The artist has requested this work for inclusion in his upcoming retrospective, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, opening at Tate Modern, London in October 2009 and traveling to Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 2011.
Self-contained and self-referential, Painting for Kubler is one of a group of groundbreaking paintings created between 1966-68 with which John Baldessari changed the landscape of conceptual art. For it was in works from this series that he first truly explored the way that language conveys the complex mental image that is inextricably bound to our understanding of art. During this period, Baldessari was living and working in the somewhat culturally isolated environment of his hometown in National City, San Diego, when he initially began to juxtapose photographs with text on canvas, eventually removing imagery from his work altogether. These paintings quickly placed Baldessari within a new zeitgeist emerging in Los Angeles, New York and Europe in which artists were operating outside the traditional forms and materials of art-making to critique systems of communication, the production of meaning and the reception of art through an analysis of language.
The title of the painting refers to George Kubler, an important art historian and scholar who in 1962 published The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, a treatise that has gone on to become one of the most important and influential contributions to 20th Century historical thought. When it was first released, The Shape of Time presented a radically new approach to the study of art history. Drawing upon new insights in fields such as anthropology and linguistics, Kubler replaced the notion of style as the basis for histories of art with the idea that all artworks, artifacts and even tools are bound by shared concepts that may be linked across time. Rather than encapsulating objects within specific movements, Kubler insisted upon their place within a larger continuum, extending the more limited discipline of art history into the realm of general anthropological theory.
In Painting for Kubler, Baldessari has condensed the essential points from a segment of Kubler's publication into a snappy aphorism. By choosing this particular passage, Baldessari coopts the text, so that it refers directly to his own work, thereby acknowledging that his art is not only guided by that which precedes it but also that this radically reductive painting will inevitably become an accepted contribution to the tapestry of art history. Indeed, it was the literary and visual ideas of Dada and Surrealist artists, as well as the work of Marcel Duchamp that introduced Baldessari to the idea of looking beyond the surface of the picture plane to focus on the function of art, rather than its form. In 1967, when he first began to expunge his paintings of accompanying imagery and render them solely in terms of text, he consciously adopted a Duchampian mode of creation by culling his words and phrases from readymade sources. Borrowing from the academic rhetoric of art-historical texts and art criticism as well as the commonplace instructions of amateur artist-training manuals, these works took the formal issues of art-making as their sole content whilst taking a well aimed swipe at "high" art.
Baldessari's questioning of authorship and originality is made all the more obvious by the fact that his carefully lettered phrases were executed by a sign painter, who was commissioned so that Baldessari could remove the personal touch of the artist's hand from the means of production, allowing him to take a purely conceptual, supervisory role. This mode of production applied to all Baldessari's text paintings from that time period. This attitude followed years of persisting with what he perceived as repeated unsuccessful attempts to create art in the traditional mold of paintings. Text somehow seemed closer to people's experience than his previous labored abstractions and he began to see that his fascination for words and language could provide viable creative material. "I was weary of doing relational painting," he later stated, "and began wondering if straight information would serve. I sought to use language not as a visual element but something to read. That is, a notebook entry about painting could replace the painting...I was attempting to make something that didn't emanate art signals. The only art signal I wanted was the canvas...[it was] important that I was the strategist. Someone else built and primed the canvases and took them to the sign painter, the texts are quotations from art books, and the sign painter was instructed not to attempt to make attractive, artful lettering but to letter the information in the most simple way" (J. Baldessari quoted in J. Debbaut, ed., John Baldessari, exh. cat., Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven & Museum Folkwang, Essen, 1981, p. 6). This process enabled Baldessari to separate art from aesthetics yet the message conveyed within Painting for Kubler establishes an unequivocal and circular relationship between its content and its form. Through this proposition, Baldessari identifies the relationship between language and reality, visualizing the often convoluted linguistic apparatus that the institutions of art use to ascribe meaning. Taken out of context, enlarged and verbalized, the deadpan presentation of this instructional text assumes absurd proportions, creating a blatant "art about art" statement that reflects Baldessari's ability to make fun of conceptual art's intellectual rigors, even as he pursues similar concerns.