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Object of the Week: The Important an Unimportant

Since John Baldessari’s death last week, there has been a commensurate stream of articles recounting his outsized influence as a pioneering artist and educator, with a prolific career spanning decades.

With beginnings as a painter, Baldessari, like many artists of the 1960s and 70s, eventually gravitated toward conceptual art and the pre-eminence of ideas over objects. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Baldessari imbued his conceptual art practice with humor and wit, employing “a sort of Dada irony and sometimes colorful Pop Art splashes . . . to rescue conceptual art from what he saw as its high-minded self-seriousness.”[1]

Baldessari’s enduring interests included the relationship between text and image—which often meant pitting them against one another to challenge their assumed accuracy—and the appropriation of images from photography and film. His 1999 painting, The Important an Unimportant (from the Tetrad Series), in SAM’s collection is an exemplar work in this regard, a combination of digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas.

The composition, made up of quadrants, juxtaposes square images—a glass with red daisies, a woman’s finger pointing down, and two skeleton hands playing an organ—with a textual element that reads, “the important an unimportant.” If these sequences appear heterogeneous and somewhat anachronistic, it is because they are. For example, the excerpt in the upper right is lifted from Goya’s 1797 painting The Duchess of Alba, painted while the duchess mourned her husband’s death. In the lower left, a still from Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent film, The Wedding March, is a not-so-subtle harbinger of the fate which befalls the romance and aristocratic aspirations of the film’s protagonist lovers. The text in the lower right, even, is an excerpt from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), “for whom nullity was a muse.”[2]

Taken together, these citations enrich our understanding of Baldessari’s wide range of influences. And whether we know the exact origins of his chosen references or not, the appropriated images and texts are here imbued with new meaning. We are invited—and, importantly, required—to participate as viewers to consider their relationship to one another and the history of visual representation more broadly.

A serial creator, Baldessari always adhered to his now-famous maxim to “not make any more boring art.” A simple enough credo, such a motivation directly impacts us as viewers, who are on the receiving end—simultaneously empowered and challenged by his work. Perhaps best articulated by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “[Baldessari’s] work amuses, unsettles, questions and makes you look twice and think thrice; laugh out loud; and in general gain a sharpened awareness of the overlapping processes of art making, art viewing, and art thinking.”[3]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

Image: The Important an Unimportant, 1999, John Baldessari, digital printing, hand lettering, and acrylic paint on canvas, 94 x 94 in., Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25.6 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate
[1] Jori Finkel, “John Baldessari, Who Gave Conceptual Art a Dose of Wit, Is Dead at 88,” The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/05/arts/john-baldessari-dead.html.
[2] Adam Kirsch, “Fernando Pessoa’s Disappearing Act,” The New Yorker, Aug. 28, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/04/fernando-pessoas-disappearing-act.
[3] Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” The New York Times, Oct. 21, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/arts/design/22baldessari.html.

Object of the Week: Stone Pavement with Earth

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Imagine being blindfolded and asked to throw a dart at a map to determine the trajectory of an artist’s work, sending them virtually anywhere in the world. Your dart then sets in motion a series of events that drive the artist to choose a completely random site from which an artwork is fabricated. Now, imagine that this artist is not just one, but four people, and that the four collaborators are in fact a family. This ambitious project—titled World Series—was initiated by Boyle Family (Mark Boyle, Joan Hills, and their children Sebastian and Georgia Boyle) as part of their 1968 exhibition Journey to the Surface of the Earth.

It is, no doubt, an involved process that led to the creation of the pictured piece, Stone Pavement with Earth (1973–77). Upon arriving at the selected location—chosen at random by friends and visitors to the 1968 exhibition—this specific six-by-six foot site was determined by throwing a carpenter’s right angle and seeing where it landed. From there, Boyle Family cordoned off the area and recorded it with resin and paints, incorporating whatever material and visual information was on the site—in this case: York stone, earth, and other debris (my favorite area is the footprint). The work evades clear definition. Situated somewhere between painting and sculpture, it also flirts with photography in the way it accurately documents the topography of its original location, a mix of the natural and the man-made. Add to this the performative, experiential, and democratic element of the World Series project, and you can perhaps see why Boyle Family is celebrated for their unique combination of Dada, Fluxus, and conceptual strategies.1

Ultimately, what begins as a chance encounter turns into an attempt to objectively capture and represent the world as-it-is. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, it is an impossible task, but a task, I believe, that is willfully impossible. Exactly 1,000 random sites were selected for World Series—some more accessible and likely to be recorded than others; however, this quasi-scientific project, as David Thompson suggests, is less about highlighting the infinite scope of our world, and more about “the limits of man’s capacity to see it.”2 Presenting viewers with largescale fragments of our environment, Boyle Family takes on ideas of assemblage and the readymade, turning the very world in which we live into art. We just have to look closely.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

1 For more on the art historical contextualization of Boyle Family, I recommend: Chris Townsend, “Mark Boyle and Joan Hills at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague,” British Art Studies, Issue 3 (Summer 2016), http://www.britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/issue-index/issue-3/boyle-1970.
2 David Thompson, “Afterword,” in Beyond Image: Boyle Family (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1986), 53.
Image: Stone Pavement with Earth, 1973 – 77, Boyle Family, stone, earth, and fiberglass, 72 1/16 x 72 1/16 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Arts Council and Contemporary Acquisition fund, 78.34 © Artist or Artist’s Estate