John Baldessari is a conceptual artist, an adjective that is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. If you don’t recognize the name, you probably recognize the work. He’s 83 years old and still exhibiting around the world. There are many ways to summarize his lengthy career, but this video probably does it best. At just under 6 minutes, it’s worth your time to get a picture of the man’s art and work:
The whirlwind tour you just witnessed is strange for the way it both gives you a headache and makes you feel like you didn’t see anything. The headache is understandable; it was produced by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who have directed feature films and shorts, and who were commissioned by LACMA to make a very short film about Baldessari for one of the museum’s exhibitions. They did a great job of capturing the life and style of the artist into a funny, engaging short. But do you feel like you witnessed the life of a great artistic pioneer? Does this man strike you as someone worth caring about? Or do you agree with his statement that he will be remembered as “the guy that put dots over people’s faces”?
The dot paintings look like what you’d expect. The artist intended them as a means to explore visual language, and wanted the viewer to explore parts of the painting that he or she normally would not pay attention to. His point is well taken when we look at “Cutting Ribbon” and take notice of the hands and ribbon as dominant subjects of the piece. If we could see the faces – smiling, no doubt, at the ceremony – we would undoubtedly focus attention on the human expressions. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere, where cutting a ribbon could possibly be something treacherous. Baldessari changes the narrative of the work and makes it open for interpretation. He makes his point…and then makes it again and again in hundreds of other dot paintings.
Or take of one his text paintings as an example. Once we read it and see that the artistry is not in the written word (i.e., the painting has no poetic value), we have no choice but to take the painting at face value. It is a list of pointers about popular paintings which – and here is the big conceptual twist – has been made into a painting. At our current point in art history, Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell has become relatively famous, so those in the know can share an extra chuckle about Baldessari’s sly move.
My aim is simply to bring up the question in the video: how will this art be seen years from now? Baldessari is not unique in the realm of conceptual art, but he stands out as one of its most famous heroes. If he is the ‘dot guy,’ what about the hundreds and thousands of artists who are engaged in the same type of conceptual gimmicks?
One of Italy’s most famous contemporary artists, Maurizio Cattelan, is known for his satirical work. Most of it is profane and vulgar, relying on the artist’s wit to make an indirect point about religion, art, or politics. At the 1993 Venice Biennale, the acclaimed international art fair, his piece was Working is a Bad Job. There, he leased his allotted installation space to an ad agency, which installed a billboard promoting a new perfume. Can you imagine the poignance that piece will have a hundred years from now? I can’t either.
I’m not trying to pigeonhole all conceptual art into a place of irrelevance. There are different levels of skill that go into pieces, and some gimmicks (like Duchamp’s urinal) that stand the test of time for the way they impacted generations and shifted ways of thinking. There are times and places for art that is a call to change. But performance art, conceptual art, and installation art, as well as many other forms and media, are powerful because they link to the present. Whether that art makes a lasting impact on future audiences is up to the skill of the artist. Is Baldessari’s art something that pesters the mind and sits with you for longer than a trip to the museum, or can you move on from it once you’ve seen his point? He, after all, is someone that many artists look to as a genius. But perhaps that is saying something about the art being made today: artists making art for other artists. The sad danger is that the great artists of today might just be sharing inside jokes, and that a hundred years from now we will still talk about Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti - High Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and engineer - but not quite remember the name of the ‘dot guy.’