The Wrong Way Is the Right Way
In 1967, American artist John Baldessari stood in front of an Arecaceae palm tree outside the front of his onestory, West Coast house. His wife, Carol Ann Wixom, snapped a picture of him, which he then emulsified over a 59x45inch canvas, adding, in capitalized, acrylic letters below, "WRONG." This piece, appropriately titled Wrong (1967) — and currently owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is one of his most identifiable works — it encapsulates the conceptual tsunami that washed over the art world in the 1960s, a wave that had been picking up power since the works and endeavors of Marcel Duchamp about fifty years earlier. These efforts combined proverbially cleared the ground for the state of emerging art today — work that is more challenging to the art world than ever before.
Baldessari is from National City, California, and he’s regarded as one of the fathers of conceptual art, a movement and style of art most frequently defined by artist Sol Lewitt, who said in 1967 (the same year Wrong was underway) that "the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the [art]work."1 Transitionally, that any object or visuality is a vehicle through with an aesthetic idea passes, and it’s this aesthetic idea that’s the most pure artistic the purification of art making) had begun some time ago. It first occurred at the advent of Modernism and is most notable in Duchamp's readymades, found objects which "suggested that art could exist as an idea or a belief and that art status could be conferred solely through the authority of the artist."
Although Duchamp still depended on the notion of object — that any object could be art. In pursuits of clearing this handicap, he frequently used text to transform meaning in his images and readymades, e.g. in L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), playing thus with the semiotics of contrasted meaning. The use of language's inherent substance distorted understandings of physical works of art, and with this tension "artists intervened with the means of language the conventions of visuality.” Duchamp demonstrated successfully that art could be polysemous. And it is this aesthetic discovery that "functions as the philosophical basis for a variety of work in which the idea, not the object, is paramount,” a proposition that sounds strikingly like LeWitt’s famous manifesto — only about fifty years ahead of schedule.
So as the investigations continued, artists eventually moved away from painting and sculpture and onto newer media and technologies; the most popular of these, photography, due in part to its sudden proliferation, "suggested a way forward for painting which would enable it to incorporate the lessons of abstraction, minimalism, and the informal." Duchamp had already virtually abandoned traditional painting by 1913, paralleled fifty years later in 1962, when Baldessari followed this trend, moving away from strictly painting by "using photography as a means to challenge traditional ideas of composition […] as a principle to produce art," and gather source material. Having studied at San Diego State College and the Otis and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, "like Duchamp, Baldessari […] began as a painter. But by the mid1960s he was using photographs, some taken from art books and manuals, as primary images." And while the period tucked in between Duchamp and Baldessari's joint abandonment of painting was fraught with readymades, text-based art, sculptures, installations, photography, whole entire isms and other paradigms and pedagogies of, about, in and surrounding art and art making, it’s this eventual parallel that proves "Duchamp had created a delayed release of influence that […] began to gather momentum decades later." Part of this migratory lag was sheer resistance from the high art world, because "since the advent of photography, […] painting had been subject to a succession of declarations regarding its alleged death." And part of it was also that, while Duchamp is now seen as an "obvious art-historical source, […] most of the artists did not find his work all that interesting." But by the late 20th Century, photography had fully arrived, and with it came a new set of rules and variables about craft and composition — one factor that couldn’t be adequately explored with older technologies and so would emerge as the catalyst for fresh perspectives: temporal chance.
