John Baldessari is considered the ‘godfather of conceptual art.’ He pushed the movement’s boundaries; he made it his own. His early antics have been well recorded: cremating all the paintings he made between the years 1953 and 1966; writing over and over, the sentence “I will not make any more boring art”; standing, waving his arms slowly about as if he’s directing a turtle, declaring “I am making art, I am making art, I am making art”; singing to familiar tunes, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Sol LeWitt’s thirty-five precepts on conceptual art and the artist. Throughout the late sixties and the seventies Baldessari was also creating photo-and-text and text-only works on canvas, filled with witty and often sardonic observations. His art garnered its critics; they called it jokey. But the breadth and depth of his vision and his innovation, and the span of time—more than six decades today—have quieted them.
Irreverence was his singular approach to probe truth in art. And it was in photographic source materials—publicity and press shots and movie stills—that in the eighties he realized how easily the truth could be manipulated. He radically cropped and shuffled the pared images, obliterating their original context—not to mention the faces with the ever-familiar colored dots, to tell a new narrative. Storytelling was key to Baldessari, an insatiable reader who “often thought of [him]self as a frustrated writer.”
Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice) might be regarded as a visual synthesis of the artist’s notions: the importance of the spectator; art as documentation; the fine line between order and chaos; and the absurdity of man—a result of placing one image on top of the other. Above, two mice in period nighttime garb lean over their balcony, looking as if they fell through a hole in a Beatrix Potter story and landed in a Shakespearean play. Below, a mouse has had his spine broken in a snap trap. No elaboration needed. Viewed individually, the photographs are saccharin and sorrowful, respectively. But together the work forms a narrative that’s not without irony. A marriage of fiction and fact, the two mice who are alive are in no way real and the mouse who is dead is alas all too real. While his death is most certainly a cautionary tale, the mice remind us of our inextricable connection to nature—and if you look closely you’ll see the male mouse has tiny human hands.
In the eighties apart from the dots, Baldessari was turning more and more to animals for his subject matter because, he said, that’s “where my sympathies lie. You know, I’m cutting out the people. … I invest animals with the idea of some sort of truth. Animals always seem much wiser than people.”
A show of John Baldessari’s new works, Double Play, will run October 19 – November 21, 2012, Marian Goodman Gallery, NYC.
 Calvin Tomkins, “No More Boring Art,” New Yorker, October 18, 2010.
 Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari, 1990.
Additional sources: Roberta Smith, “Tweaking Tradition, Even in Its Temple,” New York Times, October 21, 2010; Karen Wright, “Interview with John Baldessari,” Art in America, October 23, 2009; Video “A Brief History of John Baldessari,” narrated by Tom Waits, YouTube.
(Image: Two Onlookers and a Tragedy (with Mice), 1989, by John Baldessari, color and black and white photographs with oil tint, 91 x 64 in, private collection, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)