On ViewMuseum Ludwig Cologne
May 25 – August 25, 2013
Jo Baer remains one of the foremost practitioners of Minimalism, having contributed to the movement many paintings and drawings, as well as writings that fueled the theoretical debates of the time. Baer’s famous letter to the editor of Artforum in 1967, a rebuttal of Donald Judd and Robert Morris’s assertion in that publication that painting was inferior to sculpture, remains a key text from a seminal period when certain voices were a lot louder than others. This summer’s exhibition at the Museum Ludwig was originally conceived as a presentation of Baer’s minimalist works and was later expanded to cover the artist’s entire output, with an emphasis on early drawings. As a result, links and ruptures, continuities and turns in her creative path can now be traced and appreciated fully, as can the beauty and clarity of each individual work. Baer’s endeavor has always been concerned with painting––and not with fashions and movements––which has led to some historical misunderstanding of her work, righted here.
The core of the exhibition comprises the museum’s 2010 acquisition of nine drawings from the early 1960s. A later portfolio of silkscreens, “Cardinations” (1974), was added to the collection shortly afterward and goes on view here for the first time. Also included are many beautiful gouache and graph paper drawings from the 1960s, alongside Baer’s later figurative paintings. The paintings, begun in Europe in the mid-1970s, display an abiding interest in the art of antiquity and prehistoric times that is evident even in the earlier drawings. What is at stake for Baer is the question of how to release or communicate ideas and perceptions through the medium of painting; within which category—the abstract or the representational, the minimal or symbolic—is not the issue.
At one point during the 1960s, Baer described her work as “pictures that picture their own shape,” thus aligning her paintings with the sculptural ethos of the time without needing to abandon painting itself. In Mel Bochner’s 1966 review of the major exhibition Systemic Painting at the Guggenheim, he remarked that, “The ambiguity of Jo Baer’s work is not created by its elements, but by its existence. Her paintings are not ‘about’ painting either as activity or thing…. [They are] an objectification of the nothing they contain.” Baer’s content is therefore very specific––and very far from the myriad painters today who claim that their work is “about painting,” as if that were something new.
The print portfolio “Cardinations,” published in 1974 by Brooke Alexander, reiterates and develops aspects of Baer’s longstanding interest in formal motifs that read as signs. Alert to the materials at hand and taking nothing for granted, here Baer responds to the inherent differences between an object (a painting) and a page (a print). The symbols inserted here in a circular array—1 to 9—are the cardinal numbers, precursors of Sanskrit numerals. Looking from one to the next in sequence, the “Cardinations” appear to turn and inscribe space, each connected to, but completely different from the others, like an idea being turned over in the mind. Six of the “Cardinations” hang on one wall, three on either side of the doorway to the next gallery; centered in this doorway on the far wall is the 6-foot-square oil “Untitled (White Star)” (1960-61). It’s a stunning juxtaposition, as the painting and the silkscreens evince both a subtle precision and a far-ranging openness to change.
From the mid-1970s Baer pursued signs as vital images, referring to a concept of “radical figuration” to explain the new focus of her work. The narrow vertical “Facing (Towards/Away)” (1977), an oil painting using mostly earth colors, features fragments of a figure that could also be an ambiguous animal. It clearly references cave painting in its simple shading and gray/black partial outlines. Though such a turn toward figuration signaled a big change formally, Baer continued to look at shapes and ideas in search of something elemental—beyond reach and deeper in sophistication than whatever is, at any one moment, perceived as the most advanced strategy in art-making.