Baldessari’s Last Series

Patrick Pardo—

The sixth and final volume of the John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné covers the years 2011 through 2019. It was published in late January 2021, roughly a year after Baldessari’s death on January 2, 2020, at the age of 88. 

Thirty canvases comprise John Baldessari’s “Space Between” series, which he had begun in 2018 in his studio and completed in December 2019 from his home. They are spare and restrained in their design, and reflect the themes of fragmentation, dislocation, and transition that appeared and reappeared in Baldessari’s work throughout his long career. Each is modest in size, at 54 x 58 inches, and combines two Baldessari trademarks: the use of Hollywood film stills and the juxtaposition of image and text. 

Throughout this series, Baldessari isolated a figure or object against a field of white paint or else filled in the figure or object in either white or black paint. In the case of “The Space Between Pole and Shoe” (2019), a man lying on the bed of a pick-up truck rests his foot on the vehicle’s edge, near a telephone pole. 

The Space Between Pole and Shoe © John Baldessari 2019. Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2021.

The man, truck, and pole seem to float within the painted-white background. In many cases, wide brushstrokes are clearly visible. He placed descriptive captions (which also functioned as titles) at the bottom of the canvases, directing the viewer to a particular part of the picture.

The works recall his 2010 “Sediment” series, in which body parts and objects are starkly silhouetted in white or black paint against a grey background. They also bring to mind another, earlier group of related works from the mid-1980’s that featured “space between” in their titles and that emphasized the voids, dead space, and amorphous shapes in a picture, as well as the implied tension between figures in a composition. “Space Between (Close to Remote),” from 1986, is comprised of seven horizontal strips in which the distance between two people (and their attendant gazes) lengthens with each succeeding (descending) scenario. 

Space Between (Close to Remote) © John Baldessari 1986. Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2021.

Devoid of context, each moment seems freighted with some undefined, unstated drama. The work is a kind of visual essay on the very act of looking. Baldessari elaborated on the mid-80’s “Space Between” works in a 1992 interview with Christopher Knight as part of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art: “What brought them about was looking between things rather than at things, just to get myself in the habit of not looking in the conventional way.” 

Baldessari’s interest in the “space between” goes back to 1971 with a work called “The Spaces Between Four Paintings (Rented).” Four equally spaced white canvases hung on a wall, and the three rectangular areas between them were filled in with grey paint, giving the impression of seven paintings arranged on the wall side by side.

The Spaces Between Four Paintings (Rented) © John Baldessari 1971. Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2021.

One could say that Baldessari was forever trying to upend and play with space, both representational and physical. Often he abandoned the rectangle altogether in favor of round, triangular, or multi-sided or organically shaped compositions. He was not a traditionalist, and yet despite his forays into other forms and media, he never abandoned paint on four-cornered canvas.

The first volume of the Catalogue Raisonné began with “Kites and Chairs,” a painted still life from 1956 of two pastel-colored kites resting on two chairs against a jagged, taupe background.

Kites and Chairs © John Baldessari 1956. Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2021.

The last entry in the final volume is also a kind of still life. Titled “The Space Between Dive Mask and Coins,” from 2019, the painting presents a detail of a black-and-white photograph in which an unseen person in a dive mask holds four coins in their hands. The window-like image takes up a small portion of the canvas, set off from the center and enveloped by white space. 

The Space Between Dive Mask and Coins © John Baldessari 2019. Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2021.

In this surrounding space we are free to fill in the body of the diver, the bubbles in the water, and the presumed treasure below. “For Baldessari,” Michael Auping wrote in his contributing essay to this final volume, “understanding the complex field of life experience has a lot to do with appreciating the invisible but somehowfelt connections between symbols and things. Those connections exist in the gaps between.”

Patrick Pardo is research editor of the John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné.

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