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The relationship of text and image in John Baldessari’s work

26 Oct


The American conceptual artist John Baldessari became popular in the 1960s and has reached a broad influence on younger generations. His work is characterized by a wide variety of mediums including photography, video, painting, texts, prints, film, drawing and books. Baldessari is passionate about language that is reflected in his oeuvre.  His work shows an intensive interest in written and visual language that is expressed in compositions of text and image as equal elements. How does the artist use these two components and how are they connected to each other, are questions which shall be looked at in detail by discussing the relationship of text and image in John Baldessari’s work. The artist’s treatment of language and his text-image combinations is the subject of many researches, notably Russell Ferguson’s essay about Baldessari as the Unreliable narrator[1]. With reference to a selection of Baldessari’s artworks from the late 1960s to his recent pieces, I will examine the relation of text and image. An analysis will first be made of Baldessari’s early text and photo paintings from 1966 to 1968, and then examples from the 1980s onwards will be analysed in order to compare and discuss the function of text and image in Baldessari’s work.

In the late 1960s Baldessari neglected painting and started to use words as a compositional element as images. ‘A word can’t substitute for an image, but is equal to it’, explained the artist in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and stated further: ‘You can build with words just like you can build with imagery.’[2] He began to create artworks with pure painted text on canvas and emulsions of photo and text. From 1966 to 1968 Baldessari produced a series of text-paintings consisting of statements about art and its concept.[3] He displayed quotations from known art critics and used formulaic instructions or definitions and comments from art manuals.[4] Thereby the artist transformed the influence of art theory and critics on artworks to the motif of his conceptual text-paintings.[5]  As an artist of the conceptual art movement Baldessari’s aim was to produce art without using the conventional art praxis. Thus text as a new form and its rapport with images began to gain importance for Baldessari and artists like Joseph Kosuth and Ed Ruscha.[6]

Although Baldessari chose text as the new media of representation, he still painted the words on canvas as a gesture of painting. Baldessari intended to ensure the artistic nature of these new works by using the canvas as an art signal.[7] In combining traditional components of painting, stretched canvas and paint, Baldessari sought to render the new art forms, namely text and photography acceptable as art and bring them into galleries and museums. [8]

Painting And Drawing, 1966-68. The Broad Foundation, Santa Monica. Acrylic on canvas. 67 ½ x 56 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan), p. 12.

Russel Ferguson argues that Baldessari is not primarily concerned with text as a compositional element, but rather with the ‘ambiguity of the relationship between textual and visual components’[9], which is the centre of attention in the artist’s work. Even if it seems that Baldessari uses the juxtapositions of text and image to create direct information for the audience, his artworks intend to arouse suspicion and doubt.  The work Painting and Drawing pretends to deliver practical information for an art student on how to improve his work: “This painting contains all the information needed by the art student.” But the displayed text does not convey any useful information about how to draw and paint at all. This painting consists of a text introduced with a caption about the expected content of the writing. It is even represented as a book page, text on blank white background. This creates the impression of a replacement of an extract of a writing, which is supposed to deliver practical knowledge but only transfers a confounding message. Baldessari thus acts as a misleading informant, who is literarily characterised by Ferguson as the “unreliable narrator”.  As this piece exhibits, text often appears as simple information but turns out to be more unreliable than trustful. It is used to subvert what the artwork shows us. What is Baldessari’s message? There exists no definite conclusion; the artwork is ambivalent. Contrariwise other text-paintings such as Tips for artists who want to sell give us the supposed ‘straight information’[10] as the caption promises. Here, by providing advice about colour, subjects and its matter, Baldessari tells us the best way, how to sell a painting. However, this statement about the content of pictures underlies a sophisticated impact of irony, and thereby again creates the previously mentioned notion of ambiguity.

Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell, 1966-68. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. Acrylic on canvas. 68 x 56 ½ in. (Source: Jones/Morgan), p. 12.

