On July 24, 1970, John Baldessari burned all of the work he had made between 1953 and 1966. Five videotapes created in the aftermath of this decisive but ironic gesture will be presented in John Baldessari: Selected Videotapes from the 1970s, an exhibition on view in the Video Gallery (179) of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from June 29 through September 26, 1999.
Baldessari's dramatic act underscored his shift from painting to art that explored the dialogue between images and texts. Acclaimed for bringing a distinctly West Coast vision and voice to Conceptual Art in the 1960s and 1970s, Baldessari's rarely seen videotapes reveal an artist defining his artistic goals by humorously reinventing the basic tenets of modern art. In each of the five featured tapes, the artist tempers preconceived notions with a sense of absurdity, and sometimes assumes the persona of a professor who seeks to convey challenging concepts through the popular medium of television. He encourages the viewer to question definitions of art as he renders ideas funny by interpreting them as literal tasks or pedagogical presentations, or by personalizing his response to them.
Each of the works shown in John Baldessari: Selected Videotapes from the 1970s relies on a deadpan documentary style that, although seemingly objective, ultimately challenges the meanings conveyed in varied systems of communication: spoken words, visual images, gestures and music. Folding Hat (1970-1), for example, questions the identity and function of an object by transforming a hat into a kinetic sculpture with hypnotic, dance-like movements.
The tapes also document an extremely rich moment of convergence and conversation among different artists and mediums in the early 1970s. I am Making Art (1971) explores the interest in everyday movement that linked East Coast and West Coast artists, dancers and video makers in the 1970s, while questioning assumptions about the nature of art. In Baldessari Sings Lewitt (1972) the artist sets Sol Lewitt's influential Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969) to the tunes of popular songs, thereby focusing attention on the concreteness of words while inviting a pleasurable "name-that-tune" response that contrasts with the Lewitt's demanding definitions. Teaching a Plant the Alphabet (1972) hearkens to German artist Joseph Beuys' 1965 performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, replacing Beuys' mysticism with more lighthearted yet enigmatic skepticism and rationalism. Four Minutes of Trying to Tune Two Glasses (For the Phil Glass Sextet) (1976), dedicated to the composer Philip Glass, explores the challenge of aligning two parallel, but different, musical systems.