If the term "conceptual art" makes you want to run and hide, spend a little time with John Baldessari.
Not that his art doesn't have its esoteric side. But it's also meant to be an art that the public can respond to without postgraduate courses. In fact, Baldessari says, sitting in front of one of his pictures at the C. Grimaldis Gallery's current show, he got into conceptual art as a way to communicate.
"I had originally been a painter, up until the mid-'60s, and I began to stop painting simply because I didn't think I was reaching people. The model then was abstract expressionism and I just felt that it was one artist talking to another artist."
In place of paintings, he began to make works that employed texts and photographs. "I also think I was disenchanted with the received wisdom that art was painting and sculpture. Not that I doubted that, but I began to think there could be much more that could be art, and to re-examine all of my ideas about art, and I guess that has been the basis for all of my work since.
"Anyway, what I've tried to do, and what I'm certainly trying to do here" -- referring to the works on the walls around him -- "is provide, if I'm really successful, a work that would be of interest to the person off the street, but it would also be of sufficient interest to the most sophisticated artist."
As his art evolved, Baldessari, now 59, worked less with texts but continued to work with photographs, and particularly movie stills. "What I do with that material is combine, edit, crop, enlarge, recombine, add to with paint and so on, essentially colliding these images together to where I can conjure up ideas that I want to get out in the world. I see myself not completely unlike a writer, who takes words that are out there in the world and puts them together one after another, trying to make some meaning out of them."
Increasingly acclaimed in recent years, Baldessari's art is the subject of a major retrospective now at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and subsequently to be seen at the Whitney Museum in New York. Fame, however, doesn't seem to have gone to his head. A tall man with a kindly, avuncular voice and an easy-going manner, he could, if sufficiently padded and bearded, make a Santa Claus no kid would be scared of.
He shows his years as a teacher in his native California as he picks out a piece from the current show, "Man on Horseback/Man in Conduit," to illustrate how it isn't really so hard to find meaning in his work. This double picture shows a painted-out crusading figure on a rather tatterdemalion horse above a painted-out figure of an apparently homeless person sleeping in a conduit.
One possible interpretation is that ideology doesn't solve the world's problems -- crusaders often overlook basic needs in search of impossible goals. "All of the noble thoughts in the world are not going to help somebody who needs some food in his stomach," he says. "I mean, you could preach the word of God to them and it's not filling their stomach."
But that, he indicates, is only one possible meaning. Like his other works, it is neither so mysterious that nothing can be made of it, nor so obvious that only one interpretation is possible. "I pitch it somewhere in between," he says.
The point is not to be too specific. It has been said that by his practice of painting out faces (or, in this case, whole figures), Baldessari makes them less specific and more universal. Similarly, his art doesn't preach a single message to the exclusion of all others.
"I have very strong beliefs about things," he says, "but I'd never become what we call a political artist, because I've learned this from teaching -- you don't teach by telling people what to do. You have to sort of get in between the cracks of people's psyches, and all of a sudden they come up with an idea that you thought might be a good idea for them to have.
"But you never said it."
As his career has progressed, the content of the work of art has taken on increasing importance for Baldessari, who earlier was more interested in formal issues. "From about the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, I was really trying to understand for myself what art was, and it meant exploring theoretical premises and formal issues and so on. And just as a person, too, I was more cerebral.
"But then at a certain point I think I began to feel, metaphorically, like a person who has learned to drive a car, and then says, 'Now where am I going to go with it?' I wanted to talk to a larger public.
"And I had a sort of epiphany years ago, in the early '70s. There was this war between the painters and the conceptual artists -- they thought we were trying to steal their thunder -- and I had this long dragged-out conversation at an artists' bar one night with the painter Larry Poons. And in response to something he said, I said, 'But Larry, that would be wearing your heart on your sleeve.'
"And he said, 'And what's wrong with that?' And I had no answer. And I think that's always troubled me."
He adds that today, "One of the complaints I have about contemporary art now is that everybody wants to be ironic and cool and nobody wants to give a glimpse of themselves. It's easy to be cool. Or let's say relatively easy. It's very hard to make oneself vulnerable. Who wants to do that? But I think all great artists and writers have."
It has been said that by his practice of painting out faces, Baldessari makes them less specific and more universal.