What makes things meaningful? Is it the mere indication that something meaningful is, in fact, present? Is it the attention we then invest in it? Is it our capacity to subsequently rationalize that experiential phenomenon into a communicable verbal analog: to describe it in words? Is it in the act of communication?

Such questions have been inherent to the act of artmaking since prehistory but began breaking surface in the 20th century, nowhere more elegantly than in the work of L.A. painter/photographer John Baldessari, whose retrospective exhibit Pure Beauty is up at LACMA through September 12. Having debuted at London's Tate Modern last year, it will movie to NYC's Metropolitan Museum later in the fall.

A perfect example of Baldessari's eloquence on these philosophically pointed matters is his series of Commissioned Paintings from 1969, a group of identically formatted canvases, each with a centered, more-or-less photorealistically rendered image of a finger indicating a feature in the environment — often a smudge or stain on a surface — with a caption below by a professional sign painter, reading “A Painting by Patrick X. Nidorf O.S.A.” or “A Painting by Anita Storck.” Mr. Nidorf and Ms. Storck were — along with a dozen or so other amateur painters — recruited from SoCal art fairs by Baldessari to faithfully reproduce photographic slides of one of his friends walking around and pointing at things that caught his attention.

These works overtly flip the bird to East Coast geometric painter Al Held's alleged contention that “Conceptual art is just pointing at things,” but more subtly at the hard-line conceptualist position that an actual artifact — especially something as conventional as a representational painting — was an unworthy vessel for such rarified discourse. When people lob the phrase “conceptual painting” at me, my first response is puzzlement. What kind of painting is not conceptual? Elephant painting? I beg to differ.

Much of Baldessari's extensive oeuvre, in spite of the fact that he cremated the bulk of his early paintings in a 1970 action (complete with commemorative plaque and book-shaped urn), examines not only such epistemological conundra but the specific manner in which they may or may not be embodied in visual language. And the pointing finger was one of his primary and most effective pictorial widgets. In the early '70s Choosing series, in which “players” take turns indexically indicating their selection of one of three possible parallel linelike vegetables — carrots, beans, rhubarb, etc. — Baldessari simultaneously skewers game theory–based conceptualism and aesthetic taste; the core tenet of conceptualism's nemesis, all that corny formalism so beloved by the bourgeoisie. That's a hell of a fusion kebab.

At the same time, the Choosing offers stripped-to-the-bone testimony of the necessity of decision making, even in the form of apparently random, indifferent or uncontrollable choices, as the central engine of creative activity. In Line of Force (1973) Baldessari reduces the signified and signifier to a single, repeated indicative gesture (snapshots of a finger pointing offscreen) seething with exasperation at our species' seeming inability to just look but recalling the Zen admonition to recognize conceptual formulations as “fingers pointing at the moon.”

Yet throughout his career, in spite of his conscientious streamlining of the mechanisms of communication (by stripping away anything extraneous to bare-bones pictographic symbolism: surface texture, complex color, illusionistic space, expressive or subjective content), Baldessari has specifically engaged the often technical or arcane language of painting — a language presumed dead, with clues pointing directly at Professor B … in the library … with a slide ruler. This heretical current is most obvious in his early works like the classic Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell (“Subjects that sell well: Madonna and Child, landscapes, flower paintings, still lifes . …”) and the self-explanatory A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (both 1966–68), part of a loose series of professionally lettered texts on canvas deriving from art-teaching texts or theoretical writings — usually to put them to the test.

Object Lesson: Tips depicts no Madonnas or flowers but has sold repeatedly, most recently to Eli Broad for god-knows-how-much. Last year L.A. collectors Stuart and Judy Spence sold a much drier and less reproduced example from the same series, called Painting for Kubler (“This painting owes its existence to prior paintings. By liking this solution you should not be blocked in your continued acceptance of prior inventions … “) at auction for $1.6 million. That sounds pretty goddamn meaningful to me.

Often regarded as a systematic disavowal of painting in favor of words, Baldessari's work — even at its most conceptual — is deeply rooted in the syntax of picture making, in spite of its superficial piss taking. One of the first examples of what was to become his signature style of geometrically mutated mass media photographs, Violent Space Series: Two Stares Making a Point but Blocked by a Plane (for Malevich) (1976), shows a couple of noir gangster types in bewildered confrontation with the archetypal representation of nonrepresentative abstract painting, Kasemir Malevich's 1918 Suprematist Composition: White on White, its off-kilter blank square — signifying nothing — quoted verbatim.

The following year, at a point when Baldessari had effectively eliminated the tactility and materiality of actual paint from his craft, he produced what is probably my favorite of all his art works: Six Colorful Inside Jobs. Originally shot on 16mm from a camera suspended in the center of an empty studio, Inside Jobs consists simply of an overhead time-lapse shot of the artist repainting the room a different color each day for six days — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet — the primary and secondary hues that rough out the visible spectrum with which a visual artist plies his trade, and to which he is, for better or worse, physically confined.

The film is also an exquisite structuralist unraveling of the hypothetical 3-D space that opens out behind the flat surface of the picture plane (or did until that commie Malevich upset the applecart). Inside Jobs deserves to be seen — as it has elsewhere but not at LACMA — as a wall-filling video installation in a dedicated gallery.

Of course, Baldessari's art became wall-filling soon enough. From the early '80s his expansive, market-friendly semiotic bricollages — appropriated fragments of movie stills, advertisements, news photos and found snapshots arranged in intricate syntactical ballets and punctuated by areas of bright solid colors, metastasized to monumental proportions. The disappointment of some of his constituency, engendered by this shift toward the decorative side, was further compounded by the artist's retreat from the overt cleverness and irreverence of his '70s work.

In their stead, Baldessari deployed a system of symbolic punning that privileged pictographic literacy over verbal, while retaining his radical fixation on customized syntactical modifications. How are things ordered in order to make sense? If that design is inverted, does the resulting order still make sense? Does form follow function? What if it doesn't? Can it be rendered in archival plastic? Call it Kustom Konceptual Kulture — and it's served to deliver Baldessari's points for the subsequent three decades (including “Sediment” — his latest exhibit at Margo Leavin Gallery, which closed last week), through several deaths and rebirths of both painting and conceptual art, and maybe into a new currency as a back-to-basics semiotic syllabus for the next generation.

Kids these days, what's with them? Simultaneous visual and verbal illiterates constantly inundated by an exponentially complexifying visual and verbal sensorium. Hedonists alienated from their bodies and most of their senses — the audiovisual stream narrowed to white-hot high-pressure jet; like a sandblaster. Yet they can navigate it, somehow. Baldessari's bittersweet romance with pictures and words cuts to the quick of human perception. And his work may still suggest a way forward: Sit and spin. From the empty hub of communication, all data are decoration. It is a digital revolution of another entire order; profoundly anti-authoritarian but rhizomatically complicit, and constantly searching for a way out. Or in. Baldessari's prescription? When you paint yourself into a corner, simply open the door and step outside.

JOHN BALDESSARI: PURE BEAUTY | LACMA | 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | Through Sept. 12

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