John Baldessari was an artist. If you haven’t heard of John Baldessari, that’s okay, because you’ve probably seen his work a thousand times and not known it. And if it wasn’t his work you saw, it was a derivative of his work by someone else. Despite his prolific career as a conceptual artist, Baldessari assumed he’d be known for one thing: “The guy that put dots on people’s faces.”
In 1985, Baldessari made a humble but groundbreaking discovery which immediately struck him as “leveling the playing field” for conceptual art. Having used ubiquitous small round price tag stickers for another project, he discovered a simple act: placing them on peoples faces. He began adhering the dots to faces of those he didn’t like, and those he found in mass media. Sourcing from his vast collection of film stills, magazine images of politicians and actors, and faces from advertisements, the possibilities were endless. The simple movement, Baldessari argued, allowed for something much deeper: the message conveyed in an image that is often overlooked by our inherent attention to the faces of a figure. This concealment confronts the viewer with the gestures taking place within the image. Hands shaking, the mystery of a kiss, the transaction of body language, the exchange without the glance. In a 1982 manifesto, titled What Thinks Me Now and three years prior to the discovery of dots, Baldessari wrote: “I want to consider language as an articulation of the limited to express the unlimited.” Here, we see the crowning achievement of that desire: the simplicity of a price tag obscuring what typically begs our natural attention (the face), allowing for a greater exploration to the rest of the image. The idea is bafflingly plain yet grants an avenue to a boulevard of complexities that lie within a simple gesture.
In his Bloody Sundae of 2007, Baldessari creates a composition from two disparate images, connecting them through a blank frame. In the top image, a violent moment captures three suited men barricading themselves behind suitcases and framed artworks. One figure draws a handgun. The name alludes to the Northern London protest of 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on civilians during a protest led by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. In an armed campaign against the British State, the Irish Republican Army took up arms and were often incarcerated without trial. The protests of such injustice by the British State led to fourteen civilian deaths on Bloody Sunday. The barricade in Baldessari’s work tumbles into the lower image of the composition, connected by a single frame, as if an artwork hung above two lovers engaging in a morning embrace. Their lips may be touching, as the female figure in her night slip is perhaps given a goodbye kiss by her suited lover. The obscuration of the faces asks the viewer to consider the entirety of the unfolding scenes and how they may relate to one another. The cool, somewhat satirical images of violence and romance hint at us to explore further, leaving us only with the title of a historical event and our own imaginations.
“I think good art is deceptively simple,” said Baldessari in a 1973 interview. As we look back at his achievements, over 200 solo exhibitions and upwards of a 1,000 group exhibitions, one can attest his career was nothing short of prolific. Those interested in art history might call him the contemporary Marcel Duchamp for his constant confrontation with the definitions of fine art. Before he placed price tag stickers or started painting over people’s faces, he made some other striking innovations in the world of conceptual art. He was one of the first, alongside Lawrence Weiner, to place text on a canvas exclusively and call it “art.” He intentionally made poorly composed photographs with cerebral but funny captions, such as The Spectator is Compelled, (1966-68,) in which the caption breaks the illusory “fourth wall” and places the character as what he is: a figure in a photograph. In 1971, Baldessari created a video in which he repeatedly wrote “I will not make any more boring art.” The year prior to his proclamation against the production of ho-hum art, he burned every artwork he had produced (and hadn’t yet sold) between 1953 and 1966. He kept the ashes in an urn shaped like a book that sat in his library until his death in January 2020. Prior to 1970, Baldessari had been an abstract painter, and the act of artistic self-immolation a declaration to start over as an artist and look beyond the canvas. The act itself is part and parcel with the definition of conceptual art, in which the form is merely perfunctory to the idea behind the work: a means to an end in a way of speaking.
“I am less interested in the form art takes than the meaning the image evokes.”- John Baldessari
If you’d like to know more about John Baldessari and his work, Tom Waits orates a veritable symphony of Baldessari’s life in a five-minute video as cool and cerebral as Baldessari’s work. It’s no mystery why Baldessari chose Waits to narrate it.