This allows the brain-dead shoppers to see actual culture. To see what they’re missing as they rush through life with their shopping bags! To stop and think for a minute! To become truly cultured by studying the works of a Contemporary Master: John Baldessari. In the Museum (after paying their 18 bucks) they can can concentrate on the deep underlying themes of Baldessari’s work and genius, which clearly has nothing whatsoever in common with the things one sees in shopping malls….except on the surface.
The primary thing that separates Baldessari’s art from a display of Lego Art in the shopping mall is that his art is far less interesting to look at. The other thing is that the Lego Art has no deep underlying themes. Naturally viewers of Baldessari’s art are too stupid to get these underlying themes on their own. So art critics and even Baldessari himself have endeavored to wake them up from their stupors by explaining the meaning of the art to them.
So Baldessari reveals to us:
“And I never quite get it right because a part can become a whole and a whole can become a part and back and forth.”
He’s spent a lifetime thinking about this and pursuing it in his work and this is what he comes up with. Yes. It seems pretty fucking stupid on the surface. But think some more. Cutouts with colored incisions and raised eyebrows? (Get it? It’s a pun!! A raised eyebrow! And a furrowed brow!). Puns and paradoxes. The cosmic joke. And it’s about “thinking” isn’t it? Think about it!
“The art is about trimming the fat off of stuff to get to the heart of the matter. That was a mixed metaphor but anyway…”
A mixed metaphor? “Trimming the fat off of stuff”? What stuff? Now I’m lost….. The heart of what matter? The matter of the stuff? The art stuff?
“I always call it being so reductive to the point where you almost kill the patient. You want to kill…each patient alive.”
I could barely hear that last part… I was reeling. It couldn’t have been that his speech was garbled! That doesn’t happen to geniuses and so I have forgiven for not being worthy to really hear it clearly.
Baldessari “trimming the fat off stuff”. This, perhaps is what is meant by “almost killing the patient.” As if you trim off too much fat then what is the patient to live on? So you trim it way, way down… Almost enough to kill the patient (the art?) but not quite.”
This is what Greenberg had painters doing… Trim off that fat! Get rid of the figures and the deep space and any kind of representation… Dripping paint from sticks! That’s good, Jackson! Good boy! But not quite enough really… Helen! Pour out some nice colors on a canvas… Better… Why not a single color! How about white? You take that and run with it, Ryman!
But why bother with painting? Too much fat still needing to be trimmed. Just evaporate the patient entirely? But how to sell an evaporated patient? A bunch words on a wall?
Nah, thinks Baldessari,… let’s make some more paintings but call them conceptual art… Brilliant! Genius!
Of course there can’t be anything worth looking at or then they wouldn’t be conceptual artworks. So here’s the secret:
“But strip it down till… you know.. there’s still life there but one more stroke it’s dead. (chuckle)”
The chuckle’s quite important at the end so you understand it’s a witty remark.
So. Put another incised mark arbitrarily placed and arbitrarily colored and it’ll be dead. But leave it out and the work is pulsing with gripping reductive life. Then delve beneath the surface and you’re on your way to a deep philosophical investigation that Baldessari has engaged in for years over the question: how can a part become a whole and a whole become a part.
I’m still pondering the question that Baldessari has raised in his work. What is the relationship between a part and a whole? What is the relationship between an ass and an asshole?
Is conceptual art about starting out as an ass and becoming an asshole? Is what comes out of Baldessari’s asshole art just like the great Duchampian Piero Manzoni‘s art?
Deep thoughts, folks… Deep thoughts…
Manzoni’s art, as explained by who else but him and his promoter Germano Celant, was a protest against consumerism of all things! He canned his own shit as a protest against consumerism in order to bring mankind back to universal and authentic values. Like canned shit. There’s art world thinking for you. Baldessari comes right out of Duchamp and Manzoni, yet with the wonderful twist that his anti-consumerist work sells for big bucks. Anybody got any idea what a single one of Baldessari’s trite POP knockoffs sells for?
(above) Another Baldessari masterpiece. Unbelievably, he’s made thousands of works of art all at this caliber of genius. Duchamp himself only managed a handful of idea pieces in his lifetime. But keep in mind that American Artists are invariably superior to their European counterparts, reducing the boring excess of Duchamp (even) in all the pieces that followed the genius of his early works like the hatrack and the urinal.