With clouds, bowler hat, green apple and comb, all motifs of Ren� Magritte, John Baldessari designs a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Ceci N’est Pas Magritte, but His Outlook Is Compatibly Surreal
By JORI FINKEL
EVERYONE who knows John Baldessari knows that he likes a good joke. He likes to hear them, and he likes to tell them. So it’s not surprising that his immediate reaction when spotting one of the most famous one-liners in the history of painting was to riff on it.
“Today it wouldn’t make sense to say, ‘This is not a pipe,’ ” he said. “Nobody smokes pipes anymore, do they? Do college professors out East? Today it would be: This is not a cigarette. Or maybe: This is not a cigar.”
He paused, perhaps for effect. “Do kids today even recognize a pipe? It should be: This is not a PlayStation.”
Mr. Baldessari has been thinking about the history of tobacco because he has been thinking about René Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist who famously painted the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” beneath an image that, by all artistic conventions, is clearly a pipe.
That 1929 painting, “The Treachery of Images,” is probably the most famous work at the Los Angles County Museum of Art, which acquired it at Sotheby’s in 1978 for a mere $115,000. It is also the cornerstone for an exhibition opening there on Sunday, “Magritte and Contemporary Art,” which brings together 68 works by that painter, 68 works by contemporary artists and an exhibition design by Mr. Baldessari.
Mr. Baldessari, a popular California artist, has carpeted the floors with images of white clouds against a blue sky and wallpapered the ceiling with repeating images of intersecting Los Angeles freeways. (He left the walls a muted color, for fear of distracting from the artwork and running over budget.) He also asked the guards to wear bowler hats à la the suited men in Magritte’s paintings, and they rather generously agreed.
The show’s curator, Stephanie Barron, had from the start tapped Mr. Baldessari as one of the contemporary figures in the show, along with such mixed company as Marcel Broodthaers, Barbara Kruger and Philip Guston. But it wasn’t until April that the museum’s new director, Michael Govan, had an idea. “It’s hard to make an impact on a museum when you first get there because exhibitions are programmed so far in the future,” he said. “So I began thinking: Wouldn’t it be interesting to bring an artist into this context?”