John Baldessari at Jumex Museum and Sprüth Magers

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The 2010 retrospective of work by John Baldessari at LACMA was the crowning of a prince who had long been ready for his role as king. Baldessari has international stature as one of the most influential artists based in LA. Using photographs and texts, he was among the first to be associated with the idea-centric Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s. Baldessari's art has been the subject of countless museum surveys around the world but not in Latin America. That changed last week when an especially thoughtful overview of his art was presented at Jumex Museum in Mexico City.

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John Baldessari, "Key," 1987
Two black & white photographs with vinyl paint; 152 x 213 cm
Courtesy the artist / Photo by Abigail Enzaldo

The privately funded institution was established by Eugenio López Alonso, president of his family's successful juice company, Jumex, to show not only his own swelling contemporary art collection but exhibitions by related artists. Lopez has collected numerous pieces by Baldessari and, during a panel at museum, said that he came to understand more about contemporary art due to the friendship that had evolved since the mid-1990s. This exhibition for him and for the artist is quite personal. This takes nothing from the perceptive angle of the exhibition itself, which is summarized in the title: Learning to Read with John Baldessari.

Kit Hammonds, curator at Jumex for less than a year, and Gabriel Villalobos, may have benefitted from the intense focus required to complete the exhibition and accompanying book in a fairly short time. Avoiding much of the jargon that burdens much writing about Conceptual art, Hammonds hones in on the ways in which Baldessari has used games, puns and word play much as writers must do when using language. As viewers, we are forced to employ our own responses to his visual and linguistic games. In Duchampian manner, we complete the work but it is not an arduous process but an enjoyable one.

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John Baldessari, "Miro and Life in General: Right, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint; 243 x 129 x 4 cm
Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Photo by Joshua White

The first work to be seen in the show is the alphabet, a 2009 print series published by Mixografia, with each letter accompanied by an image like a child's learning tool but with very adult aspects: B is for Brain, C is for Cigar, I is for Intestine and all aligned in rows like a quirky keyboard. Inside the exhibition, we see Baldessari's 1972 video, Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, which is just that: the artist holding up flash cards of letters behind a plant that is obviously unimpressed. Then there is the 1984 black and white photograph of a shouting man in a suit and a frowning man in outlandish fur outfit pictured about two sets of the alphabet.

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John Baldessari, "A B C Art (Low Relief): A/Ant, Etc. (Keyboard)," 2009
Mixografía® print on handmade paper in 26-parts; 112 x 658 x 2.5 cm overall
Courtesy the artist / Photo by Abigail Enzaldo

Both the primary substrata and elevated absurdity of established teaching methods are dissected in this exercise of compare and contrast. The presentation of a piece from this decade, others from three and four decades in the past is typical of this exhibition. Instead of a chronological arrangement, Hammonds has brought together paintings, photographs, videos, sculptures and prints from the early '60s to the present to highlight the artist's surprising consistency. Much is made of the off-kilter humor in Baldessari's work but the jokes and fractured fairy tales in his art are portals to a deeper form of questioning. How do we assign meaning, answer questions, categorize and define what is similar and what is different? This very activity has put Baldessari at the forefront of 20th century contemporary artists. It is also the stuff of pedagogy.

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Installation view, "Learning to Read with John Baldessari"
Museo Jumez, 2017-2018
Photo by Abigail Enzaldo

The show demonstrates the ways that Baldessari's lengthy and extremely influential career as a teacher at Cal Arts and UCLA has long been integrated with his actual art. As Hammonds points out, Baldessari studied to be an art instructor before he became an artist. In the latter role, he spent subsequent years interrogating and dismantling the sorts of edicts that used to be standard art school fodder: Rules of composition, choice of subject matter, the role of art history and precedent. As Hammonds points out, “Baldessari's engagement does not refute values, but reframes them.” The Jumex show continues to April 8, 2018.

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John Baldessari.
2015 © Manfredi Gioacchini

When Baldessari began working in the 1960s, cinema was the dominant visual language. Since the artist continues to think about changing cultural imperatives, images for this year's work were selected not from magazines or movie stills but from the pictorial shorthand of emojis. Enlarged pixilated animals are centered on painted white backgrounds. They are captioned with texts in typewriter font because they were drawn from old screenplays about artists. There is no loss of wit. A strutting turkey is captioned thus:

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(Brushes horse hairs from her jeans) I was riding rather early," 2017
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint; 62 1/2 x 54 x 1 1/2 inches
© John Baldessari
Courtesy the artist, Marian Goodman Gallery and Sprueth Magers
Photo by Joshua White

Is the turkey the dubious dialogue? Is the plump bird's Thanksgiving fate underscored by the mention of a crematorium? All this and more come to mind. The show at Sprüth Magers continues through December 9, 2017.