A Brief History of John Baldessari, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and narrated by Tom Waits.
I really care about meaning in art. I want things to look simple, but to raise issues, and to have more than one level of comprehension.
Our lives are inundated with images, and arranging and re-arranging them is often how we tell stories, convey meaning, or throw wrenches into the works of literal interpretation. Advertising creates image juxtapositions to communicate the messages of commerce: “you want this,” or “buy now.” In either case, the story, no matter how inventive, always has a rational, understandable outcome: a product is being peddled, it’s a great product, and you should buy it. Art, on the other hand, creates an open-ended type of non-linear narrative whose meaning is unique to the viewer / perceiver, rather than dictated by the producer (artist). The most powerful brand names function in the same way that art does: they have great depth and multiple meanings, creating manifold pathways for audience participation, which fosters emotional investment and attachment in the brand. By giving people the power to create their own narratives to explain the “meaning” of a brand name, they become participants in the creation of the brand, the very definition of brand engagement.
The works above, by the British conceptual artist John Stezaker and the American conceptual artist John Baldessari, deftly illustrate this concept of creating user engagement. In similar ways, and with a similar economy of means, they each set up a narrative event between a man and a woman, and it is up to the viewer to complete the story. There is no “right” answer. The story isn’t fixed, predetermined, or laden with ulterior motives. And it can evolve and morph over time — just like the best brands.
(Hat tip to Melanie Seyer for connecting the Baldessari to the Stezaker, on her blog melsbox: Stezaker, Baldessari & Hyperreality.)
I Got Up At…, 1974–75: On Kawara’s works, particularly those associated with early Conceptual art, are exemplary of an oeuvre that is at once personal and universal. The confessional autobiographical quality of I Got Up At…, a series of postcards providing diurnal accounts of his rising times that he sent to his artist friend John Baldessari over the course of three months, document Kawara’s existence in time while also allowing that which is typically immaterial to assume material form. Source: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Image credit: On Kawara (b. 1933, Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan; lives and works in New York), I Got Up At…, 1974–75. Ninety postcards with printed rubber stamps, 3 1/2 x 4 in. each and 4 x 6 in. each. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gift of John Baldessari and Denise Spampinato.
As a follow-up to Sightseeing with Garry Winogrand, we uncovered an image of a late Winogrand contact sheet of Los Angeles photos (see below) on a 2007 blog post by a blogger named “J.T.”, who offers his own take on Winogrand’s late work. J.T. begins by ruminating on “Figments of the Real World, Winogrand’s massive, out of print 1988 MOMA monograph,” from which he quotes several passages, interspersed with his own commentary. The first thing he mentions from the catalog are more exact numbers for Winogrand’s unseen output near the end of his life: “At the time of his death, it was discovered that Winogrand had been sitting on 2,500 rolls of exposed, but undeveloped film, and an additional 6,500 rolls of developed, but unproofed, film. That’s 9,000 rolls of film that he shot but never bothered to look at.”
The thing we found most interesting, however, is that J.T. came to a similar conclusion as us, that Winogrand, in the end, had become more of a conceptual artist than the “street photographer” he had been and is known for: “Could it be possible that, through these tectonic shifts in methodology, Winogrand was undergoing an honest-to-god sea change in his approach to his medium (a change that privileged the act, not the results?) Is it an accident that the late contact sheets bear more than a passing resemblance to the medium-subverting projects of John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha? Was Garry Winogrand becoming–in his own stubborn, round-about, contrarian way–a conceptual artist?”
A change that privileged the act, not the results. Whether Winogrand “lost his mind” or “evolved his thinking” is a moot point. We have to take what he left the world and make of it what we will. And if most of the images are more interesting as part of a conceptual idea than as individual images, then so be it, because the idea is really interesting, a gift to the future from a dying artist who remains a force to be reckoned with.
Here is the complete list if you care to sing along with John or perform your own version of “Sentences on Conceptual Art” by Sol Le Witt:
- Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
- Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
- Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
- Formal art is essentially rational.
- Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
- If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results.
- The artist’s will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His wilfulness may only be ego.
- When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.
- The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the latter is the component. Ideas implement the concept.
- Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
- Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions, but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed.
- For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.
- A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.
- The words of one artist to another may induce an idea chain, if they share the same concept.
- Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.
- If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics.
- All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
- One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
- The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
- Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions.
- Perception of ideas leads to new ideas.
- The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
- The artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual.
- Perception is subjective.
- The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better nor worse than that of others.
- An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
- The concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in which it is made.
- Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
- The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.
- There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.
- If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one would assume the artist’s concept involved the material.
- Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.
- It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
- When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.
- These sentences comment on art, but are not art.
First published in 0-9 ( New York ), 1969, and Art-Language ( England ), May 1969.