This is a complex wall installation made up of eleven framed and unframed panels of differing dimensions arranged in four adjoining rows. The panels present a combination of images, most of which are film stills on which the artist has made additions with paint. The dominating image, in the largest panel, is a large expanse of oranges on which two interacting human figures have been overpainted with vivid blue. From their silhouettes it appears that one figure crouches over and holds a gun to the head of the other figure, who lies supine on the ‘bed of oranges’ from which the title is derived. The adjacent panel to the right of this image contains three men in bowler hats and suits looking through a large gilt frame which one of them holds. A large dot or circle of colour in each of the three primary colours obscures most of their faces. Above the blue figures is an image of a woman dancing, her full skirt flying up around her body. The face of a male figure behind her is covered by a circle of white, as is the top of her head. To her left, a man’s hand holds a large, red floral bouquet. To her right, a cowboy apparently climbs a large unidentifiable structure; to his right, the face of a standing cowboy is obscured by another blue circle. On the top row, a single black and white photograph presents a man in a suit and trilby. On the bottom row, two figures in white protective clothing and black gas masks flank a third figure painted over in fluorescent orange. Beside it, an irregularly shaped panel contains a skeleton supported by a man’s arm and chest. The skull’s face is covered with a circle of green. The supine skeleton curves towards a narrow green rectangle supporting a large red circle at one end. Directly above, at the level of the dancing woman, a hazy grey diptych balances the composition of the panels on the wall.
Baldessari was born in California to European immigrants. Between 1949 and 1959 he attended San Diego State College, the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, studying literature and philosophy in tandem with fine art and art history. From an early stage Baldessari identified with Dada and Surrealism. At Berkeley he tried to set up a cross–indexing system of everything he had ever read, a project that was inevitably unworkable but which presaged the obsessive information gathering that has underpinned his work. This effort at ultimate control taught him that knowledge is partial and provisional; he came to the conclusion that there is no commonality of understanding and that communication comes about as a result of the chance overlapping of more than one individual’s limited and partial apprehension of the whole. As a result of this, he has been hailed as ‘the patron saint of postmodernist art’ (H.W. Janson quoted in McEvilley, p.4).
Having begun his artistic career as a painter, by the late 1960s Baldessari had abandoned working on canvas. In the early 1970s he began to make composite photoworks using fragments of film stills, publicity shots, newspaper material and photographs. In such works as his print portfolio, Black Dice 1982 (P07808-P07816, P07853), he cut up stills of films and represented them as fragments and individual statements. This deconstruction of representational conventions later expanded into an examination of social and psychological codes. In the early 1980s Baldessari began to block out the faces of the people featured in his images with painted discs in the primary colours, reminiscent of enlarged benday dots. In so doing he divested the images of their singularity and invested them with symbolic meaning. All Baldessari’s photoworks encourage multiple readings from a ‘logical’ piecing together of image fragments with linguistic elements (ironic or punning titles) and subjective interpretation (personal free association on the part of the viewer). Like dislocated visual poetry, the works operate on various levels of meaning ranging from the symbolic to the literal. Using dark humour to undercut the aphorism, ‘life is a not bed of roses’, Hope (Blue) Supported by a Bed of Oranges (Life): Amid a Context of Allusions typifies this kind of composite photowork.
Thomas McEvilley, John Baldessari: Tetrad Series, exhibition catalogue, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York 1999
John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, Casa Da Parra, Santiago de Compostela 1992
Gabriella Belli, Meg Cranston and Thomas Weski, John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Trento 2000