I just borrowed a copy of John Baldessari: National City from my local library and I have to say that it is art pornography. Again, going back to the first encounters I had with Baldessari’s work, I appreciated them for being paintings and not conceptual works. My mind wasn’t even geared for Conceptual Art a decade ago, even though I liked the idea of just words on a canvas. It was pretty. It said something. It affected me. It was art.
National City, California is where Baldessari grew up and where he gathered much of his inspiration and image for his early works. Miles away, in La Jolla, and many years after he had began making work as an artist, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, put on an exhibition titled “National City” in celebration of the March 1996 reopening of the northern branch of the museum. The focus of the exhibition was the work Baldessari produced from 1966 to 1970 in his hometown as well as some then new work in the similar format and style from the past.
What is mind-blowing about Baldessari and his work from this period is that first, it is incredibly simple. On one hand it is just a plain canvas with some words painted on it while on the other, it is a just a simple idea to paint words on a canvas. Wrap your head around that for a second. That is the base point to Conceptual Art.
Second, what he has chosen can be incredibly moving. And it can be incredibly moving under the guise of incredible simplicity. Take for instance, and imagine it because the thought is as fascinating and visually appealing as the reality of it, a canvas painted with two words in slightly bold text:
Sometimes when we are close to our lovers or friends, two or three small words can cause us to be overcome with emotion. Baldessari has captured this idea, this phenomenon and visually translated it in a rectangle with paint.
The more I look at art the more I appreciate the simplicity of beauty and the beauty in simplicity. This rings true for other master artists like Piet Mondrian, Donald Judd, Barnett Newman, et cetera. Visual art is becoming less about the seen-image and more about the idea-capturing. Reducing life down to a single line, a single color, drawing our focus into one idea can really rip us open as life opens itself and exposes us, visually, to that which we often fail to think.
Carolina Miranda reviews John Baldessari’s show at LACMA, “Pure Beauty”, over two years later.