Beyond Face Value: The Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces by John Baldessari

Beyond Face Value: The Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces by John Baldessari

Featured in our 5 June Design Auction in New York is a salon suite by the legendary Los Angeles conceptual artist.

Featured in our 5 June Design Auction in New York is a salon suite by the legendary Los Angeles conceptual artist.

John Baldessari, Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces, activated as a living tableau, entitled Ear Sofa Nose Sconces with Flowers (In Stage Setting), 2017. 

By Luke Baker


Across millennia and mediums, artists have been drawn to depict the eyes, said to be the windows to the soul, and the mouth, equally charged as the organ of self-expression and erotic symbolism. What then of the nose and ears, those other cardinal features of the human face? For the seminal conceptual artist John Baldessari, who died in 2020 at age 88, these often overlooked and much maligned parts were powerful carriers of meaning and formal intrigue. Ears and noses captivated Baldessari as functional organs that were more or less interchangeable rather than expressive identifying features. Nowhere does his intense fascination with fragmenting the face into discrete forms become more realized than with his exquisite Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces, a suite of artist-designed furniture released in 2009 in an edition of six by Beyer Projects.

The body and its constituent parts appear (and disappear) throughout Baldessari’s paintings, found photographs, collages, sculptures, and videos. Extended fingers point conspicuously at quotidian objects in his Commissioned Paintings. Reappropriated images of men’s faces, contorted and grimacing, are the focus of his Stress Situations series. In other works, faces are faintly superimposed over pictures of smoke or hair. Beginning in the 1980s, Baldessari covered the heads of figures in film stills with colorful round dots in a self-conscious act of obliterating or isolating symbols of their personhood. In the early 2000s, the artist began a series highlighting ears and noses in found imagery. For Baldessari, such anonymous parts estranged from their familiar contexts invited closer inspection, and perhaps, alternate interpretation. “To represent people only by an ear and/or nose became another way of reducing human identity to a minimum,” Baldessari once wrote. “Faces become clichés like anything else so viewing people only by ears and/ or nose might enable the viewer to see afresh."

John Baldessari, One Face (Three Versions) with Nose, Ear and Glasses, from Noses & Ears, Etc., 2006, featured in Phillips' Editions & Works on Paper auction, 11 March 2022.

The Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces abstract these facial features yet further into the realm of usable furniture. Scaled up, reoriented, and installed in a domestic setting, the ear’s graceful helix curves become a place to settle, the inverted nose offers a natural lampshade for an uplight, its triangle shape and open nostrils a perfect vessel for flowers. Rendered in a pure white polyurethane (rigid for the noses, soft and pliant for the sofa), the objects take on a highly sculptural effect, simultaneously evoking Classical-era anatomical realism and Henry Moore’s midcentury organicism. Each is momentarily recognizable before dissolving into an amalgamation of shadows and smooth surfaces, and then back again. Baldessari reveled in taking images, language, and ideas out of their original context, but just as important was the act of resituating these elements within a new, often incongruous or ambiguous milieu. Significantly, Baldessari developed the Ear Sofa and Nose Sconce for his 2009 architectural intervention at the Museum Haus Lange, a former private residence designed between 1928 and 1930 by the consummate modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Krefeld, Germany. The exhibition’s tongue-in-cheek title, “BRICK BLDG, LG WINDOWS W/ XLENT VIEWS, PARTIALLY FURNISHED, RENOWNED ARCHITECT,” apes the laconic and functional tone of a rental listing, crassly commodifying the house and its designer as though a classified ad. Baldessari’s installation blocked the home’s carefully located windows with faux brick print on the outside, and filled them with scenes from his native California on the inside. The artist’s ‘partial furnishings’ proposed new vantage points from which to observe this remixed relationship between interior and exterior, manmade and natural.

John Baldessari, Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces, 2009. New York Design.

The Ear Sofa and Nose Sconces are a far cry from the original furnishings Mies had designed for the house with his partner, Lilly Reich. Their lounge chair, ottoman, and side table (drawings for which are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art) cleave to tradition, particularly the familiar seating typology of the boxy club chair. Installed in Mies’ rational, gridlike building with its rectilinear motif and discreet built-ins, Baldessari’s surreal, soft furniture inserted a realistic human element into the stark interiors. Inverted on the wall, the artist’s comical sconces quite literally ‘turn up their nose’ at the self-serious air of Mies’ high modernist setting.

The sofa and sconce designs took a performative turn in an installation for Sprüth Magers Gallery in London later in 2009. For this mise en scène, Baldessari worked with a Hollywood production designer to create a pure white, stage-like environment evocative of an Art Moderne theater, complete with a decorative archway that functioned like a proscenium. A live actor in glamorous couture sat poised on the sofa, smoking, flanked by two white poodles, for the duration of the performance.

These exceptionally rare works of furniture by Baldesssari activate our humble ears and noses on an entirely different plane than his previous investigations of such anatomical subjects. Designed to be viewed in the round, caressed, and even smelled, the pieces elevate the symbolic as well as the dimensional and sensorial properties of these distinctly human forms.


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