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Language and Art

Explore the role words played in Conceptual art’s emphasis on ideas over visual forms.


What Is Painting

John Baldessari
(American, born 1931)

1968. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 67 3/4 x 56 3/4" (172.1 x 144.1 cm)

To create What Is Painting, Baldessari had someone else stretch the canvas and hired a professional sign-painter to hand letter the words, which Baldessari took from a book about art appreciation. Baldessari simply had the idea for What Is Painting, while others realized it. The use of a definition of art and painting within a work of art brings to light what Baldessari sees as the irony in narrowly defining something that is so open to interpretation: “I’ve always been attracted to anyone that can blatantly say what art is. I just like that kind of audacity, or ignorance, one or the other.”

For Baldessari, “the wonderful irony about this piece is that it’s text. But in fact it is a painting, because it’s done with paint on canvas. So I’m really being very slyly ironic here in saying, ‘Well, this is what painting is.’”

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

An expression or statement in language or imagery that signifies its own opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.