Retrospective

From the Archives: Lucy R. Lippard on Jo Baer’s Beguiling Paintings, in 1972

Installation view of Jo Baer's paintings in the Whitney Biennial.COURTESY GALERIE BARBARA THUMM, BERLIN/MATTHEW CARASELLA/COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

Installation view of Jo Baer’s paintings in the Whitney Biennial.

COURTESY GALERIE BARBARA THUMM, BERLIN/MATTHEW CARASELLA/COLLECTION OF THE ARTIST

One of the oldest participants in this year’s Whitney Biennial is Jo Baer, who, in the 1960s, developed a following for her minimalist canvases that often took the form of white monochromes bordered by a frame of black paint and a thin strip of color. The newer Whitney Biennial works are unusual for Baer. They feature what appear to be various art-historical scenes—some characters from a Picasso painting, a thinly painted landscape—mashed together, but they are, in their own way, still true to Baer’s quest to explore a very tough question: what makes a painting? Reviewing a show of five Baer works in the May 1972 issue of ARTnews, Lucy R. Lippard pondered something similar. Her review, reprinted below, follows in full. —Alex Greenberger

“Color at the Edge”
By Lucy R. Lippard
May 1972

Complication of imagery and shift of format characterize Jo Baer’s recent paintings; she exhibits five new works at the Lo Giudice gallery, New York, this month

It seems incredible that there has never been an article written on Jo Baer, that she has had only three one-woman shows since arriving in New York from California in 1960, that the only institutional recognition of her stature has been a National Endowment grant several years ago. Incredible because she certainly has one of the most impressive “underground” reputations in New York among artists and those who listen to artists. True, some of this can be attributed to Baer’s own combined integrity and recalcitrance. She has known for a long time what she wants and has been willing to wait for it. A small show was finally planned at the Whitney for this year, but she cancelled it when the Museum cut in half the space available to her. Another exhibition at Pasadena was cancelled for bureaucratic reasons. Her exhibition of work from 1962-63 at the School of Visual Arts Gallery in 1971 was stunning in its subtlety and assurance, one of the most beautiful (i.e. strong and exhilarating) shows I saw that season; the most attention it received was a longish review in Artforum. Since 1966 Baer has been in such museum shows as the Guggenheim’s “Systemic Painting,” Dokumenta IV, the Corcoran Biennial, the Whitney Annual. Paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. She has published a few rigorously intelligent (and again, recalcitrant) statements and articles. Her work and her head are respected and admired by artists and critics as diverse as Noland, LeWitt, Judd, Serra, Wesley, Greenberg, Dan Graham, and me. Why, then, is hers still an underground reputation? It is not just because she is a woman, and a woman who can take care of herself better than many men. For any sort of explanation one has to turn to the obvious source—her work.

Baer’s paintings should not be as hard to take as they apparently are. From 1962 through 1969 she worked within a single scheme: a flat white (or very pale grey) painted canvas with a narrow black border either intricately broken by fine color lines in the upper, heavier margin, or evenly lined with a narrower inner border of greyed (though often intense) color—a luminescent shadow rather than a direct contrast. This inner border serves as a binding agent for the whole painting. It mediates the encounter of the dark edge and light field, while adding an almost imperceptible tension; and it deters the white center from recoiling into space and becoming a window. These paintings (and a 1963 set of “graph paper” canvases) are serial in the sense that they often were painted and hung in groups so that the colors of the different inner borders could quietly relate to each other as a multiple experience. The color, however, is not chosen by any hard system. Baer has always worked intuitively and her art has been misunderstood in the light of other, far more systematic artists, whose “minimalism” relates visually to hers.

In the spring of 1969, Baer began a set of canvases in which the fully enclosing border was abandoned for a more complex scheme that wrapped around the side edges. The white-grey surface remained the same, but these edges (always a fundamental concern) took on a new weight, and the surfaces acquired a new tautness. Each side edge is banded by a vertical black rectangle not reaching to the top or the bottom margin, enclosing a second rectangle outlined by thin lines of color off-center, so that the side-to-front surface reads: color line, wide black inner rectangle, stretcher edge, color line, black border. Writing about Baer in 1966, I said she did not seem greatly interested in space, at least as an active element. The 1969 decision to move around the edges and thus to remark further the object quality of the stretched canvas proves me wrong, as do the five new paintings (1969-71) that are the direct results of this more blatant manipulation of spatial properties, the instrument of which remains color.

