John Baldessari - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galleria Toselli, Milan
    Marzona Collection, Bielefeld
    David Zwirner, New York
    Private Collection
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien im Palais Liechtenstein, Die Sammlung Marzona: Arte Povera, Minimal Art, Concept Art, Land Art, June 14 - September 17, 1995
    Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, John Baldessari: A Different Kind of Order, March 4 – July 3, 2005

  • Literature

    L. Hegyi, E. Marzona, R. Fuchs, Die Sammlung Marzona: Arte Povera, Minimal Art, Concept Art, Land Art, Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien im Palais Liechtenstein, 1995, p. 8 2 (illustrated)
    P. Pardo, R. Dean, John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonne, Volume One: 1956 – 1974, Yale University, 2012, cat no. 1973-7, pp. 224-225 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    John Baldessari has radicalized contemporary art through the subversion and hybridization of imagery and symbols. In addition, he has developed one of the art world’s most notorious reputations for both conscious self-improvement and self-annihilation: In 1970, due to the fear of appearing, in his own words, “boring,” Baldessari embarked upon The Cremation Project, an elaborate incineration of every one of his paintings created between 1953 and 1966. While some artists would scoff at such a destructive act, Baldessari conjured out of the flames a new piece that signified his conceptual greatness: each piece was baked into a separate cookie, complete with birth and death date. As he tackled photography fused with his own brand of narrative semiotics, Baldessari created masterpieces such as A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973. The present lot’s depth of theory is matched only by its lightness, humor, and keen observation of our methods of storytelling.

    Similar to Ed Ruscha, Baldessari’s career has been one dominated by the atmosphere of California; he has both lived and worked in the state since birth, and was educated at various universities throughout California such as Berkeley and UCLA. Perhaps it is California’s environmental stability that allows its artists to lurch forward in their formative progress: as he entered the late 1960s, having worked as a painter as a faculty member at various colleges for years before, his art began to take drastic turns, culminating with The Cremation Project in 1970.

    Rather than simply deal with paint on a canvas, Baldessari concerned himself with both the impact of the printed word and the implications of our most familiar semiotics. Slowly pulling any traces of himself out of the creation of his pieces, his work took the form of a photograph if he desired an image, yet, if the subject was a text-based, the artist would mechanically reproduce it with stencil, never betraying his presence in its rendering. It was at this time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, that
    Baldessari began creating series of photographs with arrows suggesting the direction that the narrative was supposed to take. This conceptual exploration, be it through his photography, advertisement, or—in some canvas-based examples—art historical reference, resonated through his teaching career at Cal Art and deeply influenced the conceptual and multimedia approach of his students. The present lot, A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973, can be situated within the broader context of Baldessari’s exploration of coded imagery, documentation, and narrative.

    From a holistic point of view, A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973 looks as though it is a collection of nostalgic portraits, the subject of each of a character within the framer’s past life. We see a total of twenty-two photographs numbered and aligned into two parallel registers; each photograph features what appears to be a candid shot of a single subject or group of figures, taken from a distance. Baldessari’s scenes are set in ambiguous locations, oscillating between omnipresent and voyeuristic perspectives. The majority of these photographs are comprised of exterior settings with the exception of elements two and twenty-one, taken from the interior of an automobile, as well as three interior scenes captured within a cafeteria. In the bottom register, second from left, Baldessari presents us with what is presumably a father and his daughter, on the way to or from school. The imperfect views of the subjects (their faces are either totally or partially obscured) highlights the voyeuristic quality of Baldessari’s picture—it is almost as if a private detective were taking snapshot, trying to nail down a kidnapper. Here, Baldessari exemplifies the device of artistic angle, making us question the ordinariness of each photo. Under the spell of this pretense, one of suspicion, we search the other frames for other inklings of odd circumstance. Suggestion alone is sufficient to make us believe that the older gentleman in the top register, third from right, is the same as in the
    bottom register, fourth from right. Or perhaps we are now convinced that the three faded interior photographs are being used for ulterior motives.

