Mother Nature, in cahoots with the Gods and Muses, often treats architects and artists very differently. While architects tend to reach creative maturity and develop their unique style later in life, their artistic cousins - painters, sculptors, and photographers - reach a creative peak, most of the time, much earlier in their careers. Think about I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, and Zaha Hadid, or LA's very own Frank Gehry, who struck gold with his game-changing design for the museum in Bilbao, Spain when he was well into his 60's. Now in his early 80's, Gehry continues to be at the top of his game, and according to an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair, he and his silvery mermaid of a building in Spain are the winners in the architectural race of the last few decades.
So, who among the older living artists can you think of as bravely defying their age and continuing to deliver surprises well into their 70's and 80's? I cannot think of a better example than John Baldessari, whose traveling retrospective just arrived at the LA County Museum of Art, with previous stops in London and Barcelona before its final stop in New York. One of today's most famous and influential conceptual artists, Baldessari for decades has been a defining figure on the Los Angeles art scene and a beloved teacher for generations of young artists.
Pure Beauty, his sprawling exhibition of more than 150 works, follows the arc of his career over the last 50 years, starting with his early paintings, few of which survived when he set them on fire after wisely reaching the conclusion that painting was not his forte. Then, slowly and deliberately, Baldessari set out on developing his unique style combining text and found photography, and doing so with a delightful, on occasion even naughty, sense of humor. Going through the first few rooms of the exhibition, devoted to his early works, made me feel like a dutiful student attending a scholarly lecture.
For me, the real fun began with the large-scale photo collages the artist started making in the 1980's, a practice which continues to define his art-making today. Some of these collages hang in a tight formation, others defiantly march up and down or diagonally across the walls; a few even break into a drunken dance of their own rhythm, and those are my favorites. All collages bear a distinct Baldessari mark: the images are partially blocked by simple geometric shapes. Painted in primary colors, these shapes immediately command your attention and anchor the whole piece. The last few rooms of the exhibition, devoted to these works, exude a sense of operatic, baroque theatricality, offset by a touch of the acrobatic mischief of a traveling circus.
If you visited LACMA during the last month, you probably noticed that construction of the one-story, 45,000 square foot Resnick Pavilion by Renzo Piano is now complete. The official opening is scheduled for October, but meanwhile the museum has tested the waters with an ambitious sculptural installation by Walter de Maria, made of 2000 geometric white plaster shapes lined up on the floor like soldiers on parade. I had the chance to step in and wander around this massive installation in the pavilion flooded with natural light, a trademark of most of Renzo Piano's museum buildings. This sneak preview made me cautiously optimistic about things to come for LACMA, when the Resnick Pavilion is officially unveiled this autumn.
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty
On view at LACMA through September 12, 2010
Banner image: John Baldessari, Detail of Hope (Blue) Supported by a Bed of Oranges (Life): Amid a Context of Allusions, 1991; Photo © Tate, London, 2009