John Baldessari

Fugitive Essays (with caterpillar)


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Not on display

John Baldessari 1931 – 2020
2 photographs, black and white, on paper and photograph, colour, on paper
Overall display dimensions variable
Presented by the artist 2012


Fugitive Essays (with caterpillar) 1980 is one of a series of works collectively entitled Fugitive Essays in which Baldessari brought together found photographic images arranged as three-part wall installations. The series was Baldessari’s first experimentation with shaped, framed found photographic images where the cropped and abstracted details contained therein amount to a puzzling selection of forms. The found images are culled from a variety of sources including film stills and newspaper material. This particular work is named after the image of a caterpillar which is set at the upper right-hand corner of the wall when the work is displayed. The image is framed, with the frame shaped around the insect to create an irregular hexagon. Baldessari frequently uses animal images in his work, both for emotive reasons and to introduce a kinetic aspect. Framed at the bottom of the work in the centre is a cropped triangular-shaped image of a detail of the handle of a lady’s handbag.

Baldessari studied literature and philosophy along with art and art history at San Diego State College, the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles, and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, between 1949 and 1959. His work deals with systems of knowledge, the obsessive collection of information and the fragmentation of that information. This work and the series as a whole employs a particular system in which the forms of the frame reoccur, although the content of the images changes. In each work in the series an irregular shape is placed close to the ceiling of a room on a diagonal (here the caterpillar image), with the subject matter filling the entire frame and determining its shape. The bottom piece lies parallel to the floor, it is large and geometrically or regularly shaped (the bag handle). The crop of this image is always determined by the shape of the frame. To the left, in the centre of the wall, is the third component, placed at eye level and of ordinary size and scale. According to curator Marcia Tucker, this element contains what Baldessari has described as traditional salon-type photography and subject matter (Tucker 1981, p.40). Each of the three images is individually suggestive but also implies connections with the other two and a narrative can be created simply by the process of association. As visual metaphors they join dissimilar imagery not so much to encourage the viewer to perceive in them some previously hidden similarity, but rather to create something altogether new.

In this way the Fugitive Essays series relates to poetry. The form of the frames and their placement on the wall might correspond to components of poetic form such as stanzas, lines and rhythm. Indeed, the images are evocative rather than explanatory. Baldessari has drawn an explicit connection between this series and two early twentieth-century American poetry movements. In an accompanying text, he described the Fugitive Essays as ‘a tribute to the Fugitive Poets as regionalists, traditionalists, classicists, and their quarrel with emotion in art’, whose sensibility he opposed to that of ‘the Imagists’, standing for ‘the present, alive, revolutionary impulse, unexpressed possibilities’ (quoted in Tucker 1981, p.40). Although Baldessari’s disconnected imagery contrasts with the traditionalist work of the Fugitive poets – who wrote from the context of the American South – the allusions to nature, spare arrangement as well as the consistency of shapes and categories across the series, might relate to the literary investments of that group. More broadly, the curator Marcia Tucker has said that the series suggests ‘the differences between the semantic and esthetic’, which are ‘metaphorically visualized in the shape and placement of the three component parts of each work’ (Tucker 1981, p.40). As such the series could be read as sustaining the tension between these two modes, which might correspond with Baldessari’s explanation that the title Fugitive Essays was equivalent to ‘escape attempts’ or essays about escape (quoted in Tucker 1981, p.40).

Further reading
Marcia Tucker, ‘Pursuing the Unpredictable’, in Marcia Tucker (ed.), John Baldessari, exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York 1981, p.40, reproduced p.40.
Rainer Fuchs (ed.), John Baldessari: A Different Kind of Order (Arbeiten 1962–1984), exhibition catalogue, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna 2005.
Jessica Morgan and Leslie Jones (eds.), John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, London 2009.

Jessica Morgan
March 2012

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