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The best thing about the exhibition John Baldessari: Pure Beauty is that the exit is a short jaunt from The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, a major survey of paintings, sculptures, decorative ware, jewelry, and textiles from the Yuan Dynasty, founded by the Mongolian emperor Khubilai Khan (1271–1368). Spanning from the year of his birth to the Ming ascension of power, The World of Khubilai Khan is relentless in its array of splendors, as if everything Chinese artisans put their hands on turned to gold and, in some cases, “cloths of gold”—the name European explorers gave to textiles woven with golden silk.
It’s an illusion of course: curatorial acumen accounts for putting the Yuan Dynasty’s best foot forward. Still, the exhibition’s astonishing artistic consistency is more real than not and gives pause, if only because of the culture which it was created boasted a political structure defined by foreign control and absolute power and a society rife with turmoil and inequity. Good for art, apparently; not so good for the average citizen. You’ve got to wonder: Is there an ideal state in which art and civilization can both prosper?
Beyond remarking on their common venue, it’s a stretch to divine a connection between the exquisite artifacts of a medieval monarchy and the fancies of a laconic gadfly who came into his own during Ronald Reagan’s governorship of California. But a note I took while meandering through “Pure Beauty”—“some artists are too free”—says much, I think, about Baldessari’s slim accomplishment and the baleful influence this legendary teacher has had on several generations of artists.
No one, of course, should advocate for the establishment of repressive governmental regimes in order to further the cause of art. Living in a free society is worth any number of masterpieces. But just because an artist is able to pursue any idea, however silly or specious, doesn’t mean he has to or that it should be done in the name of (pace the Met) “expanding the parameters of what we consider art.”
Really? Didn’t Marcel Duchamp put that particular jape to rest? That was the point of his Dadaist one-offs—they were simultaneously beginnings and ends, jokes with nowhere to go. All the same, Pure Beauty insists on Baldessari’s “pioneer” status. I suppose his art does radiate a blissful indifference: the eighty-year-old conceptualist is content in the dead-end to which he’s consigned himself. But even Duchamp had had his fill of Dada by the end of his days. The reason? “It’s too easy.” (Or maybe he meant “too free.”)
The exhibition takes its title from a Baldessari painting—actually, it’s a canvas containing only the phrase “pure beauty.” (The most provocative aspect of the work is the date: “1966–68.” Why two years? I mean, it’s not The Raft of the Medusa.) Hiring a sign-painter to do the lettering was a by-the-book Duchampian tactic, as is the picture’s nihilist mot, but Baldessari has provided gainful employment for more than a few sign-painters. A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (1966– ) is a canvas whose surface is updated each time it undergoes public exhibition; sure enough, a panel was added to include the name and dates of the current retrospective.
Baldessari has also employed artists to paint copies of his photos—Anita Storck, Hildegard Reiner, and Elmire Bourke, to name a few—and then hired sign-painters to record their names for posterity. But don’t mistake Baldessari for a photographer. True, he took a series of pictures of an attractive blond woman licking pieces of fruit and before-and-after documentation of a sharpened pencil, but that was because, don’t you know, it had “something to do with art.”
For Baldessari, photography is a prop to be exploited and not too arduously at that—the medium’s ready-made immediacy helps take a load off from having to expend energy. He augments photos taken largely from what look to be B-movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Then, he either juxtaposes them artfully or punctuates the images with circles of flat, saturated color. The results can be mildly diverting—Man and Woman with Bridge (1984) is something Hannah Hoch might have settled for on an off day—and they glance upon certain obvious truths about representation and perception. But glancing isn’t the same as exploring, interrogating, extending, or upturning. That would require more aesthetic wherewithal—more courage, inquisitiveness, and questioning—than Baldessari can muster.
Besides, a free-standing work of art takes too much attention away from its maker. Baldessari takes cheapjack pokes at “how-to” art manuals, Clement Greenberg, and Francesco Goya because he ranks the role of The Artist above the rigors of art. And he’s a personality above all else—flat, clever, and flighty. Neither pure nor beautiful, Pure Beauty is mostly a drag. That’s what happens when the heady trifles of the terminally frivolous become museum pieces.
© 2011 Mario Naves
Originally published in the January 2011 edition of The New Criterion.