Crossing the Line

on john baldessari’s raw prints series.

John Baldessari’s Raw Prints series (1976) features color photographs that Baldessari took of street scenes at the Santa Monica Mall in 1976. The artist then placed the photographs in the lower-right hand corner of large sheets of paper, and restricted himself to one line and one color in a lithograph on the rest of the print. What is so striking in this minimalist exercise is that the single line and one trace of color evoke the essences of the photographs. A triangle and a scratch of purple for a man’s V-necked sweater and a woman with white hair and sunglasses. A crooked square for a van and yellow for what looks like the top of a fire hydrant. A squiggle for an evergreen tree and a striated, broken rectangle of brownish orange for a brunette woman in a blouse just about to vanish around a corner. The outline of a woman in profile and two flashes of blue for the scarf over her hair. A group of people walking toward the camera, but Baldessari notices the white side of a skyscraper in the background and a splash of green below it.

John Baldessari, (Blue), Lithograph 18 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches.

The back-and-forth between the lithographic reproduction and the photographic one creates a kind of depth, the feeling of observing someone who has observed at great length, with perceptive care. This is the art of watching someone watching. But it is not particularly voyeuristic. There is a spirit of multiple communions in these prints: connections made between hand and machine, the looker and the looked at, the moment of impression and the great blankness in which it exists.

There is an economy in these works of art that knows no bounds. The cliché is that a picture says a thousand words, but these prints suggest that but one line and a bit of color might express even more.


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