The most unwanted of photographic variables are mergers: "unexpected intersections within a composition." They’re simply accidents. The most arguably famous merger of all time occurs in John Filo's Pulitzer Prizewinning photograph of the Kent State shootings, in which "the fence post directly behind [Mary Ann Vecchio's] head constitutes a merger." In the early 1970s, an unknown editor airbrushed the pole behind the grieving mother because it was too distracting, and the photo was disseminated manipulated in numerous publications, including Time (Nov. 6, 1972, pp 23; Jan. 7, 1980, pp 45) and People (May 2, 1977, pp 37; April 30, 1990, pp 117), a testament to how much disdain toward mergers exists in the world of photojournalism. But it is chance that drives realism, as "on the one hand, chance plays a crucial role in the production of historic action photographs, on the other hand, artists like Marcel Duchamp and, later, John Baldessari, integrated chance as a calculated component of their photographic work." In 1913 Duchamp began his experiments in chance operations with Three Standard Stoppages (1913-14), allegedly dropping three strings and gluing them down the way they landed. He also used photographic chance in the halo of the bride in The Large Glass (191523): where drill-holes are dictated by three photographs taken of a net hanging over a radiator in his studio. When incorporated into this larger artwork, chance had, for the first time, become integral to an object accepted by the fine art world. So it can be only "after Duchamp, others — like […] John Baldessari — also used chance as a means to challenge traditional ideas of composition or to use it as a principle to produce art." And it is this calculated execution of variability that carries over heavily and seamlessly into conceptual art: so when Baldessari purposefully employs a merger in Wrong, he is using a chance operation found uniquely and only in the temporality (and transitory property) of photography: that these things exist in time and are thus subject to reality.
But the first of Baldessari's photos were "photos he or his friends had taken or were procured from books or magazines," and he often painted over found images or manipulated them in some way. Text was used, much like Duchamp, but only in ways that emphasized the sincerity of the art, of its core tautology. In fact, for some time now, "text-based art fulfilled the ongoing mission of conceptual art: to dematerialize the art object." But much of the conceptual work before Wrong "rel[ied] on text as a device for examining the interstices between visual and verbal languages as semiotic systems." This self-reflexivity quickly became the rallying cry of conceptual art, especially the West Coast flavor of irreverent whatever art Baldessari would come to spearhead. Originally, "Duchamp introduced a reflective art, and art of indirect allusion,"20 but "Baldessari extended the self-reflexive impulse of conceptual art further by marking art not about art, but about art theory." By doing so, he illuminated the symbiosis between creation and technique, and in commenting this way, Baldessari "quickly realized he could communicate more through the juxtaposition of what the image showed and what the text conveyed," some of the earliest postmodern experimentations in art: mixed-media oscillations of reference and meaning. No other work "explores the ways that language can completely change the meaning of an image" to be about something else better. Wrong is "questioning the authority of a single system for conveying meaning," from asking what is art to what makes art valuable.
Baldessari had achieved another level of aesthetic discourse entirely, and the resulting objectual effects were "disrupted continuity and pictorial unity, disorientation of the spectator and prompting of new associations, all themes that Baldessari would pursue in the coming years." It’s not difficult to see how these investigations evolved from Duchamp’s work decades earlier.
The American artist Martha Rosler describes her first impression of Wrong in an interview with Benjamin Buchloch, saying: "I had never seen photographic meta-discourse before. Not only did he use a dumb photo, he made a point of it by sticking a word on it, because of course words were forbidden in photography.” Because by openly disobeying the rules of art theory, Baldessari indirectly criticizes, among many other things, art education, because he ultimately believed that art theory "had nothing to do with good or bad art." Baldessari's work prefers meta-intellectualism over craft, as Wrong does in playing with the canons of acceptable composition. His "propensity for using the wrong way, rather than the right way, to create art," is entirely unique, and it broke new ground for the artists that followed. This new vision, this synthesis of semiotics, photography, temporality and theory, "which made this new hybrid possible was provided, in the first instance, by Marcel Duchamp," but it took conceptual art to break apart and reassemble "the time-honoured structures of the old art-world." Of course one of the prime advantages for conceptualism through photography is that — while photographs are in fact objects — they can be reprinted and reissued; photographs are rarely commodities in the arthistorical sense (unless purposefully restricted to editions or print-runs). The medium itself was ripe for destabilization.
