Created in 1988, Two Men and Telephone (with Animals) belongs to a key period in John Baldessari’s practice in which he expands his strategic juxtaposition of overlapping fragments and chance correspondences by introducing a new composite structure to his work. Presenting an enigmatic visual montage of two black-and-white photographs, drawn from what seem to be generic Hollywood films from the 1950s and 1960s, and a frieze with animals, it is emblematic of how Baldessari mixes the language of Conceptual Art with Pop Art’s appropriation of mass media imagery.
Showcasing Baldessari’s taste for situations that run the gamut of paradox, the right photograph portrays a short figure standing on a pile of books on a chair talking on the telephone. His face, as usual for Baldessari works of the 1980s, is obscured with an iconic single-colour dot, thus drawing attention to the missing features. On the left, a man of – as it appears – a higher rank, wears a mask over-painted with a saturated yellow. Indeed, Baldessari first began to block out people’s faces in his images in the early 1980s and doing so he completely divested them of their individuality and endowed them with a new kind of symbolic meaning. What started out initially as a simple copyright concern evolved into a medium the artist would use continuously until the 2000s to prioritize different parts of the viewer’s vision, to agitate and disturb his thought. 'I attempt to exclude nothing in order to show the façade, while zooming in on the small tell-tale action, the glance – betrayers of those facades. In short to portray the gap between who we think we are and what is our innermost character. The space between our fantasies and maudlin reality' (in John Baldessari, Lisson Gallery, 1988, London).
Part of the work's irony also derives from the size and scale of the images: although showing a dwarf, the photograph is scaled-up to the height of a normal person's torso on the right, thus creating architecture that challenges the viewer. This contradiction ultimately points to the groundbreaking use of photography Baldessari initiated from the 1960s onwards, that brought this medium to the forefront of contemporary art. Using wry humour, he challenges the apparent credibility of photography, and in this sense Two Men and Telephone (with Animals) absolutely typifies Baldessari’s iconic composite photoworks. 'For most of us photography stands for the truth. But a good artist can make a harder truth by manipulating forms or pushing paint around. It fascinates me how I can manipulate the truth so easily by the way I juxtapose opposites or crop the image or take it out of context.' (in C. van Bruggen, John Baldessari, New York 1990)
This is precisely at what aims Two Men and Telephone (with Animals) that appears as a mini-mortality play exploring the correspondences and disparities of image and culture as well as the hierarchy of man. The presence of a short figure explicitly refers to engravings and paintings by Goya, a painter for whom Baldessari shows a predilection and who often made use of this figure to illustrate his views of the human condition. Thus in the present work, Baldessari appears to question the concept of the democratic world we live in, where the identities of aristocratic patron and court entertainer seem to be blurred. On the contrary, the frieze with antelopes wandering in the green savannah, in accordance with Baldessari’s richly coded colour scheme, evokes the idea of safety, equality and contrasts the rational world of man gone amok with the instinctual wisdom of the animals. However, even though Baldessari suggests certain avenues of interpretation of his elaborate compositions, he rejects a straightforward reading and invites the viewer to meditate on it. As Baldessari declared once speaking about the relativity of meaning and the disrupting nature of his art: ‘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.’ (in M. Sanders, ‘John Baldessari’, in: Another Magazine, autumn-winter 2003)
'We put a priority in vision, on looking at a person’s face when we see figures. Some of the faces of the figures I had didn’t interest me. It was their stance or the ambience and so on that did. I said, "Well, if that’s not necessary, why do I have to use it?"' John Baldessari
'If you can't see their face, you're going to look at how they're dressed, maybe their stance, their surroundings... I think you really sort of dig beneath the surface and you can see what that photograph is really about, what's going on.' John Baldessari
'I think on the one hand I was a little bit worried about using someone's face, as I did not want to get sued and I didn't know exactly where these photographs were coming from, so I used stickers I had lying around to obliterate the faces; and I felt so good I just kept on doing it.' John Baldessari