Monday, October 21, 2013
Visual art isn’t usually the main attraction at a library, but it has definitely become more prominent at San Diego's brand new central library.
The space offers specially commissioned works like the de la Torre brothers’ sumptuously psychedelic central elevator and Roy McMakin's cheerful installation of blue furniture on the eighth floor, in addition to a cozy rooftop sculpture court and a modest gallery space just beneath the sheltering dome.
Scattered throughout the building, in hallways, meeting rooms and practically every suitable nook and cranny, are approximately 150 works from the city of San Diego's Civic Art Collection. Landscapes and portraits by early 20th century painters are displayed in the special collections rooms, while fans of more contemporary art might be tickled to discover prints by artists such as Frank Stella and Louise Nevelson peeking out from behind the stacks.
There are plenty of San Diego artists in the Civic Art Collection, thanks to former library curator Mark Elliot Lugo's focus on deserving mid-career local artists. Lugo singlehandedly led the library's dynamic Visual Arts Program from 1997-2012.
Of these local artists, Russell W. Baldwin gets the prize for the most works on view with 13 examples (plus one organizers are hoping to find room for). There's a Baldwin hanging on practically every floor and he deserves every square inch of this wall space. Most of the works encourage the viewer to read and consider text, even if it's only a word or two etched in glass or smooth rock. They're a great fit for the library.
One of his paintings in the library has no paint. Instead, framed in a familiar square defined by clean and simple wood stripping, there are two fields of texture: an area of plain canvas that meets an upper section of highly polished black stone. It's a serene, minimalist composition straight out of the early 1970s but punctuated by a single line of text: YOU CAN TAKE ART FOR GRANITE. Baldwin employed a professional headstone carver to flawlessly etch the words into the black surface.
Another Baldwin piece hanging on the fifth floor plays with traditional notions of painting and sculpture. It presents the viewer with the back of a painting, the side that's never displayed –with wood stretcher bars, hanging wire, staples, etc., completely covered by a thin layer of lead. It's from Baldwin's 1980 Sculpture of a Painting series, which focused exclusively on the banal details of paintings fabricated in metal and seen from behind.
Baldwin was a third-generation San Diegan who grew up in Point Loma and later earned his bachelor's and master's of arts at San Diego State College (now SDSU) where he studied in the late 1950s and early '60s with Ilse Ruocco, John Dirks, Everett Gee Jackson and Martha Longenecker. His early paintings and sculpture won prizes in group shows at the Fine Arts Gallery (now SDMA), the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Art Center in La Jolla (now MCASD). One of his late 1950s paintings from the MCASD collection can be seen in the museum's current downtown exhibit, “The Very Large Array.” Baldwin's work was also included in a three-person show with his friends Richard Allen Morris and John Baldessari in 2010 at Palomar College.
Baldwin taught briefly at Southwestern College along with another close friend and important San Diego artist, Bob Matheny, until he joined the art department at Palomar College in 1965. That same year, renowned art collector Joseph Hirshhorn acquired two of Baldwin's sculptures after seeing the artist's one-person exhibition at the La Jolla Museum of Art (now MCASD). A year or so later, most of Hirshhorn's collection was given to the federal government and became the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.
Baldwin retired from Palomar in 1986 and sadly ended his own life in 2008, but he is remembered for his use of ambiguous language and idiosyncratic puns, as well as his distinctive ability "to integrate concept with the object," as Mark Elliot Lugo wrote in the notes for what turned out to be Baldwin's final one-person show in 2003 at the Pacific Beach Library. The exhibition was called “RUSSELL BALDWIN: The Last Picture Show.”
The conceptual aspect in much of Baldwin's work could be connected to the work of Baldessari, but also perhaps to Matheny, since all three of these artists were beginning to work with language and text while observing one another's discoveries as friends and colleagues during the 1960s. They all seemed to delight in making art about art and shared irreverent senses of humor. But while Baldessari largely withdrew from the traditional processes of art making, Baldwin (who was once a member of the Allied Craftsmen) combined his own impeccable craftsmanship with commercial products or services from outside the realm of the studio.
Baldwin and several of his collectors donated the fourteen works over a period of several years in support of Lugo's visual arts program. When Lugo retired from the library position in April 2012, however, it was San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture interim executive director Dana Springs who ultimately gave the Baldwin works their current prominence in the new central library.
What Springs enjoys most about Baldwin's work is "his use of cheeky, sometimes barbed humor." She adds that "his presentation of concepts through a simple aesthetic across multiple media makes his work both challenging and inviting - perfect for long-term exhibition in a public setting like the central library." It's a long-term setting where Baldwin's work will be seen by more people than ever. And if some library goers are a bit puzzled by what they see, that's okay. Baldwin was used to that. He would have been so pleased.