John Baldessari (b. 1931)
John Baldessari (b. 1931)

Horizontal Men (With One Luxuriating)

John Baldessari (b. 1931)
Horizontal Men (With One Luxuriating)
six gelatin silver prints mounted on board in artist's frame
68 x 48 in. (172.7 x 121.9 cm.)
Executed in 1984.
The Kitchen Benefit Auction, New York
Arthur and Carol Goldberg, New York
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 8 November 1990, lot 404
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, acquired at the above sale
By descent to the present owner
R. Dean and P. Pardo, eds., John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné Volume Two: 1975-1986, New Haven, 2014, p. 273, no. 1984.20 (illustrated).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; Bordeaux, CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain and Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Ni por Ésas/ Not Even So: John Baldessari, January-July 1989, pp. 37 and 80 (illustrated).
New York, International Center of Photography; Evanston, Mary & Leigh Block Gallery, Northwestern University; Tempe, Arizona State University Art Museum; Norfolk, The Chrysler Museum; Miami Beach, Bass Museum of Art; Museums at Stony Brook; Vancouver Art Gallery; San Francisco, Ansel Adams Center, Friends of Photography and Lincoln, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Special Collections: the Photographic Order from Pop to Now, July 1992-November 1994, p. 67.
Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Sammlung Sonnabend: von der Pop-art bis heute Amerikanische und europäische Kunst seit 1954, February-May 1996, p. 135 (illustrated).
Trento, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, John Baldessari, December 2000-March 2001, pp. 84 and 125, no. 8 (illustrated).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

The photo-collage works of John Baldessari are some of the most conceptually complex and visually arresting of the contemporary era. In Horizontal Men (With One Luxuriating), Baldessari presents a series of seemingly unrelated photographs in a strange and provocative arrangement. Created in 1985, the same year that Baldessari first introduced the use of a single, colored dot as an effective way of rendering the anonymous identity of his figures, Horizontal Men illustrates all of the organizing principles that make up his signature work.  

Baldessari often prowled the bookshops of Hollywood for film stills from the golden age of filmmaking, and in Horizontal Men, he combines five black-and-white photographs of different men—some reclining, some dangling by their hands as if from a cliff, and one face down in a prone position. In this haunting and evocative work, Baldessari’s collage effect eliminates the contextual association of each image so that the viewer is compelled to probe deeper into the meaning behind each one. Like Baldessari’s best work of this era, the photographs display a wry sense of irony in their mute detachment, speaking to Baldessari’s bold pronouncement—“I’m interested in what gets us to stop and look as opposed to simply consuming images passively. If there is anything political in my work then it is to be found in the ability of my images to question the nature of imagery itself” (J. Baldessari, quoted in M. Sanders, “John Baldessari,” Another Magazine, Autumn-Winter 2003, p. 390).

Throughout his career, Baldessari has worked in a variety of media, not only painting and taking photographs, but also making films. He is a self-professed film buff who can easily watch two to three films per night. Critics have linked his appropriated photographs and the disjointed nature with which they have been combined to French new wave cinema, especially the films of Jean-Luc Godard. The black-and-white photographs that compose Horizontal Men seem to evoke the stereotypical leading men of Hollywood’s golden age, especially the “Tarzan” type figure at the top of the composition who Baldessari has actually depicted twice, by flipping the image horizontally so that it provides a mirror-image of itself. This “luxuriating” figure, as the title implies, reclines in a horizontal position, but two other figures have been rotated from an upright, vertical position into a horizontal one. Each are caught in an extremely precarious position; one of them seems to dangle from a cliff, while the other appears to swing into the room in swashbuckling style. Baldessari deliberately muddles the contextual clues that the viewer relies upon for meaning, by cropping the images into thin rectangles and rotating them ninety-degrees. Lacking these contextual clues, the viewer must fall back on the cast of characters already logged into their imagination. He says: “I started to realize that because they came from movies and often fell into conventional categories, people were carrying images like them around in their heads in a collective unconscious, and that I could begin to play with that” (J. Baldessari, quoted John Baldessari: Life’s Balance, 1984-2004, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Graz, March-May 2005, p. 275).

