Executed in 1996, on the occasion of an important exhibition of John Baldessari's paintings at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, Former Site of Duck Pond Bar 3003 National City Blvd. National City, Calif., is a highly important work that marks Baldessari's nostalgic return both to the area in which he grew up and to the landmark series of paintings - the phototext paintings - that launched his career in the late 1960s.
This seminal series of paintings were works that, at the time they were made, seemingly pushed back the boundaries of Conceptual art to include the banality and mundane commonplaces of everyday life and are today recognised as being among the most significant and influential works of Baldessari's entire career. Rooted in the locale and day-to-day life of National City - the small and unremarkable Californian town where Baldessari was born and raised - his phototext paintings not only formerly mark the beginnings of the artist's highly unorthodox art and career but are also integrally related to both his identity and unique development as an artist. Indeed, it was these paintings - consisting solely of text or a combination of text and arbitrary photographic image reproduced on uniform-sized canvas - that Baldessari saw as the essential starting point as an artist. A fact he confirmed when, in July 1970, after having completing them, he effectively inaugurated these dry, matter-of fact, but also strangely personal documentary 'paintings' as his first 'official' creations, by systematically destroying and cremating (at the local National City crematorium), all the other art (in his possession) that he had made prior to them.
A response to a long period of contemplation about the function of art, Baldessari's phototext paintings were the most direct and simplest possible creations the artist could think of to provide people with what he believed they would most want - a work that offered some kind of photographic image and text. Removing his own authorial presence from the work as much as possible, he created a series of paintings that showed pictures of various places in National City he had photographed, without even looking, while driving past in his car. These arbitrary and banal images were accompanied by a simple text describing only their locale painted onto the canvas in a deliberately dry and nondescript style by the town's only professional sign-painter. The dimensions of the canvases - all 59 by 45 inches - were the largest that would fit diagonally through the doors of his Ford Econoline van. The first paintings were dated on the day that Baldessari paid the sign painter and secured ownership of them.
Deliberately dumbed-down to the point of apparent absurdity, these paintings, depicting the banal but also undeniable reality of small-town America both adhered to but also seemed to mock the intellectualizing and authorless logic of the Conceptual art that was then so much in vogue. Seemingly undermining an artist like Joseph Kosuth's tautological use of image and text to explore the semiotics of language and seeing, these works incorporate both images and text in a seemingly banal cycle that ultimately appears to point to nothing except the peculiarly unreal reality of life in National City. Both born out of and reflecting upon the cultural and existential void of life in this 'end-of-the-line' town in a wholly uncritical, matter-of-fact way, it was the deliberate artlessness of Baldessari's approach that ultimately gave these works their power and at the same time made them so unnerving and revolutionary for their time.
Former Site of Duck Pond Bar 3003 National City Blvd. National City, Calif., is a work that marks Baldessari's return to this great series of paintings and to his home town. One of a series of eleven 'phototext' paintings made specifically for an exhibition to mark the re-opening of the La Jolla building of the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, it is a work that reflects on both Baldessari's art and his hometown and the passage of time in between. Baldessari, as the most famous local artist was the logical choice with which to reopen the San Diego museum and the exhibition of his old and new phototext paintings marked the path of growth that both Baldessari and the San Diego Museum had taken in the twenty nine years between the time the two series of works were made. As the director of the museum Hugh M Davies then wrote in the introduction to the exhibition, in contrast to the earlier phototext paintings, with their 'brash, tongue-in cheek didacticism' and 'wry West Coast take on Wittgenstein', the new works were 'a more personal reverie and not-quite nostalgic celebration of the untainted, small town vernacular exemplified by National City.' (Hugh M Davies 'John the Baldessari: Prophetic Works', National City, exh. cat. San Diego, 1996, p. 7)
As its title suggests, Former Site of Duck Pond Bar 3003 National City Blvd. National City, Calif., relates directly to an earlier 'phototext' painting of the Duck Pond Bar in National City that Baldessari had made between 1966 and 1968. One of five of the eleven new phototext paintings to make use of 1990s colour-printing technology, it depicts in full colour the 'truly' banal image of the True Mitsubishi building that in 1996 now stood on the site where, in 1966, he had photographed the Duck Pond Bar. In this way, this work is one that, like the exhibition itself intertwines Baldessari's own artistic journey and homecoming with the banal and changing imagery of his hometown. Like the second version of his iconic and even more personal phototext painting Wrong also made for this show, in which Baldessari had himself again photographed standing under the same palm tree where thirty years before he had previously flouted the rules of photography to create a 'wrong' photographic image of himself, this work too seems to mark the artist's strange and fascinating odyssey with an ultimately banal and unorthodox image.