The Person Who Wants Everything

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

John Baldessari, "Tincture of a Person Who Wants Everything," Mixed Media, 1996. Courtesy Jancar Gallery.

Alex Van Gelder had a rare privilege: he spent the last year of Louise Bourgeois’s life in her town house, photographing her. His opulent, raw images of the art goddess appear in the September issue of W Magazine, along with idiosyncratic tributes by artists and friends (Wendy Williams remembers a dinner of octopus and alcohol-soaked Klondike Bars, and Tracy Emin talks about how men peak early while women come and come). According to Van Gelder, Louise saw the photographs as an extension of her own work, and of course she did—despite its sensuous irreverence, her work has always been surprisingly holistic. It’s about being a whole package, about pulling psychology and body together seamlessly and forcefully.

In Van Gelder’s images, Louise always has props or accessories of some sort that make her appear “complete,” like  she did in the iconic portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe for which she brought her own sculpted phallus (she knew Mapplethorpe liked big penises and didn’t want to be anything short of well-endowed). One of Van Gelder’s photographs shows her in a black beanie, black sweater, and a sumptuous white fur coat with a collar that rises up around her head. You could disappear in a coat like that, though, naturally, Louise doesn’t. Wearing a dour expression, she looks like she could be a bear, a snow queen and the pope all at once.

Alex Van Gelder, portraits of Louise Bourgeois, 2010. Via W Magazine.

The coat reminds me of The Indian Uprising, a story by Donald Barthelme in which young rebels strategize about love and combat. One character, Kenneth, has a girlfriend of whom his friends are suspicious. “That girl is not in love with Kenneth,” says one to another, “she is in love with his coat. When she is not wearing it, she is huddling under it. Once I caught it going down the stairs by itself. I looked inside: Sylvia.” That Sylvia might be in love with both Kenneth and the coat, or that loving the coat might be a way of loving Kenneth, doesn’t seem to occur to either of them. People who love, or want, too many things at once are confusing.

John Baldessari made his Tincture of a Person Who Wants Everything in 1996, but it hadn’t been shown until last month, when it appeared in Jancar Gallery’s Supernatural exhibition, a show of “objects produced to understand the larger world and control one’s position within it.” It’s a red, blue and white, wall-mounted medicine bottle that looks very official. Purportedly from Midas Welby Pharmacy at 777 King Street, New York, NY 10014–an address that, a friend informed me, doesn’t exist and, if it did, would be in the Hudson River–, the bottle explains that to become the “Person Who Wants Everything,” one drop of the tincture should be added to seven ounces of water. This should be repeated daily until the tincture is gone. No refills are permitted, and patients may experience swelling of the head.

It’s been Baldessari’s summer. His work has been all over Los Angeles, at Jancar Gallery, Thomas Solomon Gallery, Margo Leavin Gallery, Gemini G.E.L. and, most notably, in Pure Beauty, a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art (Rebecca Taylor wrote in detail about Pure Beauty for Huffingtion Post). If wanting to be everywhere, think about anything and be anyone is the same as wanting everything, then Baldessari has taken, or simply is, his own tincture. Bucking rules and making new ones, breaking down and building up, comparing and recording, co-opting, inhabiting,  measuring, reveling and intervening: Baldessari does all of this while maintaining a formalist’s fixation on composition.

John Baldessari, "Brain/Cloud (With Seascape and Palm Tree)," 2009.

Walking through Pure Beauty feels like walking through Baldessari’s brain, and it’s the brain of someone who’s curious and insatiable and badly wants to be smart and agile–he is smart and agile, of course, but it’s the wanting that drives the work.

In the retrospective’s final gallery space, insatiability hits an unfortunate stand still. Baldessari has installed his Brain/Cloud, a large white brain that protrudes from the wall against the backdrop of a blue sky. It’s as if there’s been a bit too much swelling of the head. As visitors walk past, a time-delayed live video feed catches their movement and plays it back to them seconds later, so they can watch themselves watching the brain. Like Louise Bourgeois’s matronly Maman sculptures,  the brain embodies all Baldessari has probed over his decades-long career. But Baldessari is not holistic like Louise. His wants contradict each other, and wandering endlessly around in the crevices of what a brain can be, do and desire should mean never actually seeing that brain as one unified thing.