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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Jo Baer

Jo Baer's Minimalist art (1960-75)
If a friend invited you to accompany them to an art gallery to see the work of an important American painter and you walked into an exhibition like the one above, you might tend think your friend was playing a practical joke. Your first words might be something on the order of, "You dragged me all the way down here to see this?" Depending on the nature of your friendship your reaction might range from anger to laughter. You might next ask, "And who the hell is Joe Baer, anyway?" Well, Jo (no "e" on the end) IS an important American painter, not necessarily for any one particular painting, but for her life's work. You've no doubt sometime encountered a hand-printed note by a light switch with the words, "Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights." Well, Jo Baer was very much the last one to leave the tired old world of Modern Art (she was born in 1929, (which makes her eighty-six at the moment) but she is by no means ready to "turn out the lights." Jo Baer represents the last, dying gasp of the Modern Art era.
The last of the Minimalists, the last movement of the Modern Art era.
Josephine Gail Kleinberg came from an upper-middle-class family. Her mother, Hortense Kalisher Kleinberg, was a commercial artist, and a fierce proponent of women's rights. She instilled within her daughter a keen sense of independence. Her father was a successful grain commodities broker. Josephine first studied art at the Cornish College of the Arts, but because her mother wanted her to become a medical illustrator (the pay was much better), she majored in biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she attended from 1946 to 1949. She dropped out of school in her junior year to marry a fellow-student at the university. That marriage ended so quickly as to be hardly worth mentioning.

Demonstrating her mother's independent bent, Jo headed off to Israel to explore the realities of rural socialism on a kibbutz for a few months. She returned to New York City, in 1950 to study for a master's degree in psychology at the New School for Social Research. Baer went to school at night, while during the day working at an interior design studio as a draftsman and secretary. In 1953, she moved to Los Angeles and shortly thereafter married Richard Baer, a television writer. Their son, Joshua Baer, who later became an art dealer, writer, and consultant, was born in 1955. The couple were divorced in the late 1950s though she retained his name. During this time Baer began to paint and draw for the first time since her teen years. She became friends with Edward Kienholz and other local artists in the orbit of the Ferus Gallery. There she met the painter John Wesley, to whom she was married from 1960-1970. She, Wesley, and Joshua moved to New York in 1960, where they lived until 1975. After separating from Wesley, she was in a long-term relationship with the sculptor Robert Lawrance Lobe. The woman certainly seems to have had an independent love life.

Untitled (White Star), 1960-61, Jo Baer
Baer's work of the late 1950s was in the manner of Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko. Jasper Johns' paintings and sculpture also had an influence on the independent young painter. In 1960 Baer, perhaps seeing the "handwriting on the wall," rejected Abstract Expressionism, her work evolving into sparse, hard-edge non-objective painting. Two early important paintings in this style were Untitled (Black Star) and Untitled (White Star, above), both from 1960-1961. She then introduced an even more pared-down format by eliminating the image altogether. The central area of the canvas became completely white. In 1962 Baer began the Korean series (top), a group of sixteen canvases. The Koreans were given their name by the art dealer Richard Bellamy, who said that Baer's paintings were just as unknown as Korean art to most Westerners. The Koreans were composed of a dominant field of densely painted white enclosed by bands of sky blue and black that seem to shimmer and move. This optical illusion underscored Baer's focus on "the notion of light." Baer ascribed her inspiration for the Koreans to Samuel Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, which she was reading at the time. His observations about osmosis and diffusion through membranes caused Baer to examine the boundaries between spaces in her work (below).

Untitled (White Square Lavender), 1964-74, Jo Baer
Jo Baer was accepted as a peer in the burgeoning Minimalist movement by such artists as Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. In 1964 Flavin organized "Eleven Artists," an exhibition that was an important step in defining the key figures of Minimalism. He included Baer, along with himself, Judd, Flavin, LeWitt, Ward Jackson, Frank Stella, Irwin Fleminger, Larry Poons, Walter Darby Bannard, Robert Ryman, and Leo Valledor. In 1966 the Fischbach Gallery in New York gave Baer her first one-person show. That same year she was also represented in a survey exhibition of contemporary geometric abstraction at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as "10," a group exhibition at the Virginia Dwan Gallery co-curated by Ad Reinhardt and Robert Smithson. Both shows enshrined Baer and their other participants in the ranks of Minimalist movement.

Untitled, 1972, Jo Baer. When you have little or no content,
it's hard to come up with a decent title.
In the late 1960s, Baer was experimenting with color and shifting the visual focus of her work. While working on the series The Stations of the Spectrum (1967-1969), Baer painted over their white surfaces to make them gray. She then turned them into triptychs because she saw that these paintings had more wall power when they were hung together. Next, as she said, "I wanted to know what happens around a corner, which interested me as an optical thing." The result was the Wraparound paintings in which Baer painted thick black bands edged by blues, greens, oranges, and lavenders that went around the sides of the canvas--areas that artists customarily ignore, overlook, or cover with a frame (what we term "gallery wrap" today). More than ever, the action was at the edges.

At the Back of the North Wind, 1990, Jo Baer
In 1975, Baer decided she needed to distance herself from New York's art world. She moved to Smarmore Castle, a manor and working farm in County Louth, Ireland. There, in a new environment, the reality of horses, birds and other animals as well as the ways of country people began to influence her work. She began to paint quasi-figuratively, layering fragments of images of animal, human bodies and objects in muted, translucent colors (above). In October 1983, Baer wrote one of her best-known articles, "I am no longer an abstract artist," published in Art in America. Baer chronicled abstraction's demise, and in characterizing its meaninglessness in a vastly changing world, claimed openness, ambiguity, metaphor, symbolism, and hierarchical relationships as necessary building blocks of modern works. In 1984, Baer moved to Amsterdam, where she has lived ever since.

Memorial for an Art World 
Body (Nevermore),
 2009, Jo Baer
With the passing of Minimalism and the end to the Modern Art era, Jo Baer has moved on. In the 1990s Baer's paintings became more declarative, with richer colors, sharper light-dark contrasts, and more ambitious cultural and social criti-cism. She included images and symbols from American, European, Asian, and classical civilizations fused with quotations from literature and densely layered allusions to the themes of war, sexuality, the destruction of the natural world, greed, injustice, repression, trans-ience, and death.

Amphora Frieze, Jo Baer,
each pieces intended to be
hung side by side to form
a frieze.
Even for those familiar with the pretenses and illusions of the contemporary art world, Jo Baer's art is hard to take seriously. The same goes for Minimalism in general. Whereas many came to hate Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s, by the final denouement during the following decade which saw the ascent of Minimalism, it was obvious that the end of an era had arrived. Ordinary people didn't hate Minimalism, they simply ignored it, or if they reacted at all, they laughed at its emptiness, despite the best efforts of Jo Baer to give it meaning.

Glass Slippers, 1960, Jo Baer


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