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John Baldessari


16th and Highland, National City


Photo emulsion and acrylic on canvas
16.5 x 16.5 in. (41.91 x 41.91 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

While Ed Ruscha’s distinctive photo-and-text work of the early and mid-1960s provided a bridge between pop and conceptual art, it was primarily John Baldessari, and later artists like William Wegman and Robert Cumming, who combined photography and text with humor to create a peculiarly potent strain of California conceptual art. Such work is distinguished by its use of understated wit in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, and Baldessari is a master of the visual one-liner presented with a self-effacing, low-key humor.

The abundance of mundane, small-town detail captured in Baldessari’s seemingly random drive-by photographs of National City, the artist’s hometown, provided the perfect deadpan reply to skewer the pretensions of the “serious” conceptual art practiced at the time in New York and London. The fact that Baldessari could make cutting-edge conceptual work while living and teaching in relatively provincial circumstances is primarily a tribute to his intelligence and tenacity (though also partly the result of the “global village” impact of art periodicals in the 1960s).

16th and Highland, National City: what you read is what you see. Perhaps such a guileless environment was liberating to Baldessari as he sought the simplest, most accessible form art can take: pictures with captions such as you’d find in a high-school yearbook, a photo album on the coffee table, or the local newspaper. Blowing them up big like a painting and putting them on canvas: that’s how you know it’s art.

Hugh M. Davies

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