John Baldessari’s Alphabet

Edition Review

  • John Baldessari, A B C Art (Low Relief): A/Ant, Etc. (Keyboard) (2009)

  • Mixografía® print on handmade paper in 26 parts, 44 x 259 x 1 inches (overall), edition of 20. Printed and published by Mixografia, Los Angeles. $125,000.
  • A B C Art (Low Relief), Part II: PMBWFDLJ (Pangram) (2010)

  • Mixografía® print on handmade paper in 32 parts, 82 x 248 x 1 inches (overall), edition of 7. Printed and published by Mixografia, Los Angeles. $148,000.
John Baldessari, A B C Art (Low Relief): A/Ant, Etc. (Keyboard) (2009). ©2009 John Baldessari and Mixografía.

John Baldessari, A B C Art (Low Relief): A/Ant, Etc. (Keyboard) (2009). ©2009 John Baldessari and Mixografía.

The investigation of language—both visual and written—is the foundation of John Baldessari’s artistic endeavor, so it seems a natural progression for his attention to have turned to the 26-letter Latin alphabet in his recent project with Mixografia. Though entirely recognizable as his own, the ABC Art series represents a departure from the artist’s most familiar work in which he manipulates photographic images from his vast library of stock imagery, often overlaying selected areas with tones in primary and secondary colors. This project offers a new twist: rather than establishing imagery as the center of inquiry, he has instead aimed his lens at the building blocks of written communication.

This project began in 2008 and marked Baldessari’s fourth collaboration with Mixografía (the first was in 1994 and they are working on a fifth now). At this point the artist was fluent in the special capabilities of the workshop’s patented three-dimensional printing process (which involves a hand-inked relief plate that is printed to damp paper pulp) and wanted to expand the possibilities. Rather than working in “flat-relief,” as he had done in the series Table Lamp and its Shadows (1994) and Stonehenge (with Two Persons) (2005), or create a sculptural object from planes of color, as he did with Sailboat (1996/2008), he was interested in exploring the topographical capabilities of the plate. For this alphabetical project, he wanted to eschew photographic and painterly imagery altogether, instead pairing each letter with a physical object that would serve as a mold for the plate. As explained by Shaye Remba, the son of Mixografía founders Luis and Lea Remba, Baldessari was interested in finding examples with an immediate and subconscious association with the letter at hand. Together, Baldessari and the Rembas came up with a list of letter-image pairings and the Rembas were charged with the task of making it come together. Relegating the execution of his ideas to others is routine for the artist; as he has noted in the past, “You figure out how to do something and that’s that. The doing of it is not very interesting because I have already done it in my head” (Liam Gillick, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art: John Baldessari,” Art Monthly 187 [June 1995]: 3-7).

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The Rembas scoured thrift stores, groceries, and toy-shops for objects that were archetypal representatives of the images on the list, and that also were suited to translation in low relief and properly scaled to the plate size. In some cases, compositional considerations, creative thinking, and sculptural skills came into play—for example, orzo pasta was used to create the “rice” for the sushi on plate “S.” In others, an acceptable pre-existing object could not be located and a model had to be constructed (for “W,” the dove-like wing had to be constructed by hand). Most of the pairings are logical and immediate, but the final letter “Z”—which at first appears to be a hand-written version of itself on a stone surface—represents the mark of the fictional hero Zorro. (Though the idea was born from Baldessari’s enthusiasm for the movies, care was taken to represent the character (who has appeared in comics, television, and film) in a universal manner. As Remba explains, “we couldn’t be specific because the spectator, not the artist, is the one that is creating an association in the mind between the z [on the print] and the “Z” for Zorro.”)

Once all pairings were approved, Mixografía’s technicians went to work to mold the three-dimensional copper plates from the objects, a process Remba describes as the most difficult step of the Mixografía technique, requiring extensive chasing and refinement. Colors were then chosen to enhance the iconic nature of each object. As with any Mixografía print, the inks were applied by hand to the plate followed by a layer of paper pulp and then run through the press; all paper is made in house in order to control the quality, consistency, and color of the paper pulp. Proofs were finalized and approved by the artist in late 2009, approximately a year after work had begun.

Baldessari’s A B C Art series calls to mind the alphabet projects of other artists in recent years, such as Tony Fitzpatrick’s Max & Gaby’s Alphabet (1999-2000), Robert Cottingham’s An American Alphabet (1997-2011) [see Art in Print, vol. 1, no. 5: 8-9], and Tobias Till’s London A-Z (2012) [see Art in Print vol. 1, no. 6: 48]. Each of these series has a different aim, but Baldessari’s stands out for its spare presentation and conceptual rigor, as well as its scale—over 20 feet wide when installed. He arranged his alphabet in two variants that digress from the standard order of presentation, and both require some time and consideration to puzzle out. The first, issued in 2009, appears to be a random sequence until one notices the telltale Q,W,E,R,T,Y order at the upper left. Though almost every modern citizen uses a keyboard several times a day, it has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible—aside from a cursory glance to place our hands properly, we are unaccustomed to really seeing it, instead relying on the nearly subconscious muscle memory we have built in order to type efficiently. In 2010, Baldessari reformulated his letters as a pangram. In order to make his viewers reach and think, he chose “pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs” rather than the familiar “the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog.” (It has the added benefit of being one letter shorter.) The duplicate letters necessary to spell all the words of the sentence appear, but without images.

Baldessari is currently working on a new edition with Mixografía, returning to his investigation of film stills, but the alphabet plates remain at the workshop for his consideration. There are, after all, many things an artist of Baldessari’s talents might do with 26 letters.

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