On November 11, “Learning to Read with John Baldessari,” a major retrospective spanning half a century of the artist’s work, opened at the Museo Jumex, Mexico City. Here we look back in our archives to our May 1981 issue, in which Craig Owens (1950–1990), noted theorist of feminism and postmodernism and an editor at the magazine, considered the role of signification and humor in Baldessari’s practice. Owens rejected the critical consensus that Baldessari’s deadpan photo-collages concealed a metaphorical or allegorical significance. Instead, taking their obviously opaque surfaces to be the point, he argues, by way of Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Freud’s theory of the Aufsitzer, or duplicitous story, that Baldessari thematizes our very desire for meaning, by both stimulating and frustrating it. The essay is remarkable for its serious consideration of humor, and for the sense it finds in nonsense. We present it in full below. —Eds.


Only jokes that have a purpose run the risk of meeting with people who do not want to listen to them.  Sigmund Freud

John Baldessari is one of a handful of contemporary artists—only Bill Wegman and Ed Ruscha come immediately to mind—who make genuinely funny pictures. Yet criticism is demonstrably uncomfortable with these artists’ humor, as if it somehow challenged their gravity, their claim to seriousness. Thus we are reassured that, in their works, “surface levity masks a more complex content”— although, symptomatically, the author in question does not proceed to articu­late what that content might be. Criti­cism’s repeated failure to come to terms with the presumed content of Baldes­sari’s art—or Wegman’s or Ruscha’s—­suggests that, in the end, the joke may well be on the critics themselves, who can only posit but never demonstrate the existence of a deeper meaning.

To be fair, Baldessari appears to endorse this approach to his art. By identifying his works as parables, alle­gories and essays—the first two, at least, being associated with indirection, with veiled or concealed meanings—he encourages the viewer to search for buried treasures. In a recent interview, published in the catalogue of his cur­rent New Museum retrospective, he discusses the allegorical aspect of his art: “I try to make things deceptively simple. I think this is the test of any art or literature. If you want to read Gulliver’s Travels as an adventure story, you can; and if you want to read it as an allegory, you can too” [italics added]. Or in a conversation with Robert Pin­cus-Witten, also recorded in the cata­logue: “On the one hand, I like the deceptive simplicity of the exact infor­mation of things—like a chair—but, on the other, I want the ambiguous multi­ple-entendre to be there too—metaphor and allegory” [italics added].

What emerges from these statements of allegorical intent, however, is a sug­gestion that Baldessari’s art may origi­nate in a certain kind of calculated deception. In a 1912 supplement to his 1905 analysis of Jokes and Their Rela­tion to the Unconscious, Freud consid­ers “a number of productions resem­bling jokes” that turn out not to be jokes at all because they lack one fun­damental quality: the emergence of sense out of nonsense that according to Freud characterizes a good joke. These pseudojokes “arouse the expectation of a joke, so that one tries to find a con­cealed sense behind the nonsense. But one finds none: they really are non­sense.” These productions, which Freud calls Aufsitzer—jemandem aufsitzen means to dupe or deceive someone—are not, however, without purpose. They deliberately trap the listener and there­by “give the person who tells them a certain amount of pleasure in mislead­ing and annoying his hearer. The latter then damps down his annoyance by determining to tell them himself later on.” That is, the only recourse avail­able to the listener is to resolve to become a joke-teller himself.

It has been observed that, whereas much contemporary “work moves in the direction in which sense emerges out of nonsense”—that is, in the direc­tion of the good joke—”Baldessari’s moves in the opposite direction.” The levity and above all the apparent sim­plicity of his works arouse our expecta­tion that they contain some deeper sig­nificance; but in the end we find none. Baldessari may thus be a perfect incar­nation of Freud’s Aufsitzer, simulta­neously soliciting and frustrating our desire for meaning.

To argue that Baldessari’s art is involved in this kind of duplicity is not, however, to dismiss it as lightweight or inconsequential. If the artist deceives us, it is with purpose. Yet this argu­ment is heretical because it denies that meaning is a property of works of art, in the same way that Freud presumes that it is a property of the (good) joke. This view of the work of art is, of course, upheld by criticism, which must regard meaning as intrinsic if it is to maintain itself as interpretation, that is, as the elucidation of a meaning always already in place in the work. And it is against this view that all of Baldessari’s strategic resources are marshalled.