What's more, the fact Baldessari is not the photographer of his arguably most famous photograph "detach[es] himself from the creative process in a manner that challenges the traditional role of the artist and owes a debt to Marcel Duchamp.” By removing himself one step from the work, Baldessari also critiques ownership. And it’s finally through this artistic diachronism, Edward A. Shanken comments: "Conceptual art, especially the West Coast variety, can therefore be seen as an extension of the Duchampian readymade, an ordinary object that implied that art resided in the idea and not in the object itself." Baldessari was pointing to something outside of his photograph, outside of his object. But so now we must ask the concluding question: what is then, today, the extension of Baldessari’s photo-conceptualism? If, like Duchamp’s modernist art, Baldessari’s conceptual art turned away from traditional practices and media and focused on interrogating the ideas underlying the creation and reception of art — rather “than on adding yet another stylistic convention to the historical succession of modernist avant-garde movements" — what today can be said to carry that torch?
Well, all digital art, of course — but specifically and most interestingly the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF). Just last year, in 2014, artist Michael Green created Balloon Dog Deflated, a GIF file depicting a Jeff Koons’ (Koons being the indisputable heavyweight champion of that aforementioned historical succession of modernist avant-garde artists) “metallic balloon dog deflating melting (sic) into a puddle of liquid,” on infinite loop, and priced it on eBay for $5,800 USD — about 1/10,000th of the $58,405,000 USD selling price Balloon Dog (Orange) achieved through Christie’s in 2013 — which has set and still holds the current record for the most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist. And while Green’s creation sold for only a little over $200 USD, the door into the public eye had been opened. Since "each new technological leap changes how we see art, how we see all kinds of culture," digital art, just like how it took “some time for photography and film to be treated seriously as art forms," will emerge into its niche once it matures and steps through out into the vast and terrifying world of the quote-unquote fine art circles. Because all this talk of money is exactly what tradition digital artwork is so efficiently interrogating: ownership. And it may be the last bastion of tradition left. Because even Wrong is now owned by LACMA, and Duchamp’s final work, Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas (1966), is sealed permanently into the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before digital tools emerged, it was the ownership of the artist in question; now, it’s the ownership of the collector, the buyer, the viewer: the modern art market could be on its way out the back door. But, for now, most people — and even critics in the art world — fail to understand digital art as the offspring of its celebrated forefathers. The current, mired fine art understanding of how digital works are "valued comes from a connection to their incarnations as objects, which they fundamentally don’t have. [I]t seems entirely bizarre to treat one as though it were the other." But there have been a few exceptions, albeit only one good one: also in 2013 was the world’s first digital art auction, a Phillips event in which a GIF sold for $1,300 USD and a website for $3,500 USD.40 Although whether or not this monetary designation will remain useful for legitimizing digital art remains to be seen.
The work of Duchampian-inspired photographers like Baldessari that ushered in the age of mass photographic manipulation and conceptualism brings us the industry titan that is today Adobe Photoshop, the core software for GIF production: "[o]ne of the characteristics of the GIF file format is that it is capable of storing and displaying simple animations," and its use with the proprietary Photoshop Document (PSD) "merged traditional [file types] with the multilayer abilities of the PSD file structure to give Photoshop users the chance to produce their own animations." This is a new art-historical format entirely — an overlapping of static photographic-conceptualist modalities and experienced time that riff on the same textual and photographic work preceding it. I call this new approach GIF-conceptualism: it employs the chance and temporal operations of both GIF technology and artistic duration as vehicles for aesthetic ideas to point outside themselves, postmodern in both format and employment, truly objectless in nature; it is an unbreakable concatenation from the groundwork Duchamp laid and from the foundation Baldessari then built. Of Balloon Dog Deflated, Green writes that the GIF was "conceptually crafted with the same principles of the original," and that "it is once again time to destroy the values of the tradition of modern art and for our culture to evolve to the logical next step, the digital medium (sic)."
And I agree. We remember best the art that was created on the periphery of knowledge: of artistic knowledge, of metaphysical knowledge, of experiential knowledge. And that is where the GIF continues to exist.
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