In Baldessari’s photocompositions, based on an experimental photoemulsion process, each image is accompanied by a single caption. Image and text interact, they elucidate and supplement each other.[11] For the series Wrong the artist matched photographs of himself with lucid statements in order to explain the right and wrong way of a photographical composition.[12] For example, one photograph shows Baldessari standing in front of a palm tree, which seems to grow out of his head. Regarding compositional correctness the picture demonstrates to the viewer an incorrect arrangement, which is underlined by the title “wrong”. The same idea forms the basis of The spectator is compelled…, whose caption carries on: “…to look directly down the road and into the middle of the picture.” In this photograph Baldessari is looking down the road with his back turned to the viewer, standing at the place that is the focus of the viewer’s gaze. Once again, it is a wrong composition because the spectator’s eye is led directly into the middle of the photograph.

Wrong, 1966-68. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. Photoemulsion and acrylic on canvas. 59 x 45 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

The Spectator Is Compelled…, 1966-1968. The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica. Acrylic on canvas. 59 x 45 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

Not only the artist’s early work rather his whole oeuvre is a reflection of his interest in linguistic theories. For Baldessari, text and image are equal vehicles of the same linguistic system to transfer information. Their encounters establish an indefinite number of different meanings. When one image and one word, two words or two images abut oneach other, a new meaning comes to light with every combination. The work Kiss/Panic, consisting of a collage of photographs, provokes such multiple significations throughout the juxtaposition of several images.[13] Two central pictures that show contrasting settings: the upper one is a colour close up of an intimate kiss scene and the lower a crowded and chaotic place in black-and-white. They are surrounded by ten gray scale images of guns targeting outward. The imagery is dominated by a tension between the offered and converse feelings – panic and love.  This artwork demonstrates how the meaning of an image can alter by hybridization with other images as vehicles of information, which function as tools of a larger system of language. In the same way words and text operate as part of Baldessari’s imagery. Meaning is exposed by their arrangements and through their surroundings.

Kiss/Panic, 1984. Glenstone. Black-and-white photographs and oil tint on board. 80 x 72in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

Baldessari’s treatment of language as a system of signs originates from the influence of Structuralism.[14] In particular Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theories were sources for his work. Saussure’s perception that ‘the idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it’[15] and Lévi-Strauss’ ‘practice of drawing structural connections between seemingly unconnected things’[16] affected Baldessari’s work in the sense that it describes a process of syntactical combination and an intentional contrasting of words and images creating his ambiguous collages.

In many artworks the relation of text and image is affected by interdependence between these two components. Baldessari’s Goya Series of the nineties and his more recent Prima Facie series reveal such interaction of written and visual language. For the Goya Series the artist returned to the text-and-image format of his earlier works. He juxtaposed black-and-white photographs of isolated banal modern and everyday objects, staged as still lifes with terse extracts derived from titles of Francisco de Goya’s disaster of war etching series, denouncing the horrors of violence. Some captions and their respective photographic items are, for instance: “And” combined with a paper clip; “There isn’t time” with a bouquet of flowers in a vase; and “Not so that you could tell it” with two balls. For this series Baldessari used Goya’s language in order to create his own imagery. In Goya’s series the captions understate his printed terrifying visions, yet, Baldessari established a balance between words and pictures: they possess the same equal value and importance.[17] In isolation both image and text are incomprehensible, but when combined they provoke the possibility of multiple readings.

Goya Series: There Isn’t Time, 1997. Private Collection. Courtesy of Häusler Contemporary Munich/Zurich. Ink-jet and acrylic on canvas. 75 x 60 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

Goya Series: Not So That You Could Tell It, 1997. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. Ink-jet and acrylic on canvas. 75 x 60 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

Goya Series: And, 1997. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Ink-jet and acrylic on canvas. 75 x 60 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)


The text-word parity plays a significant role in Baldessari’s work: ‘I try to give equal weight to words and image, at least when they’re of equal importance to me.’[18] So Baldessari created the series Prima Facie, which is Latin and means “first evidence”. His first works for the series were diptychs, consisting of equal sized parts, on one side a word and on the other an image. Baldessari combined film stills, showing an actor’s facial expression, matched with a word. He sought to puzzle out what that person’s face might express and tried to find an appropriate word, which exactly describes that expression. The idea of this series was to detect a word as an equivalent for an image, to stress their equal weight.[19] Yet, Baldessari chose film stills and therefore acted emotions consciously. What we see is thus a faked emotion. By looking at someone’s face we may think we understand this person’s expression at the first glance, as the artwork is titled, but we could be entirely wrong. Baldessari’s investigations run over the whole series of five exhibitions, following through several states until the facial expression is replaced with a square of just pure colour. In Fresh Cut Grass/Frogs Belly/Lizard Green/Spinach colour comes into the pictures of the actors’ faces as a glaze over black-and-white photographs and is connected with pigmentary varieties arising from the earth. Warm Brownie/American Cheese/Carrot Stick/Black Bean Soup/Perky Peach/Leek is a combination of colours, which are chosen on the basis of food. After his semiotic games of interchangeable words and images, Baldessari is more concerned with the relationship of colour and image in these artworks from 2005.

