John Baldessari & Alejandro CesarcoThe ideal situation

Published in 2007icon-clockTime to read: 4m45s
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In the challenging world of conceptual art, where execution of the work is regarded as secondary to the idea or concept behind it, traditions are meaningless and the very nature of art – including the term “conceptual art” itself – is constantly called into question. John Baldessari, the nearest thing to a revered master in a cultural sphere that disdains hierarchy, and inventive young artist Alejandro Cesarco successfully negotiated the cerebral landmines of their artistic domain, forging a rich, playful and productive relationship. Visually, mentor and protégé make a striking pair: Baldessari is tall, bearded, white of hair and loose of limb. His laugh is relaxed yet hearty. Like some shaggy Viking sea captain, he looms genially over the slight, fine-boned Cesarco of close-cropped hair, neat clothes, scholar’s glasses, and keen wit. Clearly both speak the same language. In conversation, they tumble into merriment, swatting about theories of art – simultaneously embracing bold theories and suspicious of them.

by Matthew Gurewitsch 2007
  • John Baldessari
    The Mentor
  • Alejandro Cesarco
    The Protégé

Baldessari has been a longtime faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts. The prospect of having just a single student was what attracted him to the Rolex programme.

“That is the ideal situation. As a writer once said about teaching, and I’ll always remember it, the ideal teaching is the teacher on one end of the log and the student at the other end of the log, and that’s it.” Cesarco appealed to him as still in a formative stage. “Sometimes graduate students are really the toughest ones,” Baldessari continues, “because they will come out as very blasé. They make like they know it all. They’re impenetrable. They’re fully formed. So you want to know: Why come to art school? With Alejandro I sense somebody that had a lot of interests I feel sympathetic with.” In the beginning, the heart of their relationship was, quite simply, talk.

In Baldessari’s home of Santa Monica, California, they trolled the galleries. And there are many. “We look at the Saturday listings, and choose from the menu,” said Baldessari. “Sometimes there’s nothing. Sometimes, there’s something we want to see. And we’ll just try things. I have a garbage-can mentality. I don’t dismiss any kind of art out of hand. You have to sift through a lot of garbage to find something. But if there’s one square inch that gets you, that’s enough of a pay-off. Good art can appear anywhere — art that makes me completely change my idea about art. It hasn’t happened too often. The highest praise I can give is: ‘I wish I had done that.’ As opposed to a critic who said: ‘It’s interesting. I’m glad he did it and I didn’t.’ Years ago I saw a terrible show by an artist whose name you’d know. Later I was talking to a critic/painter friend, and he said, ‘We always hate him but always wind up talking about him.’ He gets under your skin.”

On Baldessari’s agenda at the time was the show Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Image, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As curator, he created a fun-house environment by setting off the Belgian master’s surrealist icons against creations in many media by 31 contemporary artists. At the same time, Cesarco was organising biennales in Bucharest, Romania, and Porto Alegre, Brazil. He had selected the artists, invited them to follow their own agendas, and was mostly keeping his hands off. “A lot of my work involves using other people’s work,” he explains. “Other people are your material. You’re a choreographer in a way, or like the casting director for a movie. Neither of us is about manual labour. It’s all about being an art director, conceiving strategies. Only the work only I can do, will I do. Otherwise, I job it out. Most of my art is about thinking.”

Might the same thing have been true throughout the history of art?

“I don’t think so,” Baldessari replies, Socratic in his distaste for flat contradiction. “There’s more and more of a division of labour. Instead of ‘School of…’ in the days of the Old Masters, we now have ‘Factory of…’ How much work did Andy Warhol do?”

Scattered around his house are works in progress from Baldessari’s series Prima Facie, which exemplifies the practices he speaks of. Each piece begins with a found photograph of a face. Through the wizardry of computers, printers, and other artisans, the photograph is blown up to giant proportions, subdivided into large sections, and coloured in flat colour patches on surfaces of varying thickness, emphasizing noses and ears. Though any personal likeness vanishes, the almost abstract final image often possesses a startling personality of its own. Baldessari’s fingerprint is nowhere to be found, yet the work is thoroughly his. The schools and the workshops of the Old Masters made nothing like this.

Their collaboration

It crosses Baldessari’s mind that a good project for him and Cesarco would be a collaboration. “I just thought of it this morning. I wanted Alejandro to think about it. So much of his work is subtly or directly about collaboration.” Cesarco lights right up. “You can blame the other guy!” he quips. He’s joking, of course. In their conceptual world, communication counts for more than ownership. As Cesarco has remarked: “It’s almost more important who you’re speaking to than what you’re saying.”

“A good collaboration isn’t just something that two artists did,” says Baldessari, affably but with an added touch of the mentor. “It’s something that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Where does the work begin? We decide we’re going to do a great work. And at some point, it will be out there! It might not be anything at all, just word of mouth.”

Cesarco: “That would be fine with me!”

Baldessari: “A rumour project! When the rumour comes back to me, it’s complete!”

Months later, in a Manhattan restaurant near his office, Cesarco was still struggling with tangible specifics. “The project will be ‘shopped out’ to a printer, the same way as Prima Facie, but at a different scale,” he says. “John understood that a collaboration would benefit me more than him. So he said: ‘You propose.’ I gave him three options. There’s one I hope he chooses. I provide the initial spark, and his involvement will be to find a formal solution — almost like a record producer.”

And a few weeks after that, Murray Guy, the Manhattan gallery that exhibits Cesarco’s work, released the title of the collaboration: Retrospective. The piece is expected to consist of 12 silkscreen images measuring 91 by 121 centimetres, printed on aluminium sheets. It will be accompanied by a booklet exploring the idea of looking back.

And what will it look like? Only time will tell.

Extracted from an article written by Matthew Gurewitsch for Mentor & Protégé, a magazine documenting the 2006/2007 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

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