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Lot 10: Quality Material---...
Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
May 16, 2007
New York, NY, USA
Description: John Baldessari (b. 1931) Quality Material---... oil and acrylic on canvas 67¾ x 56½ in. (172 x 143.5 cm.) Painted in 1967-1968.
"Language is so common. I think you get through to more people through language than you get through to with images. I still think people are very word oriented. That seems to be common parlance, the token of the realm, so to speak I means art's a language too, but you don't normally go around drawing diagrams [to indicate that you] want a pound of steak"
J. Baldessari cited in John Baldessari, exh. cat., The New Museum, New York, 1981, p. 12.
The impetus for Baldessari's turn to text as the sole means of his expression in 1967-- the crucial year in which Quality Material---... was created-- stemmed from his desire to communicate with the general public. After years of repeated and unsuccessful attempts to create art in the traditional mold of paintings, text seemed closer to people's experience than his labored abstractions. "Why fight it? Why not just give them what they understand most?" he reasoned (John Baldessari, exh. cat., The New Museum, New York, 1981, p. 8). As the lowest common denominator of communication, language was a medium within immediate grasp.
Indeed, language was grounded in reality in a way that art was not, and reality, as Baldessari knew it, simply wasn't glamorous. Returning to his birthplace in the working class suburb of National City, just south of San Diego, after years of higher education and exposure to the West Coast art establishment, the artist was learning to resign himself to the banal truth of his environment and incorporate it into his art. He said, "I think it was about accepting my destiny, and coming to terms with it. At that point in my life I thought all I was going to do was teach in high school, you know, have a family and kids, and do some work for my friends. Probably I was never going to get out of National City, so I was going to show people what it's like to make art out of where I lived without glamorizing it, and with the idea that truth is beautiful no matter how ugly it is" (John Baldessari, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1990, p. 27). Determined to draw from his prosaic surroundings, his daily life and his teaching, Baldessari's use of text amounted to a sort of "bursting of bubbles," a stance that said "This is what it is. It's not great, it's not bad, it's just what it is, sort of ordinary, like Van Gogh painting an old pair of shoes" (cited in Ibid., p. 28).
Inserting the banal into art was wholly Duchampian and Baldessari's specific approach of transcribing reality from an "it-is-what-it-is" standpoint was very much rooted in this tradition. When in 1966, Baldessari began to use text alongside photographic images (that he had found or taken while driving through National City), he invoked the French Dadaist in their mischievous alternatively matter-of-fact and contradictory juxtapositions. Baldessari's photo-text works bore a subversive reference to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q, 1919 although their import as explorations of verbal and visual systems of meaning had closer connotations to Rene Magritte's seminal Ceci n'est pas un pipe, 1928-9.
When in 1967, Baldessari began to expunge his paintings of accompanying imagery and render them solely in terms of text, he once again adopted a Duchampian mode by culling his words and phrases from readymade sources. Borrowing from the academic rhetoric of art-historical texts and art criticism and the commonplace instructions of amateur artist-training manuals, these works took the formal issues of art-making as their sole content. Conceived on neutral backgrounds in unembellished black fonts that were painted by a sign-painter, these works spelled out the ideas and fictions of "how to make good art" in platitudes that became both the subject and object of these works. Taken out of context, enlarged and verbalized (rather than followed through on a literal level) the deadpan presentation of these instructional texts assumed absurd proportions. Masquerading as "art about art" but inherently anti-art, these works were conceived in the direct lineage of Duchamp. As verbal instructions on how to "view," "use" or "make" art, they followed directly from the French Dadaist's To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye Close to, for Almost an Hour, 1918.
Quality Material---... is an exceptional work conceived in this context. Founded in a little tag that Baldessari culled from the pocket of a new shirt that recommended it as "perfectly made" from "good quality" fabric, this work ironically applies the mundane to the realm of art. By suggesting that the harness of such superior ingredients as "quality material, careful inspection and good workmanship" could, in effect, render the "perfect painting," Quality Material---... captures a specifically pedestrian idea about the manufacture of art. Even its execution-- via a ready-made phrase, a stock canvas and a sign painter-- aligns this work to an everyday production model.
In sum, Quality Material---... is a magnificent embodiment of the banal reality that Baldessari sought to uphold throughout his work. Duchampian in its readymade element, its reduction of the artist's hand and its swipe at "high" art, this work resonates equally with contemporaneous developments in Pop art. This affinity was recognized during the time of its creation; it fact Quality Material---... was included in the seminal Hayward Gallery exhibition of 1969 entitled Pop Art Redefined. Presented in an international forum, this work was integrated into a canon that included Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha. However, compared to the approaches of his peers, Baldessari was far less artful; he eschewed all aesthetic gestures from his reductive depiction of text to the extent that Quality Material---... bore aspects of Minimalist and Conceptual art.
Indeed, Quality Material---... suggests the rhetoric of Minimalism through its overt statement of materials and techniques. Conceived in an object-like gestalt, this work dovetails into the then prevailing ethos of art as an assertion of its physical properties. At the same time, Quality Material---... stresses the purely informative aspect of language in a manner that positions it squarely within the then emerging category of Conceptual art. Evincing the fervent period of activity that characterized American art in the sixties, Quality Material---... is reminiscent of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art but holds its own among these competing forces.
In 1970, Baldessari cremated all the art that he had produced between May 1953 and March 1966 in a symbolic act that marked his photo-text and text paintings as the definitive starting point of his career. Hailing from this period, Quality Material---... a precocious evocation of seminal import. Its crux carries through to more recent developments in art and indeed, is readily apprehended in the work of contemporary artists such as Richard Prince, who like Baldessari, culls the vernacular for his Joke Paintings. Indeed, Baldessari's extraordinary influence, as a pioneer of both language and "art about art" will be recognized at his upcoming retrospective at the Tate Modern.
Artist or Maker: John Baldessari (b. 1931)
London, The Hayward Gallery,
Pop Art Redefined
, July-September 1969, p. 233, no. 5, fig. 53 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art,
John Baldessari Retrospective
, March-June 1990, pp. 36 and 250 (illustrated).
San Diego, The Museum of Contemporary Art,
John Baldessari: National City
, March-June 1996, pp. 44 and 106 (illustrated in color).