Jo Baer


Jo Baer, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012, oil on canvas, 87 x 118".

For the 31st São Paulo Bienal, Jo Baer is presenting “In the Land of the Giants,” 2009–13, a series that debuted at the Stedelijk Museum last year. Born in Seattle in 1929, Baer became associated with Minimalism in New York in the 1960s. In 1975—“due to Nixon”—she moved to the greener pastures of the Irish countryside, where she encountered the primary subjects of these works: ancient burial sites and Neolithic stones. Mapping and compressing various timelines and genealogies, Baer’s multifaceted, encoded canvases will be on view in the biennial from September 2 to December 7, 2014.

THESE PAINTINGS are inspired by my remembering of the Hurlstone, a large megalith set at a diagonal in a field in County Louth, Ireland, which was interesting to me for the enormous aperture set in it—a hole that, when I first looked south through it, seemed to suggest a path extending over the mountains all the way down to the huge earth-mound cemeteries of New Grange and Knowth. At the time it made me wonder: What have I stumbled on? Is this one of an ancient highway’s crossroads—sight through, and turn here? Only much later, in urban Amsterdam, after recalling and then thinking on this, did I put the hard edge down—set the ruler to the page—and that’s how these paintings began.

The Irish rural landscape had always struck me as odd. The castle I lived in from 1975 to 1982 was built in the twelfth century, and the ruins of a fifteenth-century church as well as part of a school for scribes sat at the top of one of my fields. In my neighborhood, you would also find standing megaliths and tractors in the same field, or a cottage next to a graveyard from 3000 BC—or 4000 BC even, with a horse there, chomping on grass