In 1974, in the “Embed” series, and again in 1976, in the “Pathetic Fall­acies,” Baldessari dealt directly with the issue of hidden meaning by planting barely visible “subliminal” messages in otherwise straightforward photographs. The words “seeing is believing” are intertwined with the smoke that rises from a lit cigar; or a ghostly human face floats on a field of color, making it Suspicious Pink or Resigned Yellow. Derived from com­mercial advertising, where it is used to program an unsuspecting viewer’s be­havior, Baldessari’s use of this tech­nique invariably associates it with error. He employs it to concretize, and thereby to parody, our tendency to read things into images, things that are pa­tently not there. As Buckminster Fuller has written, “Seeing is believing is a blind spot in man’s vision.”

It is in the “Violent Space” series, from 1976, that Baldessari complicates the use of concealed imagery. In these works he generates the impression of hidden meaning not by adding a mes­sage to the image, but by subtracting something from it. In Nine Feet (Of Victim and Crowd) Arranged by Posi­tion in Scene, he disposes seven circular details apparently—but not necessarily—cropped from the same photograph of the scene of a crime; it is up to the viewer to imaginatively reconstruct the image from the fragmentary informa­tion offered to him. For Two Stares Making a Point but Blocked by a Plane (For Malevich), Baldessari appro­priated, literally took an old photo­graph — a film still depicting two men transfixed by an (unidentified) flying object. That object is unidentified because Baldessari has superimposed a large, not-quite-square geometric fig­ure—an oblique reference to Male­vich’s emblematic abstraction White on White—over the area where it is presumably located. Thus, he has taken possession of this still through an act of concealment, of effacement. Insofar as the meaning of the protagonists’ gazes is defined by their mutual object, Bal­dessari has literally hidden meaning.

This gesture arouses our curiosity, our desire to see what is concealed (and thus perhaps a whole reserve of libidi­nal energy). Yet we can only imagine what might lie beneath the white square. And as we speculate over the identity of the missing object—which can never be confirmed, at least not by consulting the image itself—a discom­fiting suspicion arises: Perhaps there is nothing underneath. Perhaps the blank­ness of Baldessari’s white square simply re-marks an original absence in the image. Perhaps, as in many film stills, the object of the performers’ attention exists outside the frame, all the more menacing because it is unknown.

In a 48-second segment entitled “A Sentence with Hidden Meaning” from the videotape How We Make Art Now and Other Sacred Tales (1973), Bal­dessari writes the title in such a way that the word “hidden” is off-screen; what appears on the monitor, then, is “A sentence with meaning.” Here, a message is not concealed within the sentence itself in the form of an ana­gram, say, or a pun; rather, it is literally outside the image, something extrinsic to it. But whether the object exists within or without the frame, the mean­ing of Baldessari’s gesture remains the same: It is an initial act of concealment that suggests the presence of hidden meaning. That act functions as a trig­ger to desire—the spectator’s desire to see, to know—a desire that can only manifest itself in interpretation.

What is crucial here is that interpre­tation is focused not on an object avail­able to vision, tangibly present in space and time; rather, it operates in the absence of the object, or rather in a fundamental uncertainty regarding the existence of the object. Interpretation thus circles in an abyss, for its first move is to posit an object whose exis­tence can never be confirmed. So that if We find ourselves laughing at this image—at the confrontation of Male­vich with Hollywood, perhaps, or at the artificiality of the still itself, or at the possible parody of Sol LeWitt in the title (which sounds like one of the phrases appended to LeWitt’s wall drawings, phrases like “a point half way between the midpoint of the top side of a square”)—in the end we must admit, as Freud does again and again in his book on jokes, that “we do not know what we are laughing at.”

