Thursday, August 12, 2010

Paintings about Painting

From the left: 'Untitled 1957' - Robert Ryman
Casein and graphite on primed and sized unstretched cotton canvas on manila paper folder on glass on plywood. 9 5/8 x 8 3/8 inches.

'What is Painting' - John Baldessari (1966-1968)
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas 67 3/4 x 56 3/4 inches.

These are paintings about painting which make no solid outside references. They reference themselves,one in form and technique, the other in form and technique.
Different mediums, but the same medium.
Painted lettering upon a canvas; painted canvas.
Strikingly different, but holistically similar.
Both ruggedly modern, wearily self-aware, and a bit posh.

Office irony

Ryman's piece partially uses what we would consider office supplies, pencils and a manila folder.His materials barely hint, he deliberately didn’t title his pieces or, if he did, he would title them a brand of paint or pencil.No outside cues here, what you see is what you get.
Baldessari's is just words, like an office Rolodex, but quotable words like the sign-off at the end of an email.The message is delivered to you, like a phone call or an email, but beyond that, it slinks with it's back against the wall - snarling at its cheekiness and winking at passerby when they aren’t looking.
At least, that’s what I’d be doing.

More about 'What is Painting'

'What is Painting' – is written in all in caps like cue cards, presumably read by the artist, or the critic that comes after.

The words are self-explanatory.In fact, Baldessari was trying to give the public what they already know. It's just words, but they are painted on a canvas. Is it a painting? Of course it is.
The canvas itself was not stretched or primed by Baldessari, the words were painted by a professional sign painter, not the artist, and the text wasn't original - it was found.
The message the painting gives seems like common knowledge, but ironically so, because undoubtedly people will question whether the work is a painting and thus, whether it is art.
They questioned it when it was created and they'll still question it, even though it hangs in MoMa, one of the most well-known art museums in the world.
Baldessari said he always marveled at the audacity and/or ignorance of people who claim to say what a painting is.


Both paintings want to make the public scream - what is this about?
But they already have the answer. The answer is: you’re looking at it.


  1. Hey thanks for introducing these two. Personally, I enjoy both the act of proclaiming that this is not art and the knowledge of the possibility of it being considered art by someone else. Maybe in that enjoyment it becomes art. It certainly is very cool that these guys keep challenging our assumptions about what is meaningful and beautiful.

    PS: Two criticisms of the blog post itself. Just my opinion. (1) Even though the background is darkened, the text is still hard to read. (2) It took me quite a bit of time to figure out that the picture you included is actually two painting side by side. I would put them seperately or make it clearer.

  2. I made the text white, so it should be easier to read now. As for adding the two paintings separately, I'd love to.. but blogger is kind of lame so I think I can only attach one picture per blog post. I'll have to test it out. I'm planning on doing some more of these comparison pieces so I'll def keep in mind to make them more clear.


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.