BY Barbara Bloom in Frieze | 01 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 126

Ha! Ha! ... I Forgot to Laugh

John Baldessari by Barbara Bloom

BY Barbara Bloom in Frieze | 01 OCT 09

Having the extraordinary privilege of knowing John Baldessari for 40 years is like being part of a really good, and very long, shaggy dog story. But perhaps there’s a better simile. We met at CalArts, Los Angeles, as teacher and student in 1970, a place and time when those terms were fairly slippery. I thought of the hours and days we spent together as just hanging out. I perceived the lengthy conversations and the ongoing, shared lists of art, music and books (which he often loaned to me) as gestures among friends. I had little idea how amazingly generous John’s laid-back and non-hierarchical ways would appear to me later in life and had no inkling of the enormous effect he would have on my own work as an artist.

While I was drinking it all in during my years as a student, I had what might be called attitude, and possessed a combination of focus, curiosity and cheekiness that must have appealed to John. In a recent essay on him, David Salle described us students (or cohorts) as possessing ‘irreverence veering off into smart-assness with occasional glimmers of high surrealist poetry’.

John told jokes and stories. Lots of them.

I can’t tell a joke to save my life. I self-consciously anticipate the punch-line and then lose the rhythm. The same holds for my storytelling: I find myself stuck in a limbo between teller and listener, not knowing how much detail to leave in or what to leave out. I have chalked up my disabilities to the residue of growing up in west Los Angeles with parents who had many friends who were professional comedy writers. I have early memories of sneaking out of bed to eavesdrop on their poker games (my own version of the primal scene), and not getting the jokes and repartee, or understanding the ‘adult’ references, but observing and intuitively inferring the various forms and styles of the telling and their tellers.

John Baldessari, Tetrad Series: TO BE A, 1999, digital print and acrylic paint on canvas, 239x239 cm

I knew early on in life that I preferred the odd quip at the far-reaching border of sense and that I have no tolerance for puns. My appreciation of the kind of humour that is a little hard to get certainly remains in my work. It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of Sigmund Freud to understand the appeal of not quite understanding. If, at the time, I didn’t realize that John’s generosity was exceptional, I also didn’t comprehend his relationship to humour. I used to feign agony at listening to his jokes, giving him a five-joke maximum per conversation and tallying them disdainfully on my fingers. I lectured him on puns, quoting Samuel Johnson, who disparagingly referred to them as ‘the lowest form of humour’. I probably eye-rolled him mid-way through his telling of some long, involved yarn. I was an impossible snotty little audience! (And I guess he enjoyed every moment of it.)

It wasn’t until years later that I understood and began to appreciate the deep influence John has had on my life and work. Initially, I mistook his works as one-liners, and failed to read the space between the lines. I had inadvertently studied at the feet of a master of non-sequiturs and red herrings.

In 1991 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held a Baldessari retrospective. It was their policy to have the exhibiting artist ask a fellow artist to give a talk on the work. Flatteringly, John asked me to be that person. I prepared a walk-through of his show, stopping at a number of works to tell a story, a joke or an anecdote.

John’s vast archive of visual material is famous. Most articles on his work and most interviews with him touch on his collection and idiosyncratic ordering system. My boxes and files of clipped pictures are, by comparison, a paltry assemblage. But I do have a more hearty garden of quotes and citations from various reading sources. My plan for the Whitney walk-through was to pair chosen works by John with some chosen words from my collection, paralleling the possibility for reading and slippage.

What appears here is an updated version of that walk-through.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the 16th floor is a victim of an accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest's clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freezr the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience. - Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

John Baldessari, Pure Beauty, 1966-8, acrylic on canvas, 115x115 cm

I knew a certain Benedicta who filled earth and air with ideals; and from whose eyes men learnt the desire for greatness, beauty, glory, and for everything that strengthened their belief in immortality. But this miraculous child was too beautiful to live long. She died only a few days after I had come to know her, and I buried her with my own hands, one day when Spring wafted the contents of its censer even as far as the graveyard. I buried her with my own hand, well sealed in a coffin of wood, perfumed and incorruptible as an Indian casket.

And as I stood gazing at the place where I had hidden my treasure, all at once I saw a little person singularly like the deceased. She was trampling on the fresh soil with strange hysterical violence, and was laughing and shouting: ‘I am the real Benedicta! and a vile slut I am, too! And to punish you for your blindness and folly, you shall love me as I really am!’

But I was furious, and I answered: ‘No! no! no!’ And to add emphasis to my refusal, I stamped my foot so violently that my leg sank up to the knee in the earth over the new grave, and like a wolf caught in a trap, I remained fastened, perhaps forever, to the grave of the ideal. - Charles Baudelaire, ‘Which is the True One?’ from Le Spleen de Paris (Paris Spleen), 1869 

John Baldessari, Man and Woman with Bridge, 1984, collaged black and white photographs, 37x122 cm

Is it sinful of me that instead of looking at the minister I fix my eyes on the beautiful embroidered handkerchief you are holding in your hand? Is it sinful of you to hold it thus? … There is a name in one corner … Charlotte Hahn is your name? … It is entrancing to learn a lady’s name in such a casual manner. It is as if there were a ministering spirit who mysteriously made me acquainted with you … Or is it no accident that the handkerchief is folded in such a way that I get to see the name? You are moved, you wipe a tear from your eye … the handkerchief again hangs limply down … you are aware that I am looking at you and not the minister. You glance at your handkerchief and notice that it has betrayed your name. - Søren Kierkegaard, ‘Diary of a Seducer’ from Either/Or, 1843 

John Baldessari, Arms & Legs (Specif. Elbows & Knees) Etc.: Three Elbows (One Blue), 2007, three dimensional archival print and acrylic paint, 152x391 cm

I once received a letter from a friend from whom I hadn’t heard in years. It was a chatty letter, written in an atypical flowery and padded style, which went on and on for pages with no terribly important news. And it was only after re-reading the letter several times that I came to fathom why she had written at all. Somewhere in the middle of her meanderings were sentences that she had crossed out, but which were still quite legible. In these sentences she mentioned something rather embarrassing which she thought I should know. Directness was obviously not her forte. Obtuseness was more her style, and this form of speaking/silence was her typographic solution for awkwardness. - Barbara Bloom, Esprit de l’Escalier, 1988

John Baldessari, Black and White Decision, 1984, black and white photographs, 163x180 cm


John Baldessari, Emma and Freud, 1984, black and white photographs, acrylic, acetate, 61x41 cm

Two men are talking in the bar sharing their sob stories. One man says, ‘I had the worst Freudian Slip the other day.’ The other man responds: ‘What is a Freudian Slip?’ ‘You know, it’s when you mean to say one thing, but you say something else that reveals what you are really thinking about. Like the other day I was at the airport and this really beautiful lady was helping me. Instead of asking her for “two tickets to Pittsburgh”, I asked her for “to Pickets to Tittsburgh”.’ The second man replies: ‘Oh, now I know what you are talking about. It’s like the other day when I was having breakfast with my wife. I meant to say, “Pass the salt please” and instead I said: “You fucking bitch! You ruined my life!”’ - Joke

John Baldessari, Sailing and Tennis, 1987, black and white and colour photographs, 229x244 cm

Always distrust a man who looks you in the eye. He wants to prevent you from seeing something. Look for it. - Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison, 1930

John Baldessari, Concerning Diachronic/Synchronic Time: Above, On, Under (with Mermaid), 1976, black and white photographs, 73x70 cm

Prokofiev’s Op. 67, Peter and the Wolf, is a famous orchestral piece narrated by famous people. I have the versions narrated by Mia Farrow, by David Bowie, and most curiously, by William F. Buckley Jr. (the common denominator is seemingly pompous English diction). There are many more versions, and the whole might warrant a peculiar little complete collection. Straight off, the narrator tells us, ‘This is a story with music. Each character is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra.’ And then goes on to introduce us to the various distinctly recognizable musical themes: The Bird - by the flute The Duck - by the oboe The Cat - by the clarinet The Grandfather - by the bassoon The Wolf - by three French horns Peter - by all the strings of the orchestra The hunters’ rifle shots - by the kettle and bass drums The story begins: ‘Early one morning Peter opened the gate and went out into the big green meadow.’ (String ‘Peter’ theme.) ‘On the branch of a big tree sat a little bird, Peter’s friend.’ (Flute ‘Bird’ theme.) ‘“All is quiet”, it chirped gaily.’ (Flute and strings together = bird and Peter together.) ‘Just then, a duck came waddling round.’ (Oboe ‘Duck’ theme.) ‘She was glad that Peter had not closed the gate, and …’ - Barbara Bloom, Ghost Writer, 1987

John Baldessari, Baudelaire Meets Poe, 1980 colour and black and white photographs, 290x290 cm

In the beginning was the object ... random props, when strung together by the right verbs and adjectives, function as clues to a narrative, which at the same time absorbs them. A similar inventory – a still life as unfrivolous as it is seemingly random – starts the first analytical detective story in history, ‘The Murders in The Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allan Poe: ‘On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of grey human hair, also dabbled in blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots. Upon the floor were found four Napoleons, an ear-ring of topaz, three large silver spoons, three smaller of métal d’Alger, and two bags, containing nearly four thousand francs in gold.’ It is the task of the detective, not only to eliminate the wrong objects, but even more to place the right verbs and adjectives, until the conclusive narrative, the right script, emerges in an analytical flash. - Marianne Brouwer, ‘Texts Without a Grave’, from Ghost Writer, 1987

John Baldessari, Letter, 1986, black and white photographs, vinyl paint, 273x123 cm

‘Why do I turn once again to writing? Beloved, you must not ask such a question, For the truth is, I have nothing to tell you, All the same, your dear hands will hold this note.’ - Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1979

John Baldessari, Person on Bed (Blue): With Large Shadow (Orange) and Lamp (Green), 2004, three dimensional archival print with acrylic paint, 213x191 cm

The detective story, the story of intimate crime, is almost a century older than the cinema. Yet it seems as if their origins are deeply rooted in identical phenomena. At the press conference that Jean-Luc Godard gave in Cannes for his film Passion he recounted the origin of the movie script: ‘The movie script was invented by bookkeepers who had to know what Mack Sennett had shot that day. So they wrote a list: a pair of stockings, a car, a policeman, a girl, a bathing suit. Then they put in the verbs and the adjectives: a girl in a bathing suit loves a policeman who drives three cars. And this was called a script.’ - Marianne Brouwer, ‘Texts Without a Grave’, from Ghost Writer, 1987

‘Knock, Knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Interrupting cow.’ ‘Interrupting c0w who?’ ‘MOOOOOOOOOO!’ - Joke (told by seven-year-olds)

Barbara Bloom is an artist. In 2020, she had a solo show at Capitain Petzel, Berlin, Germany. She is currently working on a book and exhibition in collaboration with Ben Lerner. She lives in New York, USA.