    Once Baldessari provokes our suspicions, our doubts, and, ultimately our interest, he provides the answer. Following the red plus signs, minus signs, and arrows from frame to frame, Baldessari crafts a cinematic narrative not unlike those commonly used to train film students. While he invites each viewer to form his own narrative around his suggestion, it is inevitably a photographic film noir which Baldessari creates for us. The two parallel registers tell independent stories, and, since their signs do
    not indicate that the story is circular or that it continues above or below, we must assume that it continues beyond the scope of Baldessari’s piece, that he is only showcasing the first fifteen minutes or so of his film. Though the piece may be titled clinically, as if to diagnose the type of art which is being presented to us, the title of A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973 is similar to many other movie titles: it is purely a starting place. People may be perambulating pointlessly on the surface, but the piece begs for the viewer to insert his own drama into it, and, in turn, to create cinematic relationships between the photographs.

    Above, starting from left, a group of men rest idly by an advertisement. Then Baldessari’s narrative cuts to a wide shot of a man walking on the sidewalk, his closeup, and finally the interior lobby where he was headed. Outside, a car pursues two women, both headed inside as well. Baldessari’s final image on top is a man continuing to stroll through sunlight, unaware of the intrigue that surrounds him. Below, starting from left, a young woman in front of a grocery eyes a man doing some questionable yard work, while two pedestrians stroll along, oblivious to his machinations. While two older citizens seem intent on getting to the same interior as that at the top register, the woman is marked with a minus sign, suggesting that her scene will not make the final cut. In the final two frames, a father walks his daughter to the car, not noticing the dark lady lurking behind his ride. Baldessari creates for us a universe of scheming, yet it is up to us to fill in the blanks.

    While the symbols on the photographs typically apply to the general direction of the subjects’ gaze they also propose a narrative sequential logic akin to cinematic codes, which are reliant on the viewer’s conditioned notion of narrative structure. Following the pattern of Western text and visual sequence, registers are processed left to right, here however, Baldessari destabilizes this expectation by redirecting the viewer’s gaze after they’ve reached the last element at the top register. In this way, the photographic subjects become a device, their frozen glances, supported by symbols, underscore the interpretation of sequence as a series of directed actions, which in turn circumvent an expected trajectory, redirecting the active gaze of the viewer. While the deconstruction of cinematic order is investigated in A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973, it is also the impetus behind the artists’ storyboard artworks as well as A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version B), 1972-1973, in which some of the same photographed subjects are reinserted into new scenarios rendering them into reoccurring characters. Had the artist “used the medium of film itself, he could of course have achieved the same effect with far greater immediacy, except that it is precisely because this work consists of sequentially arranged photographs that we are made aware of what is true of every movie namely that the continuum of images is an illusion, consisting in reality of a series of single images set in motion. The essence of film, in other words, is rendered apparent by being undermined by photography.” (R. Fuchs, John Baldessari: Noses & Ears, Etc. (Part Two), Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 8).

    Yet Baldessari bridges the gap between auteur and spectator. Though his many symbols, which indicate the direction of the photos, give us a certain plot outline, Baldessari places no text of phraseology or plot-points on his photographs, as he does in many other works. His selection of voyeuristic photographs and their combination with symbol is sufficient to stoke the film camera in the mind of each viewer. He merely utilizes the bare minimum of tools in order to provoke us into automatic, self-derived narration. In doing so, he marries two of the most prominent movements in visual art of the late 1960s and 1970s: Minimalism and Conceptual art. Not one to be simplified by labels himself, Baldessari presents us with something wonderfully unique in A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A), 1972-1973, the perfect embodiment of its title.


A Movie: Directional Piece Where People Are Walking (Version A)

twenty-two black and white photographs with acrylic paint, each mounted on board
each: 3 1/2 x 5 in. (8.9 x 12.7 cm)
frame: 5 3/8 x 7 3/8 x 1/2 in. (13.7 x 18.7 x 1.3 cm)

Each work numbered consecutively one through twenty-two on the reverse.

$350,000 - 450,000 

Sold for $422,500

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

15 November 2012
New York