With “Movie Scripts/Art” at Marian Goodman Gallery, John Baldessari created a world of unsteady narratives with a series of large diptychs (all 2014). The mechanics of cinematic narrative have long been a major concern of Baldessari’s. A number of the short films he produced in the early 1970s examine Hollywood tropes, and the elaborate photo-constructions he has made since the ’80s incorporate found film and television stills in configurations that can resemble storyboards or comic-book panels. Here, Baldessari staged a collision between the movies—perhaps the dominant mode for conveying popular narrative today—and painting, a medium whose historical association with storytelling has been complicated by the dominance of abstraction.
One panel of each work features a fragment of scriptlike text that Baldessari either lifted from an old screenplay or produced himself. These texts, which often poke fun at the art industry, are paired with details of paintings appropriated from historical sources ranging from the Renaissance to the present. Frank Nurses the Drink juxtaposes an expressionistic monkey with a discussion between two Art Basel attendees, and Leisurely Browsing brings together a couple voicing their aspirations to become “Young Collectors” with a pastel-colored painting of a woman nursing a child. The inclusion of “fake” movie scripts in the series brings to mind the absence of “real” movies in Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Films Stills” (1977-80). Like Sherman, Baldessari constantly shifts between modes of representation, and between fact and fiction. The provenance of the quotes is wonderfully obscure; it is unclear which are from actual scripts and which Baldessari has fabricated, and the game of seeking their true origins becomes a manic search for the real in the artist’s tricky world.
Though the works have the feel of a sly conceptual game, Baldessari is also attuned to the physical qualities of paint. The foundation of the “painting” in each diptych is a pixelated inkjet print. Here and there, however, Baldessari overlaid the surface with bursts of paint that cause a rift in the seamlessness of the image.
The script shown in A Large Puddle of Milk describes a gallery scene in which a couple examines a painting of a woman milking a cow while conversing with the artist. “It’s beautiful!” exclaims a character named Bruno. But the artist replies sourly, “I’m sick and tired of hearing that word. The point is that it is telling a story.” The accompanying picture of a milkmaid with a cow could have been taken from a Breughel, though Baldessari has altered the original composition by adding a white puddle along the bottom, as if milk had spilled across the ground. The milkmaid’s arm is painted over in a way that distorts her body, leaving her with more of a club than a limb. She appears to point to the accidental spillage, which oozes like glue. The white pigment merges at the bottom of the canvas with the text panel of the diptych. Two radically different methods—an expressionistic approach to paint and a deadpan handling of text—come together here, producing a multilayered tale filled with stoppages and continuities.