John Baldessari on Rene Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’ at LACMA

Rene Magritte's "The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)," 1929 oil on canvas.

This is not a great painting. I would call it an illustration, and like Norman Rockwell images, it looks better in reproduction. But 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.

I think about my own piece in the LACMA collection, “Wrong,” also a balance of visual and verbal information. It’s the image where I’m standing in front of the palm tree and there’s just one word below: WRONG. Kodak used to have a printing guide of common picture-taking mistakes. One of the things it said is don’t stand in front of a tree, it would look like the tree is growing out of your head.


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. It would be more au courant to say this is not a cigarette, maybe. Or it could be a doorknob, a glass, a coffee cup, anything really. 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.

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— John Baldessari, as told to Jori Finkel



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