The Open Road: John Baldessari At The Met

John Baldessari, Aligning Balls, 1972(Photo from Kyle Gallup

We are at the crossroads of new ways of thinking about art, and the making of art. Boundaries that have delineated traditional art practices, and so many of the art movements of the last century—Modernism, Conceptual Art, Pop Art, Formalism—to name four — are outmoded. Walking into the John Baldessari exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the viewer enters an expansive world, a country waiting to be discovered. Though he is known as a conceptual artist, he uses traditional forms—photography, painting, collage and video—in his work. He finds a perfect tension between the idea and its manifestation as an object in the world.

For me, viewing so much of his work in one place was like diving into a crystal clear pool. His deeply honest and transparent approach to art-making sets him apart from his peers, students and followers. His concepts dictate his use of materials. Baldessari focuses on a few things most important to him: ideas, words, and photography. He steps back, taking his hand out of the art-making process but without sacrificing his sharp eye for putting disparate elements together.

I liked many of the works in the show; one of my favorites was “Aligning Balls” (1972). Baldessari sets himself the task of photographing a red ball thrown up into the air. This forces him to act quickly without regard to properly composing a photo. This piece is a selection of more than thirty small snapshots of a tiny red ball suspended in a calm field of blue. Sometimes there is a cloud afloat in the sky or a treetop nestled on the edge of the image. The pictures are delicately strung together with a drawn dark chalk line on a wall. One must get right on top of the pictures in the small-scale work, creating intimacy with the piece as an object. This is in contrast to the expansive space within each photograph. Round-headed nails, the same size as the red balls, pin the glass-covered photos in place, reinforcing the reality that the installation is itself an object in the world.

His video pieces, though appearing rough and gritty, have a beauty in their repetitive simplicity and honesty. They have a thing-ness about them, much like watching a firefly trapped inside a jar with air-holes punched in the lid. (Baldessari's 1971 video I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art can be seen on vodpod's website.)

As an artist, I am still in the process of making sense of Baldessari’s work and the meaning it holds for me personally. For others who plan on seeing ”Pure Beauty” my advice is to take your time, go slowly, and surrender yourself to each of the works as you come upon them and you will be rewarded over and over again.

Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.