The genesis of Baldessari’s idea for his series of Commissioned Paintings sprung from the hard-edge painter Al Held’s alleged pronouncement, “All conceptual art is just pointing at things." Drily parodying Held’s criticism through its literal manifestation, Baldessari took photographs of his friend George Nicolaidis pointing out random, mundane objects that caught the pair’s attention as they strolled through town. After recording these documentary encounters with everyday minutiae, Baldessari brought a selection of the resulting 35mm slides to various local sign painters. Baldessari paid his professional hires—whose skilled technique rivaled many of the conceptual photorealist painters gaining momentum at the time—a fee to copy the images as faithfully as possible. A limited project, the entire series of Commissioned Paintings consists of only 14 canvases, each executed by different painters whose names are each prominently identified on the canvas and in the work’s titles. The complete set of 14 pictures was exhibited in 1970 at Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles and Richard Feigen Gallery in New York. Thirteen, including the present work, were exhibited in the 1990-1992 travelling retrospective that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Realized near the beginning of Baldessari’s career in a finite series, never to be revisited or later re-executed, the present work is an exceedingly rare reflection of a seminal moment; namely, the legendary artist’s inception of the conceptual wordplay and pictorial tomfoolery that would come to exemplify his prolific body of work.
Lampooning the very notion of “high” art, Baldessari’s cutting-edge output topples the institutional structures narrowly governing the production of art, throwing the definition of art-making open to broad and exciting new interpretation. A Painting by Edgar Transue epitomizes his desire to undermine art’s overwhelmingly didactic impulse, critiquing the hegemonic rhetoric permeating the art world: the gesture of pointing at a banal group of prescription pills set against a stark white background, accompanied by a self-reflexive caption that describes the work, pokes fun at pedagogy. Baldessari is interested more in the function, communication and reception of art, rather than its form. In the present work, he deconstructs our desire to constantly label and designate artworks; when exhibited together, the sameness and repetition of the Commissioned Paintings comically brings to light our own proclivity for judging a work based exclusively on the renown of its author.
Baldessari’s Commissioned Paintings draw compelling parallels to Martin Kippenberger’s landmark early body of paintings Lieber Maler, Male Mir (Dear Painter, Paint for Me) that saw Kippenberger employ a painter of film-posters, known as Werner, to execute billboard-size paintings based on the artist’s instructions. Both artists investigate implicit hierarchies of painterly veracity, each explicitly naming the painters they hire—Kippenberger attributes his paintings to the nom de plume “Werner Kippenberger”, an amalgamation of their names, whereas Baldessari prominently places each painter’s name in bold letters on the canvas. The painting characterizes Baldessari’s ardor for linguistic gymnastics and acerbic one-liners, aligning him within the illustrious tradition of conceptual punsters Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Kosuth. Teaching at the renowned California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s alongside experimental titans such as John Cage and Nam June Paik significantly influenced Baldessari’s artistic development and allowed him to shape the following generation of conceptual image-makers; students of his included David Salle, Jack Goldstein and Troy Brauntuch.
The rise of Pop and Conceptual art practices of the 1960s led to the pre-emptive pronouncement of painting’s death, a reproach that inspired Baldessari—in a spell of artistic dissatisfaction—to bring most of his paintings executed between 1953 and 1966 to a mortuary to be burned, displaying the ashes as 1970’s Cremation Project. Having literally decimated any evidence of his painterly hand, Baldessari fixed his concentration on the gestures of conception, delegation and examination. Unambiguously distanced from any evident authorship by the works' declarative attributions to the hired painters, the Commissioned Paintings were the most cogent and instantaneous expression of this thought. Proceeding from Frank Stella’s famous 1964 credo that “What you see is what you see,” Baldessari sardonically lays out the mechanics of the image’s making and exposes the economic transaction that underlies its creation, marvelously encapsulating the artist’s savvy for cultural subversion. Baldessari eschews the traditional impenetrability associated with Conceptual art for astonishing clarity, peppering his complex commentary on twentieth-century artistic production with his signature wry humor.
Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Edgar Transue marks the inauguration of the genre of text paintings that Baldessari is most renowned for: semiotic wordplays that combine text and image to an elegantly bracing effect. At once poetically parading Baldessari’s intellectual rigor and aesthetic economy, the present work is a stunningly original abnegation of originality. Peter Schjeldahl notes, “On the one hand, there is great art, which fills the ambitious soul with longing. On the other hand, there is one's tatty, funky self. Like a hobo Cynic in the agora, dissecting people's comfortable self-deceptions, Baldessari won't let either horn of the permanent dilemma recede from sight for a second. Paying attention to his work won't make you better or happier, but it will remind you what truth tastes like.” (Peter Schjeldahl, “Wonderful Cynicism: John Baldessari,” Village Voice, February 10, 1998)
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