Horizontal Men (With One Luxuriating) belongs to a series that Baldessari created in the mid-1980s, such as Soldier and Starving Person and Horizontal Men, both of 1984, that visually mimics the stacked black-and-white photographic format of the present work. In these works, Baldessari depicts soldiers and what appear to be dead and wounded figures, though their actual identity is deliberately muddled. The series relates to the larger and more harrowing work Inventory of 1987, which depicts the starved, nude bodies of Holocaust victims stacked in the back of a railroad car, juxtaposed with a photograph of a typical suburban supermarket. The stark contrast between the two images is horrifying, and their intersection is what drives Baldessari’s best work, in the unlikely pairing of two disparate objects that results in a powerful visual “jolt.” In a fairly recent interview, Baldessari described the relationship between the Horizontal Men and Inventory, stating, “And that literally came out of seeing images of stacked corpses in Nazi concentration camps. It was the obverse of men vertical--the measure of things. Man horizontal is a vulnerable alternative to man powerful and priapic. … But also from the idea that there’s supposed to be this priority where man is always foremost and always standing on a horse - seldom irrational. Women are quite often horizontal in art. So I wanted to invert that and put everybody on their backs. And then I dealt with it directly using news photographs of Buchenwald” (J. Baldessari, quoted in A. Goldstein and C. Williams, “The Things We Sweep Under the Rug: A Conversation with John Baldessari,” in John Baldessari: Life’s Balance, 1984-2004, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Graz, March-May 2005, p. 90).

By pulling images from a variety of sources and cropping out the subtext that might provide the visual clues for the image’s meaning, Baldessari is able to produce a deeper understanding of the image itself, as the viewer is forced to probe the subliminal reaches of his or her mind. He describes: “I am interested in what happens when two images abut each other. It’s like when two words collide and some new word in some new meaning comes out of it.” (John Baldessari, quoted in Ibid., p. 81) The disjointed imagery of Baldessari’s Horizontal Men also relates to his interest in post-structuralist linguistic theory and the fallibility of language, which he often explored in his work by including actual lines of text or oddly disassociated words. He writes: “I’ve always been fascinated by the multiple meanings that are contained within the image, the way that an image’s meaning can change through its association and placement with other images. Such arrangements reveal the way in which an image functions as part of a larger visual language. Meaning is derived from its immediate surroundings in the same way that a single word derives its meaning dependent on its use in a sentence.” (John Baldessari, quoted in Mark Sanders, “Ibid.,” p. 388).

By cutting fragments from a larger context and then re-ordering them within a new framework, Baldessari might then point to the arbitrary nature of the artist’s choice, which essentially topples the notion of the artist as infallible author and tastemaker, a nation that gained credence with the Modernists and reached its cultural apogee in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Baldessari and his generation were forced to shake off the weighty reins of the Abstract Expressionists, especially Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning, whose works had become forever embedded within popular culture. In doing so, Baldessari created a new kind of visual language that ultimately sought a deeper understanding of the Contemporary world.  Ironically, Baldessari’s appropriation of black-and-white photographs has its precedent with Warhol, who silkscreened news media photos onto canvas. Ultimately, Baldessari’s technique of discontinuity and imbalance provokes newer, deeper understandings of the images themselves. In an article about the artist from 1992, the critic Jerry Saltz calls Baldessari “the single most influential conceptual artist,” brilliantly summing up his career: “Baldessari took the nimble brilliance of pop--its absolute infatuation with popular culture--and passed it through a shredder, then placed it in a compactor, then put it under a microscope, having compressed it into a new reductionist pop-conceptualism-minimalism that was both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts.” (Jerry Saltz, “John Baldessari: The Curious Discovery of A+I(Ov.) = 8, or the Smile of Reason,” Forum International, no. 14 (September-October 1992), p. 71 & 77)

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