Working in numerous media—photography, video, print, sculpture, installation, text-based art, and even painting—John Baldessari was hugely innovative and experimental. Throughout the span of his career, however, his works remained profoundly accessible and simple—he liberated Conceptual art from what he considered its own high-minded self-importance by infusing his works with his own brand of wit. His God’s Nose (2007), for instance, features a human nose floating within a cerulean blue sky spotted with fluffy clouds, pointing to the artist’s early interest in theology, and demonstrating his droll sense of humor. One of the first artists to incorporate appropriation, his works powerfully address the impact of mass media on society and culture. Perhaps one of the most significant and diverse artists to come out of the 1960s, Baldessari left an inimitable mark on the trajectory of Contemporary Art.
Building upon Duchampian sentiments expressed in the ready-mades of the early 20th century, Baldesseri gave preference to the idea of the work over its physical manifestation, stripping art of its purely visual significance. With an unparalleled ability to associate elements of diverse and unrelated origins, he recontextualized and repurposed photographs and art images, often pairing them with text, to derive new meaning and shed fresh perspective on known sources. “For most of us photography stands for truth," Baldessari has said. "But a good artist can make harder truth by manipulating forms or pushing paint around. It fascinates me how I can manipulate truth so easily by the way I juxtapose opposites or crop the image or take it out of context” (J. Baldessari, quoted in C. Van Bruggen, John Baldessari, New York, 1990, p. 214). This sort of handling is aptly demonstrated in his Retouch Series / Rubin's Effect: Four Faces; Two New Vases (Male, Female; Liza Minelli Pair) (1976), which merges an Edgar Rubin’s figure-ground vase with two slightly airbrushed profiles, exploring the dynamic visual effect of contrasting positive and negative space, and allowing the viewer the rare opportunity to see both figures presented in a bi-stable image simultaneously.
Unlike any artist, Baldessari challenged his viewers to contemplate his creations. In his recognizable dot paintings for example, he incorporates figures—often B-list actors, garden club ladies, and the like—with their faces removed by a white or colored dot, forcing the viewer to focus on less typical aspects of the art work. Although he feared being remembered as “the guy who put dots on faces,” it was his strategic way of leaving things out that differentiated him from artists of his time (J. Baldessari, quoted in D. Salle, “John Baldessari,” Interview, 9 October 2013). In the present example, Object (with Observer), for instance, body language, stance, and the dialogue between figures takes precedence over the subject’s physiognomy, employing the notions of erasure and absence to full effect. Baldessari's motivations continue to manifest in the art of working contemporary artists in myriad ways. Richard Prince, for example, adopts Baldessari’s concept of strategically employing nonappearance in his Eden Rock (2006), a work from a series discussing the Darwinian theory survival of the fittest. Unlike the bulk of Prince’s works, which center on either the face or full body of the subject, here the viewer is presented with only a pair of legs being attacked by a serpent, forcing the viewer to recognize the intended message—survival takes precedence over worldly possessions.
Beyond his impact on the development of contemporary art history, however, Baldessari was first and foremost an effective and deeply-concerned teacher and motivator. Few artists, apart from perhaps Ed Ruscha, have been more influential for the Los Angeles art scene. When his own career seemed to be faltering toward the end of the sixties, he kept afloat with teaching jobs. With a combined thirty years of teaching at California Institute of Arts and the University of California, Los Angeles, Baldessari shaped the lives and career paths of a host of celebrated contemporary artists including David Salle, Jack Goldstein, Matt Mullican and Liz Larner, among many others. He was a proponent of collaboration and artists learning from each other: “…because I think art, if it’s meaningful at all, is a conversation with other artists. You say something, they say something, you move back and forth” (J. Baldessari, quoted in D. Salle, ibid).
David Salle’s Cocoon (1995) evinces the artist’s familiarity and infatuation with Baldessari’s exceptional ability to appropriate and recontextualize multiple disparate images—in the left portion he juxtaposes painted collage elements, one of which mimics a black-and-white photograph and another depicting a sexualized nearly nude woman, with an interior scene, and on the right he renders a comical and dynamic large-scale figure painting, blending references to popular culture, the 1960s, and multiple art historical genres.
Baldessari’s legacy will endure indefinitely in iterations of his distinctive visual vocabulary found in the works of his contemporaries and in the relationships and impressions he made on his fellow artists and students. "It’s fair to say that meeting him redirected my trajectory as an artist—as it did for innumerable others,” says David Salle. “His legendary class in Post-Studio Art bestowed on those of us with enough brains to notice, a feeling of unbelievable luck of being in exactly the right place at the right time for the new freedoms in art—we arrived in time for the birthing, so to speak” (ibid.).
A rare example of John Baldessari’s Repair / Retouch series, Retouch Series / Rubin's Effect: Four Faces; Two New Vases (Male, Female; Liza Minelli Pair) (1976) exemplifies the artist’s playful, ironic manipulation of popular imagery and illusion. A montage of two black-and-white photographs, the present work depicts the mirrored profiles of Liza Minelli and an unidentified man, with both pairs separated by the figure of a vase. The monochromatic colors and complex visual effects are cinematic, creating an uncanny sense of motion as the viewer’s attention oscillates between the competing subjects.
In the Repair / Retouch works, Baldessari was concerned with taking things apart and piecing them back together. The father of conceptual art and a precursor to the Pictures Generation, he became a master of cleverly combining and altering text and appropriated images, developing an extensive œuvre that incorporated a wide range of medias. Although photography had been a staple of his practice since the 1960s, he first experimented with retouching images in the mid-1970s: “I’m less interested in what is than what is not art,” he said. “It’s the secondary thing that interests me… how you move stuff into the area of art that’s not there” (J. Baldessari, quoted in John Baldessari: Work 1966-1980, exh. cat., New York, The New Museum, 1961, p. 43).
Baldessari derived the present work’s conceptual foundation from the Rubin’s Effect, a visual phenomenon in which a picture’s ambiguous figure-foreground relationship provides two exclusive readings of image. Is the vase the primary subject of each photograph, or do the four faces claim precedence in the illusion? By suggesting a plethora of interpretations but dictating none, Baldessari gestures to the simultaneous relativity and plurality of meaning in our world. Denying a straightforward interpretation, Retouch Series / Rubin's Effect: Four Faces; Two New Vases (Male, Female; Liza Minelli Pair) forces viewers to think twice about what they see: “I am interested in what gets us to stop and look,” Baldessari writes, “as opposed to simply consuming images passively” (J. Baldessari, quoted in M. Fallon, Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s, Berkeley, 2014, p. 317).