Like a giant bear, John Baldessari sat in the first floor office of Tracy Williams Gallery last Friday evening, nursing a broken foot, while his former student Matt Mullican gave onlookers an animated tour of their joint show, in which the artists jousted for a year by creating pieces in response to each other.
The battle began when John the Bald gave Matt the Mullet a choice of photographs, including one of Burt Reynolds with a chimp. Matt, however, chose a kind of co-ed group summer-camp shot. And the volleys commenced, with Baldessari hurling signifiers and Mullican dodging the attacks with words. Matt created a character out of the camp photo called Leonard Mark, and John responded with a beautiful suite of colored figures.
Jasper Johns-like, Leonard Mark ended up as a ghost in Mullican’s bathtub, from which he extracted a yellow tile. Baldessari, whose contributions to this show, called "Pong," are aggressively titled Pong: Retort and Pong: Riposte, stamped a red "FILE" on the tile, which forced Matt to Google "Tile," find the word "tilefish" and actually cook and eat such a fish, which apparently tastes pretty funky.
Impatient with such improvisation, Johnny Bald shuts the game down with a brace of his signature colored circles, creating a stoplight. Mullican conceded with a large red lettered disc. Is Baldessari the winner? I give the game to Mullican, who lured the bear out of his cave to create some of the least controlling pieces he has made in a long time. Mullican wanders far afield between word and action to channel his mentor’s aggression. You can have the whole significant installation by writing Tracy Williams a check for $300,000, the price of one pocketsize Elizabeth Peyton. For this tantalizing pas de deux between the King of California and one of the stars of this year’s Whitney Biennial, Mr. Mullican, that’s a bargain.
"Pong: A Collaboration with John Baldessari and Matt Mullican," May 2-June 28, 2008, at Tracy Williams, Ltd., 313 West 4th Street, New York, N.Y. 10014
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).