Lot 37
  • 37

John Baldessari

300,000 - 400,000 GBP
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  • John Baldessari
  • Voided Person with Guns at Head (Flanked by Confrontations)
  • acrylic on colour coupler prints in artist’s frame
  • 92 by 282cm.; 36 1/4 by 111in.
  • Executed in 1990.


Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate although the blue is lighter and the flesh tonalities are less yellow in the original. Condition: The work is in very good condition. There are a few superficial scuffs in a isolated places to the Plexiglas of the artist's frames. Very close inspection reveals a few hairline and short scratches to the outer prints: one towards the centre-left of the left print and one minute nick below the eye of the left-hand figure to the left print which appear to be original.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Celebrated for his colourful sequences of found photographs and film stills, in which faces or compositional elements are effaced by coloured shapes, John Baldessari rose to prominence in the late 1960s with his unique amalgamation of Pop Art’s appropriation of mass media imagery and Conceptual Art’s subversive use of language. The result is an utterly singular and striking body of work that has become an emblem of post-modern art, indeed, critic Thomas McEvilley has gone as far as to hail Baldessari the movement’s “patron saint” (Thomas McEvilley quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Marian Goodman Gallery, John Baldessari: Tetrad Series, 1999, p. 4). Executed in 1990, the same year as the artist’s critically acclaimed retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Voided Person with Guns at Head (Flanked by Confrontations) is characteristic Baldessari – the fragmentary nature of disparate photos placed together, the eradication of the central figure’s face with a cobalt blue mask, and the destabilising linguistics of an open-ended title.   

Here, as in some of Baldessari’s most powerful pieces, he uses multiple frames to invoke sets of relationships amongst disjointed imagery. The viewer’s mind is thus powerless to excavate meaning and narrative in this elaborate composition; even though they appear coherent these images are unrelated juxtapositions. For example, when viewing Voided Person with Guns at Head (Flanked by Confrontations) from right to left it reads as a story of increasingly violent confrontation. We first encounter an old film still of two male figures locked in a seemingly stern confrontation, in the central panel an anonymous, faceless figure blankly holds a gun to his temple and to the right, the violence has once more been heighted as we observe two men ferociously grabbing each other by their collars. As though dislocated poetry, the present work also operates on a linguistic level and the title further prompts our ‘reading’ of a narrative of escalating confrontation. As Baldessari has said, "for most of us photography stands for the truth, but a good artist can make a harder truth by manipulating forms or pushing paint around. It fascinates me how I can manipulate the truth so easily by the way I juxtapose opposites or crop the image or take it out of context. When two forces contend in a photograph, I may favour one side or the other – the rider or the horse, for example, the upright mummy in its coffin or the woman standing in awe next to it" (John Baldessari quoted in: Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari, New York 1990, p. 56).

Baldessari first began to block out the faces of people featured in his images in the early 1980s and doing so he completely divested them of their individuality and invested them with a new kind of symbolic meaning. This compositional device highlights the way in which we prioritise different parts of our vision. For example, when the ability to read facial expression is removed, as in the central panel of Voided Person with Guns at Head (Flanked by Confrontations), the viewer is forced to look at the person’s stance and dress in order to gain understanding. Further embedding richly coded clues into its pictorial surface, the coloured elements in his works are also chosen specifically so as to colour code people’s personalities – green/safe, red/dangerous, yellow/crazy and blue, as in the present work, platonic. Using wry humour to challenge the apparent ‘truth’ of photography, Voided Person with Guns at Head (Flanked by Confrontations) absolutely typifies Baldessari’s iconic composite photoworks.