What is Painting? I

John Baldessari What is Painting 1966-68

In 2007 Anne Umland began an extraordinary series of exhibitions at MOMA that examined the sources and theoretics that lay behind 21st Century painting. There were a number of shows that presented lesser known artists and/or overlooked periods of better known artists’ painterly experimentation that included Miro, Kippenberger, Matisse, AbEx NY, German Expressionism, de Kooning, Sherman, Inventing Abstraction, Magritte, Sturtevant, Forever Now & Picabia to name just a few. MOMA has presented some incredible shows through the last 19 years, but for me this intelligent examination of the long tail of 20th Century painting in our contemporary era begins with What is Painting…
“The exhibition’s title is taken from a work by John Baldessari made between 1966 and 1968, but with the addition of a question mark, acknowledging the ongoing debates over the practice of painting and its place within contemporary art. The works included here offer a varied series of responses to the question, What is painting?, ranging from sincere to ironic, from figurative to abstract, from artists who embrace and creatively re-imagine painting’s possibilities to those who critically engage with its conventions and traditional forms.” [Anne Umland What is Painting?]

John Baldessari Tips for Artists 1966-68

“In the mid-1960s I was living in this small service community south of San Diego. And it was a good moment for me, in retrospect, because I was able to really dig into what I thought art might be, not what somebody else would think art would be. You know, received wisdom, what you would get in school. And, so a lot of my work was about questioning this received wisdom.
And I thought, “Well, I wonder what would happen if you just gave the public what they know,” which would be, let’s say, words and photographic images. You know, they’d probably had a camera, and they probably read books, magazines, and newspapers, so I said, “I’ll just do text pieces, or I’ll do text and photo pieces” that doesn’t look like Abstract Expressionism, it looks like something in their lives. But I would put it on canvas, and that would be a signal that it would be art.” [John Baldessari What is Painting]

John Balessari: The subject matter is coming out of people’s ideas of how art might be taught. And I think that’s what I’m getting at. I mean, you can follow all kind of rules, and they’re probably all right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to come up with anything that we can call art.
Narrator: Baldessari’s paintings point out the absurdity of prevailing aesthetic attitudes. He follows the painting’s advice to “break all the so-called rules of composition,” which, ironically, actually means following the rules. And in another twist, by following the rules, Baldessari has also broken them—since these results certainly aren’t what the teaching manuals are calling for.
One of the founders of conceptual art, John Baldessari uses words, images, video, paint, and photography interchangeably in works of art that are witty and self-referential.
John Balessari: Probably in the mid-60s, I was really getting a little bit anxious, discontent, or disillusioned about art. I began to think that art might be more than just painting. You know, certainly painting is a vital part of doing art, but there might be other ways to do art. [Whitney Museum on John Baldessari]

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