Baldessari’s Prints at the MoCP: The Unfamiliar Familiar

September 23rd, 2010

Baldessari is a well-known and respected name in the art world, but I never had a chance to see his work firsthand until recently. I visited the retrospective show at Columbia’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, titled “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective From The Collections Of Jordan D. Schnitzer And His Family Foundation,” and it became clear to me that Baldessari has earned his reputation. When encountering his prints, several things immediately jump out at you: their careful construction, their complex narratives, and a sense humor that gives way to a commentary on art and language.  They can take the form of multi-layered, colorful abstractions of faces, to black and white images paired with simple phrases, to a grid of images that covers an entire wall.

What I find impressive is both the quantity and variety of the work on display – neither of which are really surprising considering the length of the artist’s career. It’s almost hard to know where to begin looking.  I’m drawn to pieces like Two Bowlers (with Questioning Person), a work that is colorful, amusing, and confusing all at once. The paired images of bowlers hang next to one another, their bodies replaced by fields of color and only their arms and the bowling ball they hold left intact, while the questioning man puzzles away in the corner of the frame. Who are these bowlers that Baldessari has made anonymous? What role does the questioning man play? And does it even matter? These are just some of the questions that come to mind, questions to which we are offered no answer.

Another favorite is Two Unfinished Letters, featuring a grid of eight different images of hands holding a letter – only the letter is cut and replaced by either bold color or blinding whiteness.  Each hand has its own unique agenda: one points to a line on the page, another pair of hands hold their letter close to their chest, a cigarette delicately held between two fingers. Baldessari invokes mystery with his careful cropping of the film stills and photographs he uses. We are given just enough to form an idea of what is happening, a story with a beginning and no end.

Even when we are offered an explanation for what we are seeing, there is still that nagging feeling that something is being left out. The Some Narrow Views series features words like “doubt,” “confrontation,” or “temptation” printed on paper with an accompanying tightly cropped black and white photograph that illustrates the concept the word is trying to convey. “Temptation” is portrayed by a glamorous woman counting a wad of money she has found in an open satchel – money we can only assume does not belong to her. Baldessari’s use of appropriated photography and film stills makes us feel we are encountering we should know, yet once we are lured in by the familiar, we are left on our own to fill in the blanks.  To me, that is what makes Baldessari shine.

“John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective From The Collections Of Jordan D. Schnitzer And His Family” will be up until September 26. This is your last chance to catch the show. The Museum of Contemporary Photography is easy to get to, not to mention free, so take some time this weekend and be lured into the world created by Baldessari’s prints.

-Nicole Nelson

Nicole Nelson is a second-year graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, going for her Masters in New Arts Journalism. She is currently the marketing intern at Fear No Art Chicago. When she’s not writing or studying, she enjoys taking pictures, reading historical fiction, and finding art in unexpected places.

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