This exhibition focused on a moment in San Diego art history that is of far more than local interest. Assembled by freelance curator Dave Hampton, it brought together four artists whose careers were closely intertwined during the 1960s. John Baldessari is renowned as a pivotal figure in the rise of Conceptual Art. Richard Allen Morris has enjoyed a well-deserved career surge, particularly in Europe. Robert Matheny and the late Russell Baldwin have never garnered similar attention, but were just as vital to a small but dynamic art scene in San Diego during that era.
United by their questioning of established notions of art, these artists also had in common an affinity for wordplay. Matheny made imaginative use of individual letters, punctuation marks, and numbers, both on paper and in sculptures such as Upside Down Exclamation Point (1969), a sleek, eight-foot-high acrylic column that melds Op, Pop, and Minimalism. A large white canvas by Baldwin from circa 1970 has a small geometric shape in the middle containing the word “HARDEDGE.” His sardonic sensibility remained sharp to the end, as evidenced by the sculpture EGO CAST IN CONCRETE (1977), in which the words of the title are indeed cast in concrete. Morris, whose brilliance is more pictorial than linguistic (we see hints of marvelous paintings to come in Self Portrait, 1966), nonetheless found ways to incorporate words into his compositions, as in the multipart canvas Four Oranges (1963). And Baldessari, represented by wit-infused works such as Painting and Drawing (1966–68) made text—banal prose borrowed from art manuals—into often brilliant, self-referential paintings that propelled him into a larger art-historical arena.
The title of this show derives from an observation by Baldessari: “A lot of what we did was spitting in the wind.” But, as it turns out, a lot wasn’t.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 120.