“And” from the ‘Goya Series’, by John Baldessari, 1997. Ink jet and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6' 3" x 60" (190.5 x 152.3 cm). Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Lee Fund. © John Baldessari

Museum of Modern Art: “And” from the Goya Series, by John Baldessari, 1997. Ink jet and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 6′ 3″ x 60″ (190.5 x 152.3 cm). Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Lee Fund. © John Baldessari.

The MoMA’s gallery label text for this item (2007):

A banal image of a single paperclip captioned with the equally unremarkable word “AND” might initially suggest a straightforward parallel between the grammatical conjunction, which links ideas, and the device that affixes pieces of paper together. However, in this case the ubiquitous word is taken from Francisco de Goya’s scathing titles for his Disasters of War print series (begun in 1810), decrying the horrors of violence. Other image–word pairings in Baldessari’s Goya series include a knife accompanied by the phrase “AN ARM AND A LEG” and an empty bowl with the terse declaration, “THIS IS BAD.” Baldessari is less interested in logical relationships between image and text than with “what conceptual leaps people can make from one bit of information to another and how they can fill the space.”

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote an interesting review of Baldessari’s Goya Series a year after it was first exhibited at the 47th Venice Biennial, in 1997. In his review, he was especially interested in the cynicism both Goya and Baldessari seem to exhibit through their respective artwork, especially when it comes to the relation between language and reality, images and words:

The semiotic game of this work is so simple that you get it at a glance: words and pictures brought to laconic, ever so slightly heightened, elegant equipoise. The change rung on Goya (himself a neo-Cynic, by the way, if ever there was one) mildly startles. Words that, in the Spaniard’s etchings, coldly understate the content of horrific visions become the hotter elements in Baldessari’s equations. Baldessari counters the natural priority that images have over text in our experience. Instead of looking first and reading second, we do both pretty much at once. A buzzing standoff may occur between the visual and the verbal centers of one’s brain.
The effect is strong and clear, bracing the eye and mind. It feels moral, somehow, like a recall to first principles. The dominant tone is Goya’s, hauntingly. Long ago and far away, there existed a valiant spirit that knew the thing it looked at and knew, as well, that words could not begin to express the thing. Goya used language to expose the inadequacy of language. Baldessari borrows Goya’s language — each item of it as obdurate as a rock thrown through a closed window — to do the same for imagery. The result is artful anti-art. (Artnet: “Wonderful Cynicism: John Baldessari” by Peter Schjeldahl, first published in Village Voice, February 10, 1998, p. 121)

Below or more paintings from Baldessari’s Goya Series along with prints from Goya’s The Disasters of War series (first published in 1863).

“The same elsewhere” from the ‘Goya Series’ by John Baldessari, 1997, Inkjet print and hand lettering on canvas, 75 x 60 in.
“The same elsewhere” from the ‘Goya Series’ by John Baldessari, 1997, Inkjet print and hand lettering on canvas, 75 x 60 in.
“A heroic feat! With dead men!” (“Grande hazana! Con muertos!”) by Goya, Plate 39 of ‘The Disasters of War’,  etched about 1810 - 1820 (published 1863).
“A heroic feat! With dead men!” (“Grande hazana! Con muertos!”) by Goya, Plate 39 of ‘The Disasters of War’, etched about 1810 – 1820 (published 1863).
“One cannot bear to look at it” from the ‘Goya Series’ by John Baldessari, 1997, ink-jet print, sign painter's lacquer, acrylic and gesso on canvas, 75 x 60 inches
“One cannot bear to look at it” from the ‘Goya Series’ by John Baldessari, 1997, ink-jet print, sign painter’s lacquer, acrylic and gesso on canvas, 75 x 60 inches
“One Can't Look” (“No se puede mirar”) by Goya, Plate 26 of ‘The Disasters of War’, etched about 1810 – 1820 (published 1863).
“One Can’t Look” (“No se puede mirar”) by Goya, Plate 26 of ‘The Disasters of War’, etched about 1810 – 1820 (published 1863).

In an interview he did with art21 back in 2008, Baldessari commented on his relationship to language and words:

ART21: I’m curious about your longtime interest in language. Were you always fascinated by words?

BALDESSARI: It might have started back when I was painting, this idea, which wasn’t unique to me, that language could also be art. I never quite understood categories. Words are a way we communicate, images are a way we communicate, and I couldn’t figure out why they had to be in different baskets. I was getting tired of hearing the complaint, “My kid could do this,” and “We don’t get it. What’s modern art? Blah, blah, blah.” And I wondered what would really happen if you gave people what they wanted, something they always look at. They look at magazines and newspapers, so why not give them photographs or text? That was the motivation and when I moved in that direction, thinking about language—and I don’t know exactly how this happened—it seemed to me that a word could be an image or an image could be a word. They could be interchangeable. I couldn’t in my mind prioritize one over the other. (art21: “John Baldessari: Just an Artist” interview with Susan Sollins, July 2008)

In 2010, The New Yorker ran a 8-page profile of Baldessari. It’s remains a very good introduction both to his art and to his life. Here’s an excerpt:

Baldessari constructs a vivid, skewed world in which the viewer can either participate or smile and walk away―a world whose complicity with the one we know becomes increasingly perplexed as the exhibition unfold. Baldessari once said, regarding his work from the late sixties, “So much of my thinking at that time was trying to figure out just what I thought art was.” And had he figured it out? I asked him. “Not a clues,” he said, with another bog laugh. “Not…a…clue.” (The New Yorker: “No More Boring Art. John Baldessari’s Crusade” by Calvin Tomkins, October 18, 2010, p. 44)

I’ve already linked previously to the short video portrait “A Brief History of John Baldessari” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (6 minutes). One can also watch a 15 minutes segment from the fifth season of PBS’s show Art in the Twenty-First Century (produced by art21).

A much richer introduction ―with B&W archive footage from Baldessari early days― is provided by the 2005 documentary film This not That – The Artist John Baldessari directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre and produced by parsmedia. The 90 minutes video is available on YouTube (see below; a few parts are German only, without subtitles). The retail DVD contains 120 minutes of bonus material, including the 1973 documentary You Call That Art? – Allan Kaprow visits John Baldessari, as well as seven additional interviews (see Amazon).

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