For decades, John Baldessari has pioneered “conceptual art,” an art where it’s the idea that matters over the traditional cannons of aesthetics, techniques and materials. A chief claim of conceptualism is that skill is irrelevant and the idea from the artist’s head becomes art in the mind of the viewers as they try to figure out what they are seeing. The style is accepted as the extreme end of the highly intellectual avant-garde movement, which encompasses Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop.
As one of the most influential artist’s working today, Baldessari has successfully removed his own hand from his works in order to couple text with pre-existing images. His commercial, static style allows the unornamented text and appropriated image to impact the viewer without distraction. Images and texts behave in similar ways, both using formulas to convey their messages. The juxtaposition of both narratives in Baldessari’s work acts as a dual and complimentary means of communication, very similar to the methods used in the press. However, contrary to the press, Baldessari’s unique interplay between two kinds of information is amusing, often creating riddles or jokes.
This week’s Work of the Week! WOW! is I Saw It, which is a prime example of Baldessari’s tongue-in-cheek humor.
In this work, the artist pairs the image of a light fixture with the all caps words “I SAW IT.” The image is not an illustration of the text below it. The text is instead used to make the full range of the image available to the viewer. It is only upon reading the text that the light fixture loses its common identity and function to become a UFO. The humor in Baldessari’s work is a result of the subjection of ordinary everyday objects which take on unexpected meanings and messages.
John Baldessari is able to look beyond what is there, which opens the possibility for others to see things they normally wouldn’t. He avoids “good taste” and allows us to smile, if not laugh, through providing a new context. Just as the best humor is based on the unpredictable, the purpose of art, Baldessari has said, is to keep us “perpetually off-balance.”
Over the course of his career, Baldessari has been challenging audiences to reconsider the nature of art, with wit, humor and a captivating visual sense. And although he has played a crucial role in such major movements as conceptual art and appropriation art, perhaps his greatest contribution is “leveling the playing field,” encouraging viewers to take an active role in the construction of meaning.
Additional John Baldessari works available
Intersection Series – Person on Horse and Person Falling from Horse (with hearing), 2002
Large Door, from Hegel’s Cellar Portfolio, 1986
Two Figures (One with Shadow), from Hegel’s Cellar Portfolio, 1986