These “transitional” sets with wrap-around edge, still restricted to a single color per canvas, were in fact made simultaneously with the first of the new works and Baer had also attempted something similar with earlier work. It took her about a year to adjust to a still freer format. I was quite shocked when I first saw the exotic colors, the diagonal and curved forms, and the almost sculptural placement if the canvases on the wall. Eventually I realized that this was not a “style change” in any sense, but simply a radical extension of long-standing concerns. The first completed painting, a long horizontal called H. Pandurata (the titles obliquely refer to passion for orchids, which she grows), is hung 1 inch (the width of the lumber) above the floor. The series alternates between horizontal and vertical, as though Baer were forcing herself to tackle new problems every time she might have verged on solving old ones. The verticals hang 4 inches (the depth of the stretcher) off the floor, and the effect is the same—the darkly shadowed area off the wall between the lower edge of the canvas and the floor becomes an integral part of the painting.

This curious installation is not new for Baer. She has hung all her shows much lower than the conventional eye-to-center level practices in most museums and galleries, so that the authoritative symmetry of the configurations is balanced delicately against an asymmetrical placement in the larger white space of the room. The effect with the older work was of course to understate the absorbent potential of the central “void” and to focus the viewer’s gaze on a crucial point of the painting—the upper border where black, color, and white meet.

With the new work, a very low installation is particularly necessary because the frontal surface is again de-emphasized, this time by the intensity of the activity on and around the edges. Pandurata is an extended shallow box, at first glance very simply and perhaps arbitrarily altered by a small black rectangle at the upper left (its own lower edge lined by a greyed pink), which becomes a triangular cut across the top edge’s surface and a second olive-green triangle which reverses the procedure by becoming a rectangle on the top surface; a third triangle moves around the edge to become a black rectangle. Altogether the feeling is much like that of the old work, with the same crisp and compact tension occurring where black and quiet color lines move against the central field. Like all of Baer’s paintings, Pandurata is about color and what the most minute amount of color can do in terms of power. But it is also, and this is new, about distance. It forces perceptual insights further than the older work. And there is this jazzy look to be dealt with—the triangles which are so attenuated that they seem to bow out and curve the surface, the shapes which turn with such ease into lines.

The second painting, V. Speculum, also appears relatively simple, though perhaps less successfully. I tend to like the three horizontals in the series better than the two verticals, a response I mistrust, knowing my own proclivity for horizontal spaces, but one which is, I think, also borne out by the fact that there is something anthropomorphically awkward about a vertical “box”. But Baer has always avoided a landscape space by painting the surface in vertical strokes. V. Speculum consists of two chunky truncated triangles and some very complex linear breaks and shadow effects (on the right side edge there is a double shadow which is cast on the wall when the canvas is hung correctly a bit away from the wall). In none of these works do the accenting lines on the front follow around the corner, and this brittle disjunction verges at times on fussiness, though it would clearly have been too easy and too unambiguous (for a painter like Baer) to have had them coincide with the larger forms. Here again the effect is of a curved surface, perhaps partly due to a strong sense of movement around the corners.

The third image is H. Tenebrosa. At this point Baer seems to have become much more at ease with the diagonals and their effects, to the extent that she had to watch out for slickness (which she did successfully; the avoidance of that imminent danger intensifies the experience). It incisively exploits the knife edges, the graceful rapid diagonal. A centered, edge-to-edge and extremely extended triangle along the bottom edge has virtually no apex; this super-refinement makes it as much a curve as any shape I’ve seen that isn’t a curve. The use of line her is almost punning—for instance a white line along the edge of the top right which remarks and divides a brown form. Only two surfaces are painted; there is nothing on the sides, but the top surface is so complex I despair of describing it, and can say only that it concerns color and light acting on surface in various situations. Baer’s white frontal field is unassuming and by all rights should be read negatively. But it doesn’t. It is, finally, the most powerful element in the paintings. Though the eye first rushes to the sides where the forms and lines provide food for perception and thought, it always returns, apprehensively, toward the center. I had the curious impression that the frontal space was a great passive “victim,” like a Queen ant, dependent on but totally sovereign over her victimizers, through sheer detachment.

