NOV 2013

All Issues
NOV 2013 Issue
Critics Page

Getting Away With It

Your inside is out/and your outside is in: Conceptual multimedia artist John Baldessari’s “Six Colorful Inside Jobs” (1977) is both a document of and a vehicle for a conceptual serial painting. Shot on 16mm and alternately displayed or projected as video, the work’smaterial hybridity extends to its subject matter: it is a painted artwork that can only be conveyed by film. It is also a documentary film about the process of painting that, through the process of its own recording, becomes the actual, completed artwork. Baldessari tasked one of his students with repeatedly painting the interior of a room. Beginning, as a white-on-black title card reads, with “Monday/Red,” a very small room is painted the specified color by a man dressed in a white t-shirt and painter’s pants. As the student’s paint-soaked brush reaches the edge of the room, he appears trapped by the efforts of the day’s labor, having quite literally painted himself into a corner. The mundane act of painting briefly escalates into a locked-room quandary of Houdini-esque proportions, before the student, at the last moment, deflates the situation by slipping out of the space via a nearly invisible door. Each successive day, the room is similarly coated with the next color from the spectrum: on Tuesday, orange follows red, on Wednesday, yellow orange, and so on, until “Sunday/Purple” is reached. Throughout, Baldessari positions the camera as a god’s eye view, establishing the literal and metaphorical fourth wall of the room, and consequently the picture plane/cinema screen. Using cinematic editing techniques, Baldessari speeds up the process, condensing almost four hours of work into roughly five-minute segments. The piece’s title is thus simultaneously literal while its pun references a very different cinematic genre than the documentary impulse that drives it—the heist film. So what is Baldessari pulling off, and what is he getting away with?

As with so much of Baldessari’s work, the piece is both an art historical critique and a clever conceptual piece that could only exist through a combination of media. These are paintings that we will never see in three dimensions—they cannot be hung on a wall, and even if we were to enter the room itself, we would be denied the visual pleasure and information of seeing the previous coats of paint. In other words, we will always be on the outside. The final work of colorfield art is a not a single still image, but a number of paintings in time—ephemeral and liquid, a series of paintings that are continuously en route to becoming something else, all while remaining, at all times, only themselves. This is a work that grants the viewer access to new understandings of paint and its applications that are otherwise denied to us in a museum or gallery space. The paintings we see in the film are not merely representations of paintings, but rather are new kinds of paintings that provide us with new ways to think about, present, and experience both painting and cinema. In the process, Baldessari creates his own heist, pulling off the neat trick of making paintings successively disappear without lifting a finger—and without ever having stepped foot in the room.

Baldessari has said that part of his inspiration for the piece came from the use of hardware-store tools by abstract painters such as Frank Stella—an attempt at a bridging high art concepts with working-class methods. And yet the piece also involves a bit of Baldessari’s autobiography. According to Metropolitan Museum curator Marla Prather, Baldessari used to paint houses, passing the time by playing a mental game in which he consciously oscillated between telling himself that he was painting a wall, and painting a painting. What is the difference? Baldessari’s mental exercise reveals the extent to which art is a matter of perspective and context. The nominal artist, Baldessari, does not appear on camera, but his assumed location, looking down from on high, acts as both an ironic commentary on the lofty positioning of the conceptual artist, so removed from the physical labor of art-making that he need only sit back and watch (hilariously and pointedly, the series stops on Saturday: “and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made”), and the MFA mentor sadistically putting his pupils though a series of tedious formal exercises. What is more, by having his student work until he is boxed in by paint, the artist also provides a visual metaphor for the most elemental concerns of painting—how an artist attempts to negotiate form, color, and composition—while demonstrating that art is a daily practice, one that doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike, but one that demands and rewards steady work.

So what at first appears to be a didactic documentary on artistic process reveals itself as a meditation on the nature of painting, and on the relation of painting to other media. If Baldessari would amuse himself and interrogate his practice by saying, “Now I’m painting a wall. Now I’m making a painting,” we might apply that thought to the intermedial nature of this film: “Now I’m making a film, now I’m making a painting.” As Baldessari once was hired to paint by others, here he is the one directing the action, literally and figuratively. The paintings seen and the act of painting rehearsed in “Six Colorful Inside Jobs” therefore illustrates art historian Hannah Higgins’s description of intermedia works as “interstitial space[s] between media forms and between art and life structures.” Indeed, Baldessari is playfully experimenting with media, sneaking himself into the picture, as it were, while outlining the fundamentals of art painting. The film’s repetition of facing a blank canvas, which is painted over and over again, plays off the mechanical repetition of film, which can be played over and over again. It is a comical, Sisyphean return to the subject of painting, of problem solving, of labor. The piece questions what is/isn’t art, and, speaking more specifically to the topic of documentary and art, what is/isn’t painting. “Six Colorful Inside Jobs” collapses the distinctions between Baldessari’s life and his art without ever showing us, the viewers, Baldessari in the flesh.


Gregory Zinman

Gregory Zinman is an ACLS New Faculty Fellow in the Film Program at Columbia University and is the scholar-in-residence at the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative. He is currently completing a book, Handmade: The Moving Image in the Artisanal Mode, and co-editing, with John Hanhardt and Edith Decker-Phillips, a collection of Nam June Paik’s writings. His writing on film and media has appeared in the New Yorker, Film History, American Art, and Millennium Film Journal.


NOV 2013

All Issues