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Jul 23, 2009

The Venice Biennale honors two very different masters of Conceptual art for the achievements of a lifetime.

By David A. Ross

Few contemporary artists have both as much and as little in common as Yoko Ono and John Baldessari. Both are in their mid-70s, both are Conceptual artists and both were recently honored in Venice, Italy at the 53rd Esposizone Internationale d’Arte, a.k.a. the Venice Biennale, with the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The award, bestowed by the one periodic survey exhibition whose prestige has survived a worldwide glut of such events, fully certified conceptual art as a distinct chapter and these two artists as important figures in the history of art.

There, for the most part, the similarities between Ono and Baldessari end, and a world of differences begin. Consider, for example, their reactions to the award itself. To Ono, it represented “a sweet gesture of encouragement for me to go on working.” Characteristically, Baldessari was more dyspeptic: For him, the Golden Lion was “part of the package of you being an old artist. That’s what happens to you.”

He protests too much. In fact, he was delighted with the award, if only because of its presenter, the Swedish art historian and philosopher Daniel Birnbaum. “I just always loved his energy and enthusiasm,” says Baldessari. “I respect him so much that it was a pleasure saying yes.”

Giving the award to Baldessari made perfect sense. His work in photography, printmaking, and video and his decades as one of the most influential teachers in the United States has earned him the admiration of several generations of younger artists. “You can’t give [the Golden Lion] to a person whose done just one great thing,” says Birnbaum. “It’s about decades of important work.” Baldessari is also the very model of an art world insider, and he is more than comfortable in that role.

Far more surprising was that Birnbaum also chose Ono, an enormously influential musician and installation and performance artist who is nevertheless known more widely (at least outside the art world) as the widow of John Lennon. Unlike Baldessari, Ono achieved all of her notable success in both the art and entertainment worlds as an outsider who won her success despite a host of detractors. She is also a far more political artist than Baldessari. As Birnbaum puts it, “Yoko Ono is about connecting the world to the world of art.”

Despite her celebrity, Ono is very well known and respected in the small world of conceptual artists in New York and London, despite the fact that she has never relied on the sale of her art and has always worked on the periphery of the art market.

Baldessari, in contrast, has long been associated with important California art schools and a number of major galleries since the late 1960s, though he only achieved real financial success in the past several years.

Though both Baldessari and Ono use text and photographs in their work and are seen within the frame of conceptual art, their aesthetic directions differ enormously.

In keeping with her character and history, Ono’s work has a gentle, poetic spirit informed by her outsider’s posture and the losses and dislocations she experienced throughout her life, beginning as a child in World War II Tokyo. She believes in and speaks unashamedly about the power of art and desire to change the world.

Baldessari is more cerebral and cosmopolitan, his method skeptical and witty. While both would be considered feminists and politically progressive in their lives and their work, Ono has felt the sting of racism and sexism throughout her life, and through her work, has fought for the rights of women.

Baldessari’s work, with some exceptions, has been more formally intellectual, less obviously socially engaged than Ono’s.

Of course, Baldessari is as committed to the importance of art as Ono is, but he sees the artist’s role as an investigator while Ono sees herself as an agent of change. Her participatory approach to art encourages people to find creativity in their own lives, while Baldessari’s work is cool and far more disinterested.

Though there are enormous differences in their work, and in the ways they relate to their role as artists, both are Conceptualists—that is to say they are both deeply involved in the exploration of meaning. Baldessari’s work asks us to consider the functioning of language, while Ono uses language to invoke a belief in the transformative power of art and poetry.  

Though both make use of theatricality, their aesthetic differences are on view in two very distinct sites.

Baldessari produced a mammoth photomural—a Pacific seascape that completely covers the façade of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, the central site of the Biennale. Baldessari notes that the building is “sort of fascist and in your face,” and the choice of the view from his studio in Santa Monica, Calif. becomes about “recycling the architecture…in a Hollywood set-like” fashion.

Ono’s exhibited work at the Biennale is off-site, a mini-retrospective at the Palazzetto Tito, a small villa located near the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Among the works is Anton’s Memory, which explores a mother as remembered by a fictional son, Anton.

About the only point in which their work converges is a common urge to simplify in order to understand what lies beneath everyday language and behavior. This is not simple, and in their insistence on this fact, they are as one.

”No, no, you see, you’re thinking that it’s simpler,” Ono says when asked if her work is Minimalist. “No! It is a form of simplicity, but within that there’s an incredible complexity.”

“Simplicity is a paradox of the complex,” says Baldessari. “It just looks simple.”

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this is a nice article !

Luis Eduardo Alanis Villarreal
Sep 7, 2009