WASHINGTON — THERE is an extraordinary canvas done in gray acrylic as you enter the John Baldessari retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden here. Titled ``Painting for Kubler,'' it stops you in your tracks, because there is nothing on this painting except that gull-gray paint and large, black, sign-painter's words: ``This painting owes its existence to prior paintings. By liking the solution, you should not be blocked in your continual acceptance of prior inventions. To attain this position, ideas of former painting had to be rethought in order to transcend former work. To like this painting, you will have to understand prior work. Ultimately the work will amalgamate with the existing body of knowledge.''
Museum captions indicate that Baldessari often brought already primed canvases and hired sign-painters for his minimalist works from this period. That work by Baldessari was done in 1967-69, and what follows, although different in appearance and mixed in media, reflects that basically iconoclastic attitude. Baldessari, who began as a conceptualist, was ticked off when a fellow artist said, ``All conceptual art is just pointing at things.'' So he hired 15 amateur artists to paint that very subject; six are shown at the Hirshhorn.
The Baldessari show - 70 mixed-media pieces, photographs, photo composites and ``text paintings'' - inexplicably includes these other artists' works of people pointing at lightbulbs, pointing at a box of twine, pointing at electric stove burners, pointing at a Hemingway paperback, pointing at a large beaker of water.
The artist's six-panel ``Cremation Project'' shows us six large color photos done at a crematorium of the burning of all the paintings he had done prior to 1967.
As the program notes at the entry of the show explain, ``Since the 1960s, John Baldessari has taken a subversive stance toward traditional definitions of art. He has abandoned painting in favor of using ready-made images from photographs, film stills, TV clips, and other media sources; explored various systems for ordering; and exposed the rules of depiction by folloiwng them literally. His work humorously questions how what we hear, see and read conveys attitudes and information.''
The artist is a specialist in mass-media imagery, who protests conventional views of art and current culture. He teaches ``Post-Studio Art'' at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles; his work has been shown at galleries across the country and abroad.
At times, you wonder as you wander through the show whether Baldessari has a certain contempt not only for conventions but also for art itself. A case in point is ``Floating,'' a series of photographs of a rundown old house with a front porch and a shuttered upstairs. Each photo is taken from exactly the same position, and they are nearly identiical, except for a rectangle of color (red, yellow, olive, blue, or lavender) placed over the upstairs window.
Perhaps the most dubious piece of art is ``The Pencil Story,'' two type-R prints on board with colored pencil. Printed underneath in white are the words: ``I had this old pencil on the dashboard of my car for a long time. Every time I saw it, I felt uncomfortable, since its point was so full and dirty. I always intended to sharpen it and finally couldn't bear it any longer and did sharpen it. I'm not sure, but I think that this has something to do with art.''
In ``Three Red Paintings,'' the artist has used black-and-white photographs with vinyl paint in scarlet or green as a backstop. Small, brightly colored stickers about the size of dimes are superimposed over the faces, as they are in a related Baldessari work, ``Bloody Sundae.''
This technique is repeated throughout the show, the blotted-out faces looking like colorful balloons.
A monograph on Baldessari by Coosje van Bruggen quotes the artist as saying that he kept a folder called ``Civic portraits'' full of newspaper photographs of people ``getting awards or pointing to some real estate, you know, in power, winning something....'' He thought the photographs were ugly but had a certain power, and he wanted to use them in his art. He stumbled on the answer while doing ``Buildings=Guns=People; Desire, Knowledge and Hope (With Smog),'' a fascinating, daunting installation not included in this show. The work is a collage of a huge red apples, kissing faces, handguns, a blue rose, and nearly 50 faceless photos.
This retrospective will be at the Hirshhorn through Jan. 6, 1991. It was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and has also traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
After the Hirshhorn stop, the show will be at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, Feb. 3 to April 28, 1991; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, July 10 to Oct. 13, 1991, and the Mus'ee d'Art Contemporain in Montreal.