Language has been central to John Baldessari's artistic production since he first incorporated text into his work in the late 1960s. Describing himself as a "frustrated writer, less interested in the form art takes than the meaning an image evokes" (cited in van Bruggen, p. 97), Baldessari began to explore the semantics of "reading" imagery. In Brutus Killed Caesar, for example, the grammatical structure of a simple sentence-"Brutus killed Caesar"--establishes the visual relationship between images of a man, an object, and an older man. According to Coosje van Bruggen:
... on the left is a younger man, on the right an older one. The image between them-their connecting link, the correlative of the word "killed" in the sentence "Brutus killed Caesar"-depicts the murder weapon, which changes with each [frame/register]. The first ... shows a knife, the second a gun. Both are pointed in no particular direction. The subsequent weapons are presented in an ascending degree of improbability: the eighth ... shows a coat hanger, the ninth a paint-roller, directed toward the older man. The twelfth ... shows a banana directed toward the younger man. Though several of the selected murder weapons-a drill, a saw, a bottle of unnamed liquid-have unpleasant overtones and could somehow lead to death, others seem more bizarre and remote: a golf ball, a clothespin, and the final weapon, thumbtacks. (van Bruggen, p. 97)
While seeming to parody the Classical tragedy, Baldessari's cutting sense of humor is also pointed (although indirectly) at deflating the power of the linguistic sign:
[T]he sign value of the consecutive images as correlatives of the word "killed" is gradually subverted as the murder weapons become more and more far-fetched and open to different interpretations, which also threatens to collapse their symbolic valuemaking one doubt even the denotations of Brutus and Caesar, already mixed up in a contemporary setting that totally disregards temporal limitations. (van Bruggen, p. 97)
Brutus Killed Caesar was initially produced as an artist's book-a format conducive to "reading." In this large wall-mounted version, the work takes on a whole new dimension, conceptually as well as physically. Presented unbound and all at once, it can be read in a greater variety of ways--from bottom-to-top or left-to-right, for example-that avoid the forced narrative structure of a book. In addition, the serial repetition of heads align to form a frame of sorts that focuses attention on the central objects, thereby greatly diminishing the role of the protagonists. The relationship between the objects is thus enhanced, creating an entirely new visual (and linguistic) dynamic.