John Baldessari - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 15, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Lawrence Oliver Gallery, Philadelphia
    Private Collection, Florida

  • Exhibited

    Philadelphia, Lawrence Oliver Gallery, John Baldessari, February 3 - March 4, 1989
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, California Photography: Remaking Make—Believe, June 29 - August 20, 1989

  • Literature

    S. Kismaric, California Photography: Remaking Make—Believe, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 19 (illustrated), cover (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    "You just have to give [the viewer] something to hang on to and they can begin to unravel it themselves. It's kind of like reading a detective story, you get a clue, you follow that."


    Although he started his career as a painter, in the early 1960s, John Baldessari began to experiment with other forms of media, finding a niche in the incorporation of text and photography into canvas. His works of conceptualism are marked by their humor, visual drive and critical awareness. The present lot, Green Gown (Death), is composed of two vast photographic prints. The lower quadrant is comprised of a framed 12 foot long film still depicting a fallen cowboy, presumably the losing half of a heroic shootout. Above floats a grandiose evening gown, tinted in retro blue-green. As curator Susan Kismaric described in the exhibition catalogue for the 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in which the work debuted: “There is a humor in the empty evening gown that looks like a dress for a giant paper doll as it floats above the dead cowboy, who lies encased in his frame/coffin. The juxtaposition of the cowboy as a symbol of masculinity and the evening gown as a representation of femininity is delicate. The dead cowboy evokes Manet’s painting The Dead Toreador (1864), a fine example of high art, while the gown recalls Walt Disney’s Cinderella (1951), an immediate symbol of popular culture. This sophisticated mixture of aesthetics represents a continuation of Baldessari’s original desire to make art that is not constrained by conventional categories.” (S. Kismaric, California Photography: Remaking Make—Believe, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989) Baldessari’s intent in playing with these notions of gender is uncertain, perhaps intentionally so; creating meaning becomes secondary when creating associations is so satisfyingly evocative.

    A product of the West Coast, Baldessari’s imagery evokes the dreamy and fetishized Hollywood aesthetic, though the monumental scale and formal arrangement re-filters the work through a somber lens. The empty and massive green gown, floating listlessly about the fallen cowboy, implies the eternal feminine as it floats away from earth-bound sin. When considered autonomously, the cowboy and the gown engender starkly different meanings, yet when positioned and arranged as Baldessari has done, a novel syntax and perplexing, visual narrative emerge. Green Gown (Death) does not straightforwardly or clearly announce its significance in plain fashion, but instead remains contentedly and tantalizingly opaque. As Marie de Brugerolle describes, “The balance between presence and absence is also played out in the works that bring in an element out of the picture as a cause of the movement driving the action. The cause is off the picture, invisible, out of view. John Baldessari does warn us: the play of where the characters are looking produces directions and possible meanings above and beyond the prima facie evidence.” (M. de Brugerolle, “From Life,” John Baldessari: From Life, France, October 2005, p. 14) The present lot is a powerful, eloquent illustration of Baldessari’s artistic and psychological pursuit to ruminate upon the byzantine essence of communication and his examination of identity through the displacement of the human body.

    Baldessari’s masterful handling of appropriation, montage and modification seek to challenge the narrative potential intrinsic to images and in this charge Green Gown (Death) remarkably traverses popular culture and conceptual art. The artist is unconcerned with merely producing photographs and is instead utterly invested in investigating them as cultural vestiges. In action movies, in which the cowboy film still of the present lot is extrapolated, Baldessari discovered the material to transform filmic mechanisms into abnormal forms. With the perpetual reutilization of plots involving violence and demise, storylines of showdowns and disjunction, the frame becomes a formal myth of the devastation of images. The artist explains of his process, “I was trying to use violent subject matter as content and balancing/neutralizing it by how I handled the space, how I handled the formal arrangement. So it’s almost like I’m putting a violent situation on one hand and opposing it with formalistic devices on the other where they all sort of balance.” (J. Siegel, “John Baldessari: Recalling Ideas,” Arts Magazine, April 1988, p. 88 ) Reposing below the ethereal gown, the work adopts a thematic structure. With great graphic restraint, the ostensibly arbitrary juxtaposition and super-imposed motifs are a bizarre yet critical system that investigates the limits among photography, sculpture and installation in addition to the alter ego of images.


Green Gown (Death)

gelatin-silver, tinted gelatin-silver prints, in 2 parts
99 x 144 in. (251.5 x 365.8 cm.)

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $389,000

Contact Specialist
Zach Miner
Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1256

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 May 2014 7PM