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LOS ANGELES — How many literary readings involve a faux-gorilla dancing with a palm leaf and bunch of balloons? Or a megaphone? Or someone tossing handmade zines into the audience with abandon? Artists Read Baldessari was this type of event.
The reading took place in conjunction with the recent publication of More Than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari, a two-volume collection of the artist’s writings in the form of everything (essays, lectures, statements, correspondence, notes, memos, class handouts, and lists) except interviews. Fifty-two artists read the same number of texts arranged in chronological order from 1961 to 2011.
The event held the possibility of engendering tedium, but proved to be far livelier than I’d anticipated. Much like Baldessari’s visual art, it was simultaneously highly conceptual, refreshingly accessible, and pulsing with wit and humor. It also had one of the best event hashtags from recent memory: #BackAtchaBaldi.
The structure of Artists Read Baldessari referenced “Baldessari Sings LeWitt” from 1972. In this performance, Baldessari strove to expand the audience of Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences of Conceptual Art” (1969) by singing all thirty-five sentences to the tune of well-known pop songs. Rachel Lord undertook the most literal homage to this precedent by translating the words of Baldessari’s “The Renoir Story” (1973) to Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”.
Some artists simply read their pieces without embellishment or gimmick. Others delved into more performative territory, donning props or costumes, playing musical accompaniment, showing visual slideshows, and engaging in vocal acrobatics.
Suzanne Lacy generated the most audience involvement by creating a call and response dynamic with “The World Has Too Much Art — I Have Made Too Many Objects — What to Do?” (1969). As she read through the text the audience called out specific words — burn, pulverize, post-hypnotic, occupy, mellow yellow — sometimes devolving into their own communal sort of poetic cacophony.
The choreographer Simone Forti delivered one of the most mesmerizing performances with “I Am Making Art” (1971). She moved through a series of poses in the square of a bright spotlight intoning the phrase “I am making art” with varying degrees of confidence and self-doubt in her voice.
Fred Savage (yes, that Fred Savage) read “Advice to Young Artists” (1968) (excerpt: “Talent is a slippery concept. For instance, somebody in the family is held to have great talent and in reality is only a dazzling charlatan”). Indeed, one of the over arching themes of Baldessari’s writings is advice to young artists — or just advice in general. Many short texts end with a moralizing quip, e.g., “Always get several opinions” or “You can’t tell an artist by his shoes.”
Within the framework of the event, Baldessari’s advice seemed to reverberate with even greater weight. At age 82 he is renowned as an artist of undeniable importance and influence, and it’s worth noting that he also taught art at institutions such as University of California San Diego, CalArts, and UCLA for decades. While Baldessari watched from the front row, a retinue of artists of all ages and levels of fame spoke or sang his words. The cyclical, intergenerational nature of art was on view. Not only did this illustrate the ongoing progression of student/mentor, emerging/established artist relationships, it also pointed to the self-referential nature of the art world. Some of the people who read texts, such as William Leavitt and Michael Govan, are mentioned in Baldessari’s writings.
The mood was celebratory and the artists consistently found ways to draw attention to Baldessari’s profound role in shaping artists and conceptual art over the course of his professional life. In “The Best Way to Do Art” (1971), an anecdote of a young artist trying to emulate Cézanne, Shana Lutker playfully replaced the famous post-impressionist painter’s name with Baldessari’s, saying “A young artist in art school used to worship the paintings of Baldessari … er, I mean Cézanne.”
The art world has changed dramatically since 1957 when Baldessari started his career. Some of his texts directly address this transformation, most notably lamenting the “arrival of money, and its consequences.” But for all these changes, there was a sense of community and continuity in Artists Read Baldessari. Whether written in 1961 or 2011, the strength, clarity, and humor of Baldessari’s words continue to endure.
Artists Read Baldessari was presented by ForYourArt with Meg Cranston and Hans Ulrich Obrist, editors of More Than You Wanted to Know About John Baldessari, Vol. 1 and 2 (JRP-Ringier) at Contemporary Artists’ Book Conference/Printed Matter’s LA Art Book Fair on February 2, 2014 at the Democracy Forum of the Japanese American National Museum (100 N. Central Ave, Los Angeles).