Jo Baer: The Minimalist Years, 19651975by Jim Long
The Dia Foundations for The Arts
In 1977, in England at the Oxford Museum of Art, Ruth van Herpen kissed one of Jo Baer’s paintings, to "cheer it up" as she later explained. I didn’t know about that when I went to see the exhibition of Baer’s minimalist paintings at the Dia Foundation on West 22nd Street. It does help to explain why I was accompanied by a vaguely angelic young person throughout my visit to the show, and why I was offered a pencil to replace the ball-point pen I was taking notes with. The best place to look at a painting is right up close where the artist did the work, no matter that museum staff regard this privileged viewing position as right in the profile for potential kissers or slashers. If you can find a way to get right up close to a Jo Baer painting, the topography of decisions, corrections, and changes makes for a fascinating and rewarding history of the making of each work.
At a symposium early in the 1960s, the influential writer and critic Harold Rosenberg remarked that in New York "it’s usually taken for granted that a ‘generation’ represents about two years." This was especially true during the transition years between Abstract Expression-ism and the concerns of the artists who came along afterward—the art of the mid-to-late ’50s and early ’60s. A new prosperity, a new interest in culture, and a G.I. Bill that allowed those who fought the war to return to Europe to study art and music, or to take advantage of schools in America’s urban centers, created an ambitious group of artists from a broad variety of experience. The ’60s had its roots in the early ’50s: Pop art, color field painting, reductive abstraction, second generation abstract expressionism, and minimalism followed in close order, accompanied by a new interest in landscape, figure, and still-life painting. Each Generation included its own poets, musicians, actors, performers, composers, dancers, and playwrights. New York was the center of an international culture industry that was bright and becoming more and more assured of its position.
At the same symposium, Rosenberg noted that while the evidence was in on work that was being made in the "pads of Greenwich Village and the cockroach-infested lofts," it was still uncertain whether the rapidly growing university art departments were going to produce artists of appreciable stature. The artists who were currently pursuing reductive issues suggested by the work of Pollock, Kline, Reinhardt, Rothko, and Newman were street-smart, painting oriented artists like Al Held, Ellsworth Kelly, Ken Noland, and others who eschewed the high personal drama of the earlier generation of painters, and focused instead on issues of scale, color, surface, and technical innovation. Their "issues" came out of art, and the theoretical territory of the work was mainly Clement Greenberg’s.
The term "minimalism" was first used by the Russian émigré painter David Burliuk to describe paintings made by his fellow countryman John Graham (Ivan Dombrowsky) in an essay for an exhibition catalogue in 1929. The word describes painting whose "subject is the painting itself." In the 1960’s the term indicated work by a group of artists who challenged conventional ideas about drawing, painting, and sculpture. The first shot across the bow was probably the exhibition of Frank Stella’s 1959 black enamel "stripe" paintings. Stella, fresh out of Princeton, made paintings that did "nothing" except to call attention to painting’s frontal surface, and the edges that limit that area. Starting at the outer edge and working inward toward the center in concentric repetitions of two inch wide, more or less, bands of black hardware store paint, the newcomer from the Ivy League seemed hell-bent on taking the ‘art’ out of the art of painting. The work called not only for a new way to look at art, but also for a new way to write about it, and journals sprouted accordingly. The new art was grounded in new theory, and the artists were perfectly capable of writing about themselves and each other. Most of the names are familiar: Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Jo Baer, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt. The work engaged process and material as well as theory, and "theory" could include semiology, structuralism, epistemology, perception, gestalt theory. All the same, in the early years what you "got" was a sandbag or a fluorescent light fixture leaning against some gallery corner.
Jo Baer’s work of this period, currently on view at Dia, is a wonderful reminder of how "edgy" (not a word at the time) minimalism felt when it was fairly young. Over the years work by Judd, Flavin,and Andre have become old-master presences, but Baer’s work still feels smart, young and tough. A good reason to see the exhibition is to see how much more she put into the making of each work than was immediately apparent at the time, especially in her work of the 1970s. A 1967 note to Robert Morris describes her intentions in the terse, clipped prose that was the signature of minimalist practitioners: "…Every part is painted and contiguous to its neighbor; no part is above or below any other part. There is no hierarchy. There is no ambiguity. There is no illusion. There is no space or interval (time)". Language was political, and politics were in need of change. Democracy was being rebuilt, or at least there was some effort in that direction.
If Dan Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures refer obliquely to the paintings of Morris Louis, Baer’s paintings of the ’60s refer to Flavin’s work. In 1964 she distilled the grid of her 1962 "Graph Paper Paintings" to a single narrow band that delineates the square or rectangular space of the canvas area, or to a pair of bars that wrap the left and right edges. Along the edge, or inside the band is a narrower "stripe" of bright color. The large central area is painted white, sometimes up to or over the colored stripe or black band, which modulates the quality of light.The dark bands are painted up to, but not over the physical edge of the stretched surface, which, in it’s turn, is also painted up to the band. All these decisions make for combinations of subtle painterly intelligence, and the paintings are executed with extraordinary nuance. What is missing is some kind of major "event". In a Mondrian painting you get a pop of light—a flicker in the square intersection when two bands cross. Mondrian didn’t like it when it happened, but couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it and still keep his horizontal and vertical bands. Baer’s 1960 paintings seem to want to get this phenomenon—called irradiation, an area of increased brightness that occurs when the retinal rods and cones are stimulated by sharp contrasts—but it doesn’t really happen. You hope you’re seeing it… like you want to see the green flash on the sea when the sun drops below the horizon… but if it happens I missed it the day I was there. The potential, however, feels like it’s there; the works are architecturally elegant, and do achieve sensations of light, even though weak compared with one’s expectations.
The subsequent series, however, works as beautifully as Baer intended it to. Around 1970 she increased the depth of her stretchers to about four inches. Regarding the edge of her canvas as the width of an as yet non-existent line, she coaxes the line to grow out of its space, allowing it to broaden and move as shape and area. It’s an elegant, terrific idea. The shapes wrap themselves as tidy angles or curves of wonderful grace across and over the surface of the canvas, but the magic beauty of the work is how the forms appear out of "nowhere". The paintings are emphatically "made", and painted with great care. The initials "V." and "H." indicate vertical and horizontal. The Latinized word that follows is associative, as in "H.Arcuata"of 1971. Color in the paintings is usually restricted to earth tones and neutral gray, restrained and fairly predictable. The "work" is in the drawing, and the move from the restrictions of the linear black-and-white paintings to freer forms recalls Stella’s progression from black enamel to the shaped metallic paintings.
These works reward the eye and mind with many subtle shifts of perception, and an initial impression of contrivance (such as hanging the horizontal paintings an inch or so from the floor) soon yields to an appreciation of Baer’s lyric, meditative sense of architectural space. Similarly, the rigidity and unusual thickness of the stretchers is replaced by a sense of unfolding form, of organic associations. The works are important.Their simplicity is the result of many difficult and elegant decisions, and they possess a palpable intensity. The intensity may have been born out of frustration, for shortly after her mid-career retrospective Baer left New York for Ireland and began painting horses and mythic beasts.
The fact that she stopped making the kind of painting now on exhibit at Dia lends a distinctive finality to the work that one normally doesn’t experience when looking at an artist’s work. Nor does one expect to experience such delicate rigorousness, or rigorous delicacy, in formats as straightforward as those arrived at in these works. With her "free-form" paintings, Baer discovered unique territory, made it hers, inhabited it for a time, and moved on. Seeing the work together, thoughtfully installed, is a rare pleasure.