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The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project 48: John Baldessari’s Baldessari Sings LeWitt


John Baldessari, Baldessari Sings Lewitt, 1972.

I come away from this video wanting to read some Sol LeWitt. In it, Baldessari, shot in classically muddy Portapak style, sits down and reads a selection of lines from Lewitt’s writing on modern art. Well, I suppose he technically sings the lines, but his delivery strikes me as more of a recital. He does a shambling sort of sprechgesang, loosely hanging LeWitt’s words on vague approximations of the melodies of various popular songs. “Camptown Races” really trips him up. He delivers one line to the tune of a Beatles song that’s famous even by the standards of Beatles songs, my failure to summon the name of which makes me realize just how badly I’ve shirked my cultural duty of Beatle familiarity.

Cogent, truthful, non-trivial writing on visual art being somewhat hard to come by, I keep myself on perpetual lookout for anyone whose words even faintly promise it. Some of the LeWitt sentences Baldessari sings, when they come out clearly, hint that I should do some further reading. The claim that “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically” struck me as particularly worthy of consideration. But now that I think about it, isn’t that just the program Baldessari follows here? At the video’s beginning, he announces his intention to honor LeWitt’s words by bringing them out of the exhibition catalogs and into song, and he follows that perhaps irrational premise absolutely and logically.

Baldessari also sings of the process whereby a concept becomes an idea becomes a work. At least my notes describe the process that way; maybe an idea becomes a concept becomes a work. But I mostly want to hear more of LeWitt’s thoughts on the step that comes after that. “A conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewers,” Baldessari sing-quotes LeWitt’s definition of a work. He also converts into song an intriguing passage about how the perception of others’ ideas leads to new ideas, and how new ideas come from the misperception and/or misconstrual of existing ideas expressed in existing works. Most of my own ideas come from misperception and/or misconstrual. Heck, I’m probably misperceiving and misconstruing Baldessari Sings LeWitt right now.

Will I find the clarity of thought and expression I so desire in Sol LeWitt’s original, non-sung writings on modern art? There’s a chance, although on the basis of Baldessari’s selections alone, I can’t rule out the possibility that his observations might turn out to be ultimately untestable or at least not usefully evaluable. But boy, did the man make some cool geometrical art!

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