John Baldessari: Pure Beauty at the Met

Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Anita Storck, 1969
This work, up at the Met as part of its John Baldessari: Pure Beauty exhibition, was painted by Anita Storck, an artist who, like others in this series, Baldessari found at a local craft fairs selling scenes of landscapes, flowers, and boats at sea. He commissioned them to paint as faithfully as they could an image of their choice from a selection of photographs Baldessari had taken. After, Baldessari had a sign painter hand-letter the painter’s name on each canvas. Like much of the work on view, the story behind the object is more interesting than the object itself.

As the first major U.S. exhibition in 20 years to survey the Baldessari’s work, this pioneer of conceptual art was a bit of a history lesson for me, as I can see the shadow of his long arm in many contemporary artists’ work, but also a reminder of some of my inherent dislike of conceptual art. In Pure Beauty, one can witness the many evolutions of form in his long career, but much of the same focus, such as the process of art making and how we perceive things.

Heel, 1986
The story of how he makes the works, like how he pulled images, for example cinematic stills like the works above and below, and put them back together is more interesting than the end result is visually. (Conceptual art in a nutshell?). For example, to create the Duress series below, Baldessari went through the process of him standing in front of the TV with a camera and taking pictures of movies, blowing up those stills, inking in the figures, and creating depth with foam as an examination of mass media. The process in interesting, but is doesn’t necessarily come through in the work.
The Duress Series: Person Climbing Exterior Wall of Tall Building / Person on Ledge of Tall Building / Person on Girders of Unfinished Tall Building, 2003

For me, the continuous focus on structure, rules, media, and the process of art making is a questioning of convention without actually saying anything in response. His work can be interesting, even decorative, but shallow. That said, I feel like I understand contemporary art better for having seen it. 
On view at the Met through January 9.

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