John Baldessari Isn’t Smoking Whatever Is in Rene Magritte’s Pipe


In the latest edition of the Los Angeles Times’s “It Speaks to Me” feature, L.A.-based conceptual art legend John Baldessari takes a close look at René Magritte‘s infamous 1929 painting “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe),” a version of which is in LACMA‘s permanent collection. “This is not a great painting,” Baldessari begins. “I would call it an illustration, and like Norman Rockwell images, it looks better in reproduction.”

But don’t worry, like a man pensively puffing into the faintly glowing embers of his tobacco pipe, Baldessari eventually warms to the iconic surrealist masterpiece. He concedes that “it’s a great lesson of a painting. I’ve always felt that a word and image are of equal value, and that’s certainly what this painting is about.”

Baldessari, who has inherited the Belgian painter’s knack for juxtaposing image and text on sparse backdrops, and for obscuring the faces of figures in his works with circular objects, also connects “The Treachery of Images” to his own practice. “I think about my own piece in the LACMA collection, ‘Wrong,’ also a balance of visual and verbal information,” he tells the L.A. Times’s Jori Finkel. “It’s the image where I’m standing in front of the palm tree and there’s just one word below: WRONG.”

Baldessari concludes his musings on a fittingly surrealist note. “Now I don’t know if kids today know what a pipe is, besides something you smoke dope in, and Magritte’s pipe is certainly not one of those,” he helpfully points out. “Last night I was having dinner with an artist friend of mine and he said Magritte had a pipe in the shape of a shoe. If that was the case, and he painted that, then people would really get confused.”

Read Baldessari’s analysis of Magritte’s pipe painting in full here.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Image: René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe),” 1929. Via Wikipaintings.)