V. Lurida, pale and wan, is the strangest of the set. I didn’t like it at all when I first saw it about a year ago, partly because its unassuming colors, lack of strong contrasts, and plant-like shapes repelled me in relation to what I expected of Baer’s work; partly because I was not (am still not) sure it works; partly because I associate those colors and circle segments with Art Deco, and maybe Jo’s orchids. This is somehow a slyer painting than the others, though perhaps I was fooled by the others’ immediate impression of forthrightness; they are, after all, quite sly too, just not so openly. In any case, Lurida’s yellows, greys, grey-greens and pale blues, roughly painted but a little too prettily delineated by darker lines (necessary so the colors don’t wash into each other), perform an exercise in arcs; the circle drafted on the left is reversed on the right, and moves around the different points on the two sides for further alterations. The colors change very subtly for different light effects; shadows seem particularly important in this canvas. (I keep staring at its serpentine shapes and the fact that the surface is vertically banded in five almost imperceptibly graded whites, and I still don’t like it, though I grudgingly admire its eccentricity. I turn away, drink some coffee and talk, then turn around again toward the painting, from a distance, without meaning to look at it, and suddenly I look up and, caught unaware, like it for the first time. I don’t know why—an irrational act directly instigated by the work itself.)

H. Arcuata, the most recent work (though it was done over a period of 2 ½ to 3 years), is a fast, clean, luscious painting, even brilliant. It makes H. Tenebrosa seem austere and withdrawn. The shapes curve unashamedly over the top surface and the top of the front plane. The two shapes seen frontally are simultaneously discordant and gracefully at ease with each other. There is a curious incongruity between the kind of shape on the left (blunt, bright, aggressive) and on the right (subtle, almost deceptively bland, smooth as a bladed wing). The transition is made effortlessly on the top surface where the blunt shape becomes graceful and the graceful one becomes oddly neutral. The colors too are consciously at odds and then reconciled, providing a constant play between bright and dulled, well lit and shadowed, rapid and slow: The thin lines comes into their own as a prime vehicle of formal wit as they move through value and hue changes. The brick red turns an edge into vibrant orange; grey-green becomes a lurid mint deftly manipulating the light inherent in the paints and in the installation, as though the artist were able to make the sun go in and come out on different areas of the canvas. Altogether Arcuata is a warm painting, with a clearly cream-colored plane. A strange effect on the right side makes that cream appear dark at the top (as it is), but when below it turns to the same value as the lighter frontal plane, there is absolutely no dividing line, not even a perceptible shadow effect.

This ability to make a change so subtle (straight to curve, light to dark) that it does not so much fool as wholly convince the eye, is something Baer has always had, but now she cut it loose from geometrical moderation. For those with the patience to look and look, she can provide endless delights on the level of significant detail. (It also explains why five paintings took three years to make). One is also forced to deal spatially with three surfaces at once, wherever one stands; and to deal as well with the knowledge that there is still a fourth surface which will alter what one thinks one sees from this angle. In addition, each painting has twice as many colors in it as meet the eye, since each color is altered according to its circumstances and each color, changing, provides a different kind of encounter with the others, a fact one recognizes only dimly because these effects are so finely drawn by compensation for and with lighting.

The edges of Arcuata are twice invisibly changed by fine black wedges which slice off thin sections of the supports, merging with the real shadows between canvas and wall in a perpetual distortion so unexpected it is almost unrecognizable. Writing this, I am reminded of writing several years ago on “Perverse Perspectives” (Stella, Hinman, Park Place group—work that was later labeled “Abstract Illusionism”) not because there is any direct relationship between what those artists were doing and Baer is doing, but because the experience is so different. There is nothing perverse about these five paintings. Illusionism is not what they are about. Whatever spatial complications operate around the physical properties of the support, the surface plane is never made to look like anything but what it is; the colors lie on the same plane. These canvases are the products of a long-standing commitment to painting, (see Baer’s reasoned argument with Morris’ and Judd’s evangelical condemnation of painting in favor of three-dimensional art, Artforum, Sept. 1967) but now is respected again in this aimless time of no movements, no bandwagons to jump on. The positions of artists like Ryman, Mangold, Baer, who resisted the “escape” into sculpture or colorful illusionism in the mid-’60s and followed their own obsessions with little overground encouragement, today seem exemplary.

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