In a sequence from The Way We Make Art Now . . . , a shot of Bal­dessari reading a newspaper is framed by the statement, “What follows is what he liked to do best. . . . But he never talked about what he read. He had secrets.” Insofar as Baldessari presents himself as an artist with secrets, his prototype is Hugh Vereker, the fictional author in Henry James’s “The Figure in the Car­pet,” which tells of a young critic’s obsessive—and ultimately unsuccessful—attempts to discover the “primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet” that animates Ver­eker’s oeuvre. Vereker claims that there is a secret which both motivates his work and supplies its overall meaning, a secret which he refuses to name: “There’s an idea in my work which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job. It’s the finest, fullest inten­tion of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. . . . It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparative­ly, plays over the surface of it. . . . My whole lucid effort gives the clue—every page and line and letter. The thing’s as concrete there as a bird in a cage, a bait on a hook, a piece of cheese in a mouse-trap.”

Significantly, the reader is already in possession of Vereker’s “little trick”—it is a trap, a lure, a deception. The withholding of essential information lies at the origin of James’s narrative, which proceeds as the quest for its own absent cause. This device is hardly irrelevant to Baldessari’s works, for the most conspicuous effect of his strategy of concealment is to relocate his images within a charged context of story-tell­ing. In Baldessari’s art, the perception, contemplation and representation of an object—the traditional province of the visual arts—are displaced by a series of narrative operations: “imagining, dreaming, fantasy, wish, and hope.” These are the words the artist uses to characterize the messages hidden in his “Embed” series, and they work to inscribe his art within an unstable and shifting field of desire.

Much of Baldessari’s work is couched in a narrative format; here is an example from 1972-73, The Pencil Story. Beneath two photographs of a pencil, sharpened and unsharpened, the artist inscribed the following story: “I had this old pencil on the dashboard of my car for a long time. Every time I saw it, I felt uncomfortable since its point was so dull and dirty. I always intended to sharpen it and finally couldn’t bear it any longer and did sharpen it. I’m not sure, but I think that this has something to do with art.”

That a simple, everyday activity like sharpening a pencil should be the sub­ject of a narrative passage such as this suggests that the activity does indeed possess a significance beyond the obvious, that it stands for or represents something other than itself. Yet it is the author’s uncertainty as to exactly what it might signify that provides the story’s impetus. Baldessari’s narrative, like James’s, is thus a quest for meaning; yet its conclusion—or should we say its suspension?—is nothing more than a restatement of his original uncertainty. Baldessari’s narratives are not only elliptical; they are also profoundly cir­cular, always returning to their origins, simply restating the problem posed at the outset. They are not, however, stat­ic, because the unspoken question that motivates them has, through the narra­tive process, found language.

Thus, for Baldessari narrative plays a compensatory role; it insinuates itself in the place of an original lack in the image, which can only be represented, never resolved. Baldessari’s images never solicit analysis; rather, they function as stimuli to the imagination. In the 1973 videotape Ed Henderson Reconstructs Movie Scenarios, Baldessari asks Henderson to compose stories based on the fragmentary information offered by a series of film stills. Torn from its context, the still suspends, movement, narrative, time; yet precisely because the story is absent from the still, it functions as the pretext for another story. (In a tape from the following year, Henderson is asked to select appropriate background music for stills he doesn’t even see, but which are described to him. The imaginative reconstruction of an image or object from a verbal description of it is a recurrent Baldessari strategy.)

The narrative aspect of Baldessari’s art is consistent with his ongoing involvement with language and linguistic structure; an inveterate reader, he has been influenced by both Wittgenstein’s theory of language games and Ferdinand de Saussure’s assertion of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign in his Course in General Linguistics. Baldes­sari, however, uses language primarily as a supplement, with the double mean­ing that Jacques Derrida gives to the term: sometimes it is added to images; at others it supplants them. In a series of early canvases, executed from 1966 through ’68, verbal texts—generally, quotations from art manuals and es­thetic treatises—were inscribed onto otherwise pristine canvases, sometimes in conjunction with a photographic image. But the majority of these works are purely linguistic, and they were responsible for Baldessari’s identifica­tion with the Conceptual art move­ment. Yet unlike Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry, who frequently stenciled their aphorisms directly onto gallery walls, Baldessari continued to utilize the conventional format of easel paint­ing—the stretched canvas—in order to exploit the expectations that it raises. Semi-Close-Up of Girl By Geranium (Soft View) presents a narrative se­quence drawn from a silent-film script: “Finishes watering it—examines plant to see if it has any signs of growth—finds slight evidence—smiles—one part is sagging—she runs her fingers along it—raises hand over plant to encourage it to grow.”

