I learned today that the really wonderful American conceptual artist John Baldessari passed away about a week and a half ago. When I lived in Toledo about seven or eight years ago, I came across Baldessari’s work – it might have been through Joel Lipman, whose visual poetry excited me and allowed me to discover similar artists who were also blending and juxtaposing text and image in interesting ways, like Ed Ruscha and Bern Porter. When I stated looking at Baldessari’s paintings and photographs (he also worked in/with film, installation, printmaking and sculpture), I felt like I had found something/someone amazing and hilarious. His work was irreverent – fun and cheeky – and it poked through the abstraction-obsession of “Theory” in a marvelous and enjoyable way (while still making us think). It was also interesting to me in the context of reading and looking, i.e. what is the difference between reading a text or image, and looking at a text or image? What do we see when we read words? How do we imagine differently when context is slightly or subtly shifted? What happens we we look at an image and text?
Because I felt really inspired by Baldessari around then, I decided at that time that I wanted to write/create poems that also played with the relationship between words and words, and words and images. Because a word is, in a sense, an image – not only because it is black characters of various shapes on an often white page (what the literary critic Elaine Scarry calls “delayed sensory content”), but because it conjures images in our minds. For example, when we see the words “red pencil,” we picture a red pencil – all the red pencils we have ever seen zoom up somewhere in our heads, forming a kind of ghostly daydream (what Scarry calls “mimetic content”). And, if you think about it, if we have that kind of fascinating and textured response to literally two words – ‘red pencil” – imagine the possibilities that inhere in the writing and reading of a poem, where many words and connotations are richly and evocatively juxtaposed and mingled. So I wrote a bunch of poems that tried, like Baldessari, to be simple but also motivate thought, and explore the relationship between words and images (mimetic, sensory, delayed). I have no idea if they succeed, but I wanted to pay my respects to Baldessari this Sunday afternoon by sharing a few of them with you.
Rest in peace, John Baldessari. And thank you.