American conceptual artist John Baldessari has one goal for people who view his art: Stop and think about what you see.
For many of his works, Baldessari takes an appropriated image and manipulates it with circles and squares of yellow, green, blue or purple, covering faces and the expressions of subjects in the pictures.
The colors attract the onlooker to a photo they’re familiar with, prompting them to form their own opinions about the piece in the absence of the subjects’ faces and major parts of the surroundings.
“He’s picked an image of something that most of us have familiarity about and it puzzles us,” art collector and philanthropist Jordan D. Schnitzer said during a gallery talk at the Missoula Art Museum. “It already has a preconceived notion, and that’s a critical word for his work.”
On Friday, Schnitzer gave a gallery talk at the Missoula Art Museum about the current exhibition of his collection of Baldessari’s work, appropriately named “Interference Effects.”
Through the end of August, the museum will showcase 45 of the 270 original prints in the collection. Schnitzer’s foundation has also funded trips to the museum for students from Missoula grade schools and high schools.
“One of the reasons we wanted to have John Baldessari [art] here is his impact worldwide is so incredible and I think a lot of people in Montana don’t have the opportunity to know these works intimately and firsthand,” MAM senior curator Brandon Reintjes said. “So we framed the exhibition in the context of bringing it and sharing it, which is Jordan’s vision as well.”
The Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation has collected a total of 12,000 works that include many of today’s contemporary artists, including those of Baldessari.
Schnitzer began collecting artwork in 1988 and purchasing one of his first pieces from his mother’s Portland, Oregon, contemporary art gallery, which “opened the window to the art world” for him.
He lends pieces from the collection to museums and institutions across the country, having organized over 100 exhibitions at more than 100 museums. A few pieces, he said, have taken wall space in his home.
According to Schnitzer, Baldessari loves the idea of playing with visual and verbal messages. He has thousands of unused stills from Hollywood movies and newspapers, each kept in files under different topics. Pieces range from art that tackles stereotypes that minority groups face to photos where he tried to align balls in mid-air in a straight line.
One piece called “Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Yellow” from 2005 uses a photo of two men standing in front of Stonehenge. The men’s faces are covered by a large green and purple circle while the monument is filled in with a bright yellow.
Baldessari wants the onlooker to study the men and come to their own conclusions as to who they are and how they feel in that moment.
“So because [Baldessari] blocks these faces, it sets off, I believe in us, this pre-programmed routine of ‘wait a second here,’ ” Schnitzer said. “I want to know what they’re thinking, what they’re saying, and if I saw their eyes and their mouths, I’d know a lot more. But we don’t see them.”
The artist grew up in National City, California, where his mother influenced his love for the arts by encouraging him to attend classes.
He graduated from San Diego State College with a master’s degree in painting in 1957, and later taught at the California Institute of the Arts and the University of California, Los Angeles. He taught until his mid-70s, and now lives in Santa Monica, California, at age 86.
As Schnitzer guided the group around the gallery to four different pieces of the artist’s work, he said that there are three steps to becoming a successful artist, which are skills that Baldessari has mastered.
First, an artist is a chronicler of an era. If someone wanted to know what life was like when Egyptians were building pyramids, they would look at their hieroglyphics, Schnitzer said.
Second, the artist wants the onlooker to stop, think and reflect on a piece and come to their own conclusions. Third, the art must be done in a different way that draws a person’s attention.
In a piece from 1971, Baldessari wrote out the phrase “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art” 17 times in bold cursive after he famously burned 13 years worth of his paintings in a crematorium. After that, he turned to photography and followed his mission statement ever since.
“You can’t just walk by any of these Baldessari works without stopping and wondering about what’s going on,” Schnitzer said. “This is not like math or science, for which there are distinct answers. This is that wonderful journey that we are lucky enough to have art in our lives.”
One of Schnitzer’s favorite pieces from Baldessari is one from 1994 called “Two Sunsets (One With Square Blue Moon).” The colored screen prints depict two scenes with two pairs of couples enjoying the deep orange and yellow sunsets.
The rising moon in the photo is replaced with a bright blue square. Schnitzer said that even if Baldessari didn’t manipulate the photo very much, the blue square is enough to change the way people look at the piece.
“He stopped us in our tracks, got us to look at it, got us to slow down, not look at our smart phones, not worry about anything else in our lives, and take that minute to distract us and to just embrace and feel the work that he did,” Schnitzer said.
Mari Hall is a 2018 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism and summer intern for Missoula Current.