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In the Interstice of Contradiction

For some, John Baldessari is a typical proponent of Pop Art, and others regard the 73 year-old Californian as a conceptual artist. As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. For the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, the pop conceptualist created a 13-part commissioned series titled Somewhere Between Almost Right and Not Quite (With Orange), in which he pays tribute to various elements: cinema, pure color, perception, psychology, and chaos.

Beast (Orange) Being Stared At: With two figures (Green, Blue), 2004,
©John Baldessari

Two men are standing in front of a desk. Their faces can't be seen because they're covered by two green and blue dots. Which is harmless compared to what's happening further down. At the height of the tabletop, some unidentified zigzag thing in bright orange stretches across the whole picture, turning the banal scene into a vision of perfect chaos. Yet the work's sober and prosaic title - Model (Orange): With Two Figures (Blue Green) 2004 - remains at odds with the scene portrayed.

John Baldessari is a master of obvious accentuation. Following James Rosenquist, Andreas Slominski, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lawrence Weiner, Jeff Koons, Rachel Whiteread, Bill Viola, and Gerhard Richter, Baldessari, who was born in San Diego, California in 1931, is the ninth artist to create a large-scale commissioned work for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. The motto Baldessari has given to the thirteen-part work series is Somewhere Between Almost Right and Not Quite (with Orange). His choice was a good one, and could also just as easily apply to the 73 year-old artist's overall oeuvre.

Baldessari was always "somewhere in between," ever since the beginning of his career, which will soon span five decades: between Pop and Conceptual Art, between painting, photography, graphic art, and film. One of his videos illustrates this attitude very well. Baldessari assumed a key role in his short film from 1972, playing the part of a singer. The strange thing about it is the combination of music and lyrics.

He sings manifestos that his artist colleague, the inventor of Conceptual Art Sol LeWitt, wrote, to the tunes of well-known melodies including the American National Anthem.

Watching Baldessari as he attempts to harmonize the complexity of Sol LeWitt's theses with the melodies is entertaining indeed. Yet it also shows that Baldessari approached Conceptual Art, to which he is normally ascribed, with skepticism, irony, and humor from the very beginning - just as he always vehemently resisted allocations of every kind throughout his career.

Fissures (Orange) and Ribbons (Orange, Blue), 2004,
©John Baldessari

Baldessari began as a painter. After studying art and literature at the State College in his hometown, he studied art history for a year at the University of California in Berkeley. In 1957, back in San Diego, he completed his MFA and then finally moved to Los Angeles, where painters and sculptors such as Ed Ruscha and Edward Kienholz dominated the local scene. Baldessari tried out a large number of artistic techniques and styles, but for the most part distanced himself from the cool Pop Art of Kienholz, Ruscha, and the other West Coast artists.

Baldessari had his pivotal artistic experience in the summer of 1959, when he took over a workshop for juvenile delinquents in National City, an industrial working class suburb of San Diego. His experiences with the youths' enthusiasm while immersing themselves in art confirmed Baldessari in his chosen path. "Then I realized how magic and powerful art could be; they valued art more than I did. This moving experience stimulated me to go on," he said many years later in an interview.

Baldessari's dealings with people uneducated in art became a key experience for him. He continued to search out possibilities to combine his urge for thematic complexity with a widely understandable formal language. This soon led him to photography, and a little while later, writing entered his work as an independent component: Baldessari began giving his photographs, which he printed on canvases prepared with photosensitive emulsion, simple place names as titles, placing them in large, clearly visible letters beneath the image.

Through this double emphasis - once as image, and again as a line of text - unspectacular locations such as the car wash Econ-O-Wash, 14th and Highland, National City, Calif. suddenly took on an enhanced meaning. Thus, Baldessari steered the viewer's attention to things he or she would otherwise overlook. The idea behind this was to "make art out of where I lived without glamorizing it, and with the idea that truth is beautiful, no matter how ugly it is."

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