18th and Highland, National City. was exhibited in Baldessari’s solo exhibition in 1968 at Molly Barnes Gallery - one of only six canvases this scale. The present work is an extremely early and particularly witty model of Baldessari's razor-sharp perennial questioning and radical re-evaluation of accepted notions of authorship, originality and aesthetic judgment. It is also one of the first instances in which the artist combines photographic imagery and text, a hallmark of his practice. Although Baldessari intentionally snapped these images 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 utterly picturesque; cars stream past a corner drive-thru hamburger joint, the era of post-war American prosperity in full swing. The caption painted beneath the photograph, stating the location, gives the entire composition a documentary quality. In signature Baldessari style, he challenges our ideas about what can pass as fine art. He develops a photograph onto canvas instead of paper knowing the viewer will automatically consider it more important, but commissions a sign painter to overlay the text in an effort to remove the artist’s hand, thus calling into question traditional notions of authenticity. As Jan Avgikos, professor of Art History at the School of Visual Arts in New York eloquently writes about the series, “[t]rapped 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 phototext paintings whose singular bromide is sheer absurdity.”
Inspiring a tectonic shift in the course of art history, the present work perfectly embodies Baldessari’s emphatic statement, “The purpose of art is to keep us perpetually off balance.” His work ushered in a new generation of art and artists; Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger – commonly grouped under the Pictures Generation umbrella – are all acolytes of the ‘School of Baldessari.’ The critical importance of 18th and Highland, National City. is underlined by Baldessari’s decision to revisit the series in 1996. This time, infusing color into the works, the artist found vitality in the original message of his National City series almost thirty years later. The spark that prompted one of the most investigative and revolutionary repertoires in post-war American art, 18th and Highland, National City. is from one of the most critically important and conceptually daring series of art produced in our time.
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