The subject of this work is, of course, a visual image, and the format in which it is presented arouses the expectation of a picture. Yet because what Baldes­sari offers is only a verbal description, the image itself is deferred. Again, lan­guage operates primarily in the object’s absence, which resonates throughout Baldessari’s “image.” What gives this work its poignancy is not so much the disarming sentimentality of the text, but rather the way in which Baldessari deploys language in order to arouse and simultaneously to frustrate our desire to see.

Baldessari’s implicit acknowledgement of the compensatory aspect of narrative also accounts for his interest in allegory. His first work explicitly identified with this mode belongs to the “Repair/Retouch” series (1976), in which the artist subtly alters photo­graphic information. An Allegory About Wholeness (Plate and Man With Crutches) is composed of two pairs of photographs, one pair depicting a man on crutches, the other a plate. In the first image of each pair, the object is imperfect: the man is one-legged, the plate is broken. In the second, the missing parts have been restored. Reminiscent of the “before and after” device of advertising, this technique suggests an elliptical narrative; its sequence, how­ever, is problematic, for the order in which Baldessari presents his images seems to reverse their priority. Al­though the sequence suggests that Baldessari began with photographs of par­tial objects, to which he supplied prostheses, it is more likely that he began with images of complete objects and merely eradicated parts of each. Concealment and restoration are thus demonstrated to be complementary activities: one is implicated in the other.

What makes this work an allegory, however, is not its focus on the imperfect, the fragmentary—the allegorical theme par excellence—nor its suggestion of hidden meaning; rather, it is the supplementary nature of Baldessari’s intervention. Allegory is defined as “an expression eternally added to another expression” (Benedetto Croce). Allegorical meaning accrues to images after the fact; its results from acts of interpretation. Its appearance in Baldessari’s work is thus strategic, for while allegory arouses the viewer’s expectation of (multiple) meaning, it also demonstrates that meaning is only an aftereffect, something added or superadded to an image, and not intrinsic to it.

What I am proposing, then, is that Baldessari’s art can never be accounted for in terms of determinate meanings, but only as a set of specific esthetic strategies. Primary among these is, of course, the strategy of concealment, but there are others, which can only be inventoried here. First, there is the strategy of collaboration, from the 1969 Commissioned Paintings—14 canvases  executed by amateur painters after photographs provided by Baldessari, who subsequently exhibited them as a group—through his Pier 18 project (1971), in which the artist asked professional photographers to attempt to capture a bouncing ball so that it appears in the middle of the frame, to the Blasted Allegories (1978), for which the artist asked friends to assign words to photographs taken from television programs. And then there is his deliberate courting of esthetic error in works which deliberately violate textbook “dos and don’ts” for making art (Wrong, from 1966-68, demonstrates how not to compose a picture, as does the “Kissing” series from 1975). A Different Kind of Order (1972-73) and the “Alignment” series (1975), as well as in his recent Fugitive Essays, Baldessari also transgresses the conventions of gallery hanging: works are framed or installed according to their subject matter, producing hopelessly erratic configurations.

There are many other strategies. Yet the significance of every one of them lies in its deliberate violation of esthetic conventions—of authorship, composition, hanging. . . —and much of the humor of the work arises from Baldessari’s willful transgression of the norm. Yet he does not set out to destroy convention; he is ultimately ambivalent about it, for it is the precondition of his work, the foil for his calculated deviations. His entire effort is characterized by an attempt to include the normative within his work, to comprehend it, without himself being subject to it. Thus, the expectation of hidden mean­ing is, in the end, as crucial to Baldes­sari’s art as it is to the Aufsitzer’s dup­ing duplicity.