The practice of artists reworking images from other artists has been the subject of much intellectual hand-writing and some very high-profile litigation lately (Prince v. Cariou). John Baldessari, whose work has long appropriated images from anonymous sources, has chosen to stride into the middle of this brouhaha with a set of screenprints that reproduce the composition, brushstrokes, and forms—everything except the actual colors and physical matter—of a portion of Henri Matisse’s 1912 painting, Goldfish and Sculpture. This is not an obscure work of art, nor is it out of copyright, but the Matisse heirs appear to understand that art moves forward through an interweaving of repetition and change. Apprised of Baldessari’s intention, they willingly granted permission.
Baldessari’s Soups, while clearly reproducing Matisse, don’t actually look much like Matisse. To begin with, Goldfish and Sculpture includes other things: there’s a shelf of books on the wall, an ambiguous backdrop that might be a view or might be a painting, and in the foreground alongside the fish, a vase of flowers and a female nude reclining in the classic hand-behind-head, twisted-hips, vamp pose. The bizarre scale relationship between the fish, the flowers and the nude is explained by the title: the figure is not a living person but a tabletop statuette. The painting is an exposition of nature and artifice, a catalogue of ways of representing.
Baldessari, for whom the structures of artifice have constituted a life’s work, drops everything except the big cylinder of water, with its three too-large aquatic inhabitants. He then walks this clipping through the four basic color oppositions—black/white; red/green; yellow/purple; blue/orange—flipping the colors of fish and water to produce eight images. What saves this from being a didactic color theory exercise are Matisse’s dancing forms and the captions below, which identify the picture as what it quite clearly is not, a soup. There is logic behind the absurdity, though—each hue of water is matched to a flavor: Carrot for orange, Pea for green, and so on right down to the unlikely Violet Soup. The look of logic, the taste of goldfish, a semiotic soup.