John Baldessari - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "I am interested in what get us to stop and look, as opposed to simply consuming images passively."
    —John Baldessari 
    A leading figure of 1960s Conceptualism, American artist John Baldessari infused cerebral complexity with wit and irreverent humour, a strategy that he described as ‘reporting’ on a world that ‘is a little bit absurd and off-kilter.’i Although beginning his career as a painter, in 1970 he made a decisive move away from the medium, burning all of the paintings he had produced between 1953 and 1966, even interning the ashes in bronze, book-shaped urn with a plaque inscribed with his name and a record of the incinerated painting’s short life. Executed in 1989, Female and Male Faces (With Notations) with Black and White Commentary exemplifies the direction into which Baldessari would push his practice after this pivotal moment, working primarily with the photographic image and making use ‘of the classic materials of the humourist: irony, inversion, mistaken identity, trading places, taking one thing for another thing, recombining malapropisms, solecisms, deliberate understatement.’ii

    "I could never figure out why photography and art had separate histories. So I decided to explore both. It could be seen as a next step for me, getting away from paintings. […] Later, that was called conceptual art."
    —John Baldessari 

    Well-known for maintaining an extensive archive of found images, Baldessari playfully employed overlooked or neglected material (including photographs and a store of art historical and pop cultural images) obscuring and recontextualising these images through elision or addition. As the artist explained, stepping away from paintings and towards the photographic image and its own, distinct history in this manner laid the foundations for Conceptualism and a humorous meditation on the nature of art itself. A combination of three, found black and white photographs overlaid with scribbles and accentuating marks in black vinyl paint, Female and Male Faces (With Notations) with Black and White Commentary belongs to a body of composite photo works that ‘seem very far from personal narratives and much more collective, like mythic structures that trigger powerful recognition.’iii

    Installation shot of John Baldessari: Recent Works, 1989, Galerie Meert Rihoux featuring the present work, Knooke. Image: Courtesy Galerie Greta Meert


    Exhibited with Galerie Meert  in the year of its execution alongside similar composite works, Female and Male Faces (With Notations) with Black and White Commentary incorporates a diptych of a couple, closely cropped and cut to the same size, surrounded by a third photograph of two snarling dogs circling each other. Highlighting the ways in which images function like language – where meaning can prove slippery and largely contingent upon context – Baldessari complicates the relationship between the work’s constituent parts, creating a dynamic interplay of image and idea. As Leslie Dick has described, ‘During the 1980s, his fascination with the power of the cut became central, as photographs were cut up and into compulsively. These cuts included reframing the photograph, decapitating the figures in the photo, reducing the figures to silhouettes, flat outlines, or areas of colour, and recontextualising each image in relation to other images, slicing at its specificity until narrative fell away. His work demonstrates the ways in which the ideas derived from this exploration of photography—that meaning is generated through breaks and sutures, cuts and contiguities—extend to include all images, and indeed, thought itself.’iv

    Closely related to Baldessari’s signature coloured dot motif where he obscured the faces of his figures beneath large stickers in bright, primary shades, the closely cropped faces here are covered in exuberant bursts of green and red, a strategy that forces viewers to look at an image’s context rather than the narrative content of the images themselves. Developing conversations around appropriation, originality, and recontextualisation, in Female and Male Faces (With Notations) with Black and White Commentary Baldessari reinvigorates his source material with new meaning with strategies most famously deployed by the grandfather of Conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp. 

    Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919, Galleria Pictogramma, Rome. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

    With a keen sense of linguistic play and incisive humour, Duchamp’s infamous L.H.O.O.Q represents an important touchstone for the present work, highlighting the ways in which an images context can be manipulated and its meaning shifted through addition and juxtaposition. Like Duchamp, Baldessari recognised the potential playfulness in reinvesting old images with new meanings, explaining: 'On one hand I think the older an image is the more it is exhausted of meaning – where it is a cliché. It’s dead. Because clichés are dead. I like the idea of playing Dr. Frankenstein and reinvesting the dead, a metaphor, with life again. Because clichés are true – they just have lost their meaning. And I can pump another kind of meaning back into it, but you are still aware of the source and where I’m directing the traffic.’v


    John Baldessari interviewed ahead of his major retrospective at Tate Modern, London in 2010.


    Collector’s Digest 

    • The recipient of many awards and accolades during his fifty year career, including the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award at VB in 2009,  John Baldessari is a towering figure of Conceptual art.

    • Honoured with more than 200 solo exhibitions over the course of his career, Baldessari’s first major retrospective was held in 1981 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, with further major exhibitions mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991, and more recently, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, which travelled to Tate Modern in London between 2009 and 2010.

    • His works are collected in leading institutions worldwide, including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, amongst others.


    i John Baldessari, quoted in David Salle, ‘John Baldessari’,  Interview, 9 October 2013, online.  
    Anny Shaw, ‘”Godfather of conceptual art” John Baldessari dies aged 88’, The Art Newspaper, 6 January 2020, online
    ii John Baldessari, quoted in David Salle, ‘John Baldessari’,  Interview, 9 October 2013, online.  
    iii Briony Fer, ‘Unforseen Stopages’, John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné, Volume Three: 1987 – 1993, New Haven, 2015, p. 1. 
    iv Leslie Dick, ‘John Baldessari: Cut to the Chase’, East of Borneo, 1 November 2020, online
    v John Baldessari, quoted in, Edelbert Köb and, Peter Pakesch, John Baldessari: Life’s Balance, Work 84 – 04, Cologne, 2004, p. 94. 

    • Provenance

      Galerie Meert Rihoux, Brussels
      Private Collection, Belgium
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Brussels, Galerie Meert Rihoux, John Baldessari: Recent Works, 24 May – 30 June 1989

    • Literature

      Patrick Pardo and Robert Dean, eds., John Baldessari. Catalogue Raisonné. Volume Three: 1987-1993, New Haven, 2015, no. 1989.14, pp. 167, 538 (illustrated; dimensions: 182.9 x 223.5 cm)


Female and Male Faces (With Notations) with Black and White Commentary

vinyl paint on black and white photograph, in 3 parts
overall 122.5 x 150.6 cm (48 1/4 x 59 1/4 in.)
Executed in 1989.

Full Cataloguing

£250,000 - 350,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022