There aren’t many paintings to see. That’s because, in 1970, in a state of artistic dissatisfaction, Baldessari took nearly all of them to a mortuary and had them burned. He poured some of the ashes into a book-shaped urn, titling the work Cremation Project, and it’s on view at the Met. Judging from the few canvases that remain, Baldessari had it in him to be a very good painter. You can see him studying Jasper Johns especially. In one work, he pulls off an incredibly rare act of aesthetic clairvoyance: God Nose, from 1965, is a stark blue image of a disembodied proboscis floating on a blue ground with a little white cloud. It looks almost exactly like a number of works involving disembodied, floating facial features that Johns started making in the late eighties.
There’s one Baldessari work I genuinely love and would like to own, maybe because of my midwestern roots and love of driving alone. The backs of all the trucks passed while driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, California, Sunday, 20 January 1963 consists of a grid of 32 small color photographs depicting just what the title says. It was his version of a Dan Flavin: drop-dead simple, self-explanatory, and singular. In this wonderful piece I sense the openness of art, Baldessari’s receptivity, and the sight of an artist exercising what D. H. Lawrence once called “insatiable American curiosity.”