Excerpt from Evidence: John Baldessari at Pomona by Glenn Phillips
In the fall of 1970, artist John Baldessari and curator Helene Winer each began new jobs: Baldessari as a professor of “post-studio art” at the newly formed California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and Winer as director and curator of the Pomona College Museum of Art. CalArts operated its first year out of temporary quarters in Burbank, as it finished the construction of its new campus in Valencia, California, a small town near the expansive northwestern edge of Los Angeles County. Pomona College is sixty miles away from Valencia, at Los Angeles County’s southeastern edge, in the town of Claremont. As Baldessari and Winer both settled into their jobs, these two unlikely communities on the outer fringes of Los Angeles County would become host to some of the most radical and advanced ideas about art making occurring anywhere in Los Angeles.
Winer’s first exhibition of (mostly) Los Angeles artists at Pomona took place in December 1970. Titled “Monoprints,” the exhibition aimed, according to the press release, to present “original work that can, in a loose interpretation of the term, be considered a print.” “Monoprints” included work by Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Ruscha, Sol LeWitt, and Joe Goode, among others. While many works in the show took the notion of a print loosely (LeWitt, for instance, folded and unfolded paper to produce a textured grid), Baldessari produced two works that challenged nearly every notion of what a “print” might mean. Evidence: Bowl Handed to Helene Winer Dec. 1, 70 (1970) consisted of a wide white bowl that had been dusted with graphite powder to reveal fingerprints. Evidence: A Potential Print (1970) took the form of ashes scattered in a corner of the gallery, with a footprint in their midst.
Baldessari had struggled as a painter for more than a decade before moving, in the mid-1960s, to a Conceptual practice that examined the process of art making and its reception as a system of rules and relationships. In 1966, he began a series of text paintings that aimed to remove his “hand” from the artwork by separating him from the work’s process of fabrication. Baldessari chose simple texts, often derived from art books and instruction manuals, and then hired out production of the canvas: “Someone else built and primed the canvases and took them to the sign painter, the texts are quotations from art books, and the sign painter was instructed not to attempt to make attractive artful lettering but to letter the information in the most simple way.” Many of these works also included banal or compositionally awkward photographs that were transferred to the canvas using a photo-emulsion process. Wrong (1967), for instance, includes an image of the artist standing in front of a palm tree, illustrating a “bad” composition that makes the tree appear to be growing from his head.
In July of 1970, Baldessari conceived to make his painterly self-effacement retroactive by burning in a mortuary crematorium all of his pre-1966 paintings that were still in his possession. He published a death notice in his hometown San Diego newspaper, and he began to repurpose the cremated ashes for new works. Some, for instance, were sealed into an urn as part of the documentation of the Cremation Project; others were baked into cookies. The ashes sprinkled in the corner at Pomona for Evidence: A Potential Print were also, of course, from the cremated paintings.
In a statement published alongside the Pomona works, Baldessari noted, “What is seen here is an attempt to avoid both ink and paper, but also the ACT, or at least delay the act or stretch it out in time.” That is, Baldessari was trying not only to separate the printmaking process from the use of ink and paper, but also from the “act” of printing at all, substituting in its place the often inadvertent act of leaving “evidence”—footprints, fingerprints—as marks of one’s presence. Production of the works required a bit of trickery: under the guise of a friendly dinner, Baldessari invited Winer to his home, making sure to hand her the white bowl during her visit so that he could capture her fingerprints. The footprint in the ashes was more mysterious and unidentified, but it pointed to a previous presence within the gallery, while also tempting gallery visitors to leave their own surreptitious marks within the powder. Together, the works pointed to art making as a larger system of relations: the curator has a literal “hand” in the process, providing opportunities and occasion to produce new work, and viewers form a constant, though often unacknowledged, backdrop to an artwork’s life on view.