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James A. Stewart
DVD Verdict, September 2010

The paintings that artist John Baldessari cremated in 1970 might be worth some money today. They’re still worth something as a concept, though, and he kept photos and video to ensure that. This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari opens with that scene of artistic destruction, one of many acts of conceptual art that Baldessari has committed over the years.

This Not That gives a more in-depth portrait than other recent Arthaus Musik releases have provided, showing many of his works, including text paintings which put a few simple words against a background, commissioned paintings from slides he provided, and films, including one in which he creates a Psalm-like song about conceptual art. There’s also more room for Baldessari’s philosophy on his work, delivered gently with a matter-of-fact bluntness.

Scenes that are particularly interesting find the artist, puffing a cigar, touring a home where several of his works are on display and taking his daughter through a show full of optical illusions.

There’s a fuller range of extras here as well. A short film, You Call That Art?, from 1973 shows more examples of Baldessari’s work, including a film in which he teaches the alphabet to a plant. There are also bonus interviews with Ed Ruscha, Coosje van Bruggen, and others to shed more light on Baldessari’s work and conceptual art; these don’t work as well as the short film in expanding on the movie, but you might find some interesting nuggets there. The box provides an example of Baldessari’s thinking with “Information Paintings Never Completed,” a list of eighteen slogans or phrases he didn’t use in text paintings, stuff like “This painting should be read and not looked at” and “A witless painting.” Producer Jan Schmidt-Garre’s introduction to the artist is also included.

The one thing that Arthaus Musik could have done further would be to include a few of Baldessari’s short films without comment or trimming so you could view his work completely free of interpretation.

The picture quality is good for the main documentary, but You Call That Art? and some of the video in the documentary are faded with age.

Conceptual art is a tricky concept, but this documentary will give you the general idea. This DVD should be watched and not looked at, if you’re studying conceptual art.

Kambur O. Blythe
Game Vortex, August 2010

This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari, directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre Film, is just one documentary in the [Arthaus Musik] Artist Series and highlights the influence of pioneer conceptual artist, John Baldessari’s work on contemporary art in the 1960’s. The documentary begins in 1970 with a black and white film of Baldessari destroying and cremating his paintings. Because he still remembers them and has photographic slides, he deems it unnecessary to keep the paintings. With a public and dramatic act, he destroys them and ushers in a new era of conceptual art that satirically deconstructs the entire painting tradition down to absolute essentials.

John Baldessari was born in National City, resides in Santa Monica, CA and has a prolific body of work including drawings, paintings, photography, film, video and text. Baldessari’s two crusades of his early art were to encourage art galleries to exhibit photographic works, and secondly, to have text in art. The artist explains that his text painting was “information not art,” and was in response to complaints by the art audience and public that abstraction impressionism in modern art was a “private language.” So he decided to make painting more understandable through the use of text and photographs. When questioned, “…on what basis do you select photographic material?” His response was, “…you just have this intuitive sense over the years of making choices. And, art-making essentially is that, you choose this thing over that thing, …you begin to develop a kind of instinct, that I want that and not this.”

You’ll tour his hometown as the artist has an emotional revisit to his birthplace. This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari glides through the phases of art in Baldessari’s life from text paintings to film interpretations, to enormous fragments of movie stills and panoramic images dashed with color and his signature dotted faces that all balance together to narrate his story. Baldessari takes the works of what he calls “Sunday Painters” and exhibits them in his own version with a new life. He visits the Biennale in Venice as well as the Basel Art Fair. You’ll see the set-up of his Guggenheim showing in Berlin, hear comments of the guests and collectors, and share the reactions of Baldessari himself. The film covers interviews of artists, critics, poets and colleagues who all admire the works, intellect and sense of humor of the great teacher and innovator, John Baldessari. As he says himself, we artists are just links in a chain contributing art for someone else to enjoy. Baldessari’s favorite painting and a benchmark work is “Geranium,” the film version of which closes out the documentary.

This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari’s bonus features include a film entitled “You Call That Art? Allan Kaprow Visits John Baldessari (1973)” where conceptual revoluntionary artist Baldessari discusses various aspects of his work. The artist shares his comments on his film where he attempts to teach a plant how to learn the alphabet, discusses the caressing and fondling of a hat, and he sings a tribute to fellow artist, Sol Levitt. “Additional Interviews” covers a multitude of interviews with friends and collegues addressing Baldessari’s works, personality and contribution to the art world, including Dave Hickey, Mike Kelley, Thomas McEvilley, Ed Ruscha, Coosje van Bruggen, Lawrence Weiner and Ealan Wingate. The packaging is comprised of stills of three of his text paintings and a photo his home in National City, and the titles of John’s “Information Paintings Never Completed.”

I personally found This Not That: The Artist John Baldessari enjoyable and informative. It introduced me to a style of art I had not known and an artist who sliced through the art world with his imaginative creativity (or conceptually, lack thereof) and minimally profound interpretation of everyday life and ordinary things. Anyone who is interested in art would enjoy this documentary.

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