Prima Facie: Intent/Concerned, 2005. Courtesy John Baldessari and Margo Leavin Gallery. Archival digital print on ultrasmooth fine art paper mounted on museum board. Dimensions variable. (Source:http://xtraonline.org/past_articles.php?articleID=115#footnote, accessed: 5 January 2010)

Throughout Baldessari’s juxtapositions of text and image and their representation, the audience is committed to undertake the important role of interpreters. Baldessari makes an effort to give the audience a ‘bare amount of information that doesn’t asphyxiate the piece’[20], i.e. just enough to activate the mind. As discussed earlier, Baldessari uses his combinations of picture and image in order to transfer divers meanings and offer multiple interpretations. He seeks to propel the readers’ associations and ideas, trying to obtain interaction between the artworks and his audience. He invites the audience to take part throughout his artworks, as Weissman describes in an appropriate way: ‘These pictorial proposals, games and questions are begging for participation.’[21]

Prima Facie (Fifth State): Fresh Cut Grass/ Frogs Belly/ Lizard Green/Spinach, 2005. Leonard Rosenberg. Archival pigment prints on ultrasmooth fine art paper on museum board. 120 x 48 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

By analysing a selection of John Baldessari’s work from his early text-paintings, along with his Goya series of the nineties to his latest Prima Facie artworks, I have examined the usage of Baldessari’s juxtapositions of text and image and how they function. John Baldessari works with text and image as equal elements. Within the conceptual art movement during the sixties and seventies, text as a new media of representation began to play a decisive role. Baldessari combined the new, experimental form text, and also photography with conventional mediums as painting. Since then he has enjoyed to create a mixture of written and visual language to transfer divers meanings and multiple information. Text and image interact, they are able to elucidate, supplement or subvert each other. Baldessari is concerned with the effect of their combination and with the product of their mixture. ‘I’m not too interested in this word or that word, but in what happens between those two words when they meet.’[22] This quote reflects the artist’s interest in language as a system and the influence of structuralist thoughts of pioneers as de Saussure and Lévi-Strauss. His work possesses a semiotic structure, text and image are interchangeable vehicles of a larger linguistic system, and they propel multiple reading and interpretation of Baldessari’s work. The artist achieves to activate the audience’s associations and thoughts with the help of his juxtapositions of text and image. Baldessari’s work can literarily be described as a word-image game. As the ‘unreliable narrator’, he uses words and imagery, to mislead, to confuse, to surprise and to amuse his audience in order to provoke participation. In conclusion the relationship of text and image in John Baldessari’s work is divers.

As I have mentioned before and as the artwork Prima Facie (Fifth State): Warm Brownie/American Cheese/Carrot Stick/Black Bean Soup/Perky Peach/Leek shows, colour and its relation to language is another subject of interest for John Baldessari. There are many artworks like Color Card Series: Five Oranges (with Foot)[23] and the film Six Colorful Inside Jobs[24] that express the artist’s examination of colour in his work and which could be a further research topic.

Prima Facie (Fifth State): Warm Brownie/ American Cheese/ Carrot Stick/ Black Bean Soup/ Perky Peach/ Leek, 2006. Glenstone. Archival pigment prints and latex paint on Parrott water-resistant matte canvas. 92 x 114 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

Prima Facie (Fifth State): Warm Brownie/ American Cheese/ Carrot Stick/ Black Bean Soup/ Perky Peach/ Leek, 2006. Glenstone. Archival pigment prints and latex paint on Parrott water-resistant matte canvas. 92 x 114 in. (Source: Jones/Morgan)

[1] Ferguson, Russell. ‘Unreliable narrator,’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J. Morgan, pp. 87-94. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009.

[2] Quoted in Obrist, Hans Ulrich. John Baldessari. The Conversation Series 18. Köln, 2009, p. 14.

[3] Examples for the text-Paintings: Clement Greenberg; Tips for artists who want to sell (both 1966-68).

[4] Wood, Paul. Movements in Modern Art – Conceptual Art. London, 2002, pp. 31.

[5] Fuchs, Rainer. ‘Written paintings and photographed colors. Comments on John Baldessari,’ in John Baldessari. A different kind of order: Arbeiten 1962-1984, eds. R. Fuchs and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien , pp. 15-46. Köln, 2005, p. 28.

[6] Quoted in Obrist, p. 14.

[7] Baldessari quoted in Jones, Leslie. ‘Art Lesson: A narrative chronology of John Baldessari’s life and work,’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J. Morgan, pp. 45-60. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009, p. 49.

[8] Quoted in Obrist, p. 9.

[9] Ferguson, p. 89.

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] Fuchs, Rainer. ‘Uncovering the hidden’, in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J.Morgan, pp. 239-246. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009, p. 242.

[12] Roth, Moira. Interview with John Baldessari (1973), http://xtraonline.org/past_articles.php?articleID=115#footnote (accessed: 5 January 2010).

[13] Jones, p. 55.

[14] Fuchs 2009, p. 244; Morgan, Jessica. Choosing (a game for two curators),’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J.Morgan, pp. 19-26. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009, p. 21.

[15] Saussure, de Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris. Chicago, 1986, p. 118.

[16] Quoted in Fuchs 2009, p. 244.

[17] Schjeldahl, Peter. Wonderful cynicism: John Baldessari, http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/features/schjeldahl/schjeldahl24-98.asp#5 (accessed: 5 January 2010).

[18] Obrist, p. 72.

[19] Roth, Moira. Interview with John Baldessari (1973), http://xtraonline.org/past_articles.php?articleID=115#footnote (accessed: 5 January 2010).

[20] Baldessari quoted in Fuchs 2009, p. 246.

[21] Weissman, Benjamin. ‘Men Swallowing Swords, Men Blowing Out Candles’ in Frieze Issue 126 (2009): p. 165-169, p. 166.

[22] Baldessari quoted in Morgan, p. 21.

[23] 1975, Private Collection. Five colour photographs on board. 11 x 13 ¾ in.

[24] 1977, Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. 16mm film transferred to DVD, color, silent; 32 min., 53 sec.

Bibliography

Ferguson, Russell. ‘Unreliable narrator,’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds.        L. Jones and J. Morgan, pp. 87-94. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009.

Fuchs, Rainer:

– ‘Written paintings and photographed colors. Comments on John Baldessari,’ in John Baldessari. A different kind of order: Arbeiten 1962-1984, eds. R. Fuchs and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien , pp. 15-46. Köln, 2005.

–  Uncovering the hidden’, in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J.Morgan, pp. 239-246. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009.

Jones, Leslie. ‘Art Lesson: A narrative chronology of John Baldessari’s life and work,’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J. Morgan, pp. 45-60. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009.

Morgan, Jessica. ‘Choosing (a game for two curators),’ in John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, eds. L. Jones and J.Morgan, pp. 19-26. (exh. cat., Tate Modern). London, 2009.

Obrist, Hans Ulrich. John Baldessari – The Conversation Series 18. Köln, 2009.

Roth, Moira. Interview with John Baldessari (1973), http://xtraonline.org/past_articles.php?articleID=115#footnote (accessed: 5 January 2010).

Saussure, de Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics, trans. Roy Harris. Chicago, 1986.

Schjeldahl, Peter. Wonderful cynicism: John Baldessari, http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/features/schjeldahl/schjeldahl24-98.asp#5 (accessed: 5 January 2010).

Weissman, Benjamin: ‘Men Swallowing Swords, Men Blowing Out Candles’ in Frieze Issue 126 (2009): pp. 165-169.

Wood, Paul. Movements in Modern Art – Conceptual Art. London, 2002.


 
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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in History of Art

 

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