Description: Beach Scene Nuns Nurse (with Choices) five panels--acrylic on color coupler prints overall: 92 x 144 3/4 in. (233.7 x 367.7 cm.) Executed in 1991.
Artist or Maker: John Baldessari (b. 1931)
Exhibited: Intersection Series, Primo Piano, Rome, May 7-July 15, 2002
Literature: A. Brooks, Subjective Realities, Works from the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, 2003, pp. 56-57 (illustrated).
Provenance: Sonnabend Gallery, New York
Galeria Weber Alexander y Cobo, Madrid
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Notes: The polyptych arrangement of Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices) recalls the symmetrical structure of an altar, and indeed the composition is bookended by portraits of nuns in full habit, their hands tented in prayer. Yet one image hangs at an angled tilt, askew from the grouping, and most of the other photographs that Baldessari includes here clash with the reverence to which he alludes. The altruism of a Red Cross nurse in a hospital room complements the nuns' devotion, yet the work's largest photograph features three macho bodybuilders holding a bikini-clad woman across their muscled chests, and a fifth image pictures a bejeweled, manicured hand gesturing toward six large gemstones. Selflessness or narcissism, abnegation or greed, asceticism or indulgence-as the parenthetical conclusion of Baldessari's title indicates, such are the many "choices" of contemporary existence.
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This montage belongs to Baldessari's Intersection Series, a set of works whose multi-panel combinations exhibit the mix of Pop exuberance, Conceptual density, and playfully discordant appropriation that has marked his production since the late 1960s. The Los Angeles-based artist's polyglot sensibility has extended to painting, photography, film, and video, and he is particularly interested in cross-overs and collisions between different mediums. In this suite Baldessari turned to the culture of L.A. both formally-in the jump-cut rhythms of the juxtapositions-and iconographically, reproducing some of the B-movie film stills that he has collected for years. The reuse and repurposing of old material is an artistic strategy with a long history, but Baldessari tweaks the method with his trademark humor and wry ingenuity. Keeping his images in separate frames thwarts the search for narrative coherence that the juxtaposition of images usually sponsors, and sticker-like dots painted in acrylic over the faces in the work ensure the anonymity of people who have likely been forgotten anyway.
In 1971, Baldessari commissioned students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to execute a work for him. On gallery walls they wrote, over and over, "I will not make any more boring art."