John Baldessari at the opening of his exhibition at Molly Barnes Gallery in Los Angeles, 1968. Photo by Phillip T. Jones and courtesy of Baldessari Estate
John Baldessari, Wrong, 1966-68 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Art © The Estate of John Baldessari

Enigmatic yet specific, Duck Pond Bar, National City, California is a seminal early embodiment of the radical re-evaluation of accepted notions of authorship, originality and aesthetic judgment that has come to define John Baldessari’s singular practice. Executed in 1967-68, the present work is one of a series of eleven National City paintings that, through their combination of photographic imagery taken by the artist and text executed by a professional sign-maker, document seemingly quotidian snapshots of the town outside San Diego where Baldessari lived. Standing among the earliest examples of Baldessari’s now-signature fusion of text and photography, the National City paintings mark a pivotal moment within the artist’s practice. In its incisive intelligence and aesthetic reductionism, Duck Pond Bar, National City, California, alongside the other works from the series, emphatically embodies the investigation of authenticity of art and art-making that defines the larger Conceptual art movement, of which Baldessari was an indisputable figurehead.

Simultaneously, the imagery of these paintings captures, with unexpected poignancy, the nuanced particularities of the American urban and suburban experience. As one scholar writes, “Trapped in a proverbial vacuum in southern California, [Baldessari] honed the edge of banality in his work to an acute degree. Nothing exotic, or erotic, or explosive, or powerful, or iconic, or kindly, or otherwise engaging interrupts the placid calm of the photo-text paintings whose singular bromide is sheer absurdity.” (Jan Avgikos in: Exh. Cat., San Diego, Museum of Contemporary Art, John Baldessari: National City, 1996, p. 18) Testifying to the importance of this group, examples are held in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Glenstone Collection in Maryland, alongside several other prestigious private collections. A foundational work from the early years of the artist’s mature career, Duck Pond Bar, National City, California is significant not only in Baldessari's oeuvre, but within the evolution of Conceptual art, a movement that has defined the artistic landscape of the past fifty years.

Left: Ed Ruscha, Standard, Amarillo, Texas, 1962, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2020© Ed Ruscha.

Right: Ed Ruscha,Standard Station, 1966, © 2020 Edward Ruscha

An obscure snapshot of a white building, distinguished only by the name ‘Duck Pond’ spelled out in neat cursive above the open door, the place depicted within the present work is intriguing in its ambiguity and anonymity. This mysterious appeal is immediately undermined, however, by the crisp line of text emblazoned below the image, stating clearly that the view is of DUCK POND BAR, NATIONAL CITY, CALIFORNIA. This tension between narrative and documentary qualities is Baldessari’s signature: here, he questions and challenges the viewer’s notions of what can be conceived as fine art. As Jan Avgikos observes: “Despite the inherent familiarity of Baldessari’s images, his bland documentary approach suggests that each reference point constitutes a shred of evidence relevant to a forensic investigation, as if the photographs possessed some special but not necessarily visible significance that might explain why they had been elevated to the surface of painting and carefully labeled with respect to location… Other than identifying the site – Ryan Oldsmobile, National City, Calif. – these captions raise more questions than they answer.” (Ibid., p. 19) Although Baldessari intentionally snapped the photographs used in the National City paintings without concern for how the shot was framed, driving with one hand on the wheel and the other holding the camera, the image he captured is somehow potent, nostalgic and picturesque. Asked to describe the impetus behind the National City paintings, Baldessari revealed:

“I was going to show people what it’s like, 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. I drove around in the car shooting my pictures from the window, because I didn’t want to make the place more beautiful by setting my camera up with a tripod, getting the right light, and just the right composition. I just wanted it the way it is – it isn’t even rural sprawl.”
John Baldessari in: Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari, Los Angeles 1993, p. 27

Left: Bruce Nauman, None Sing Neon Sign, 1970
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Art © 2020 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Right: Gerhard Richter, Zwei Fiat (Two Fiats), 1964
Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Germany
Art © 2020 Gerhard Richter

The critical importance of the National City group is underlined by Baldessari’s decision to revisit the subject in 1996, when the artist returned to these same locations for a second series, this time in color; upon revisiting the sites however, the image Baldessari captured shows that the Duck Pond Bar is no more, resulting in the painting Former Site of Duck Pond Bar, 3003 National City Blvd., National City, California, from 1996. The present work, alongside the other examples from this series, represent a rare time capsule from this highly particularized moment within not only the American experience – but the artist’s own life.

John Baldessari, FORMER SITE OF DUCK POND BAR 3003 NATIONAL CITY BLVD. NATIONAL CITY, CALIFORNIA, 1996 Private Collection, Art © The Estate of John Baldessari

Produced in 1967-68, the National City paintings date from the single most important moment of Baldessari’s artistic development. In the late 1960s, the artist was living in National City, a smaller city within the southwestern region of San Diego County and his birthplace, and teaching art at various junior colleges, community colleges, and universities within the area, while simultaneously producing his own work. Hearing of some art critics’ and historians’ preemptive pronouncement that “painting was dead,” Baldessari—in a spell of artistic dissatisfaction—was inspired to bring most of his paintings executed between 1953 and 1966 to a mortuary to be burned. Having literally destroyed any evidence of his painterly hand, Baldessari fixed his concentration on the gestures of conception, delegation and examination. Of the importance of this moment, one scholar reflects “He also signified the photo text paintings, produced between 1966 and 1969, as the turning point in his development as an artist.” (Jan Avgikos in: op. cit., p. 18) Executed in the years directly following this shift, Duck Pond Bar, National City, California represents the inception of one of the most investigative and revolutionary repertoires in post-war American art, perfectly embodying Baldessari’s emphatic statement: “The purpose of art is to keep us perpetually off balance.”