It’s only words

John Baldessari, Everything is Purged from this Painting, 1968

Thinking about books becoming art yesterday made me ponder the use of text – one of the raw materials of books – as art. Language is key to the conceptual art of the 1960s, with the idea taking precedence over aesthetics. Inevitably the resulting work could be rather dry and hard to engage with, but this is far from universally true. John Baldessari’s text paintings work on several levels for me. Firstly, Baldessari confuses matters by rendering his text in paint on canvas. Secondly, the text is often funny, especially in the context of painting.

John Baldessari, What is Painting, 1968

What is Painting, 1968

In one way or another, this work references art very directly. While this is something that could easily be off-putting, in the case of Baldessari’s work it generally makes me smile. Baldessari saw this self-referential approach as a way of giving the work a deliberate ridiculousness. And – while not necessarily clear representations of pure beauty – the paintings are, oddly, quite beautiful in their own way.

Pure Beauty, 1968

Crucially these paintings were made between 1966 and 1968. In 1970, Baldessari decided that painting was the wrong approach for him and cremated the works he had made between 1953 and 1966. His subsequent work, often with photography and collage, used the language of mass media to communicate.

Last summer in the exhibition Eleven Rooms, an exhibition of performance art held at Manchester Art Gallery as part of Manchester International Festival, John Baldessari used text as art in a very different way. The combined efforts of the artist, exhibition curators, gallery and festival directors weren’t sufficient to acquire the cadaver needed to realise the work Baldessari proposed: Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece, 1970. Instead in the room allocated to Baldessari documentation relating to the project was displayed,  including the proposal and emails and letters sent in an attempt to finally realise the work.

This display was text at its most functional. It was fascinating and informative – I know far more now than I ever thought I would about the issues involved in trying to get hold of a body to use in an art installation – and all parties showed an engaging obsession with what turned out to be a vain attempt to finally realise the unrealisable. But, unlike looking at the paintings, it didn’t make me laugh.

Quality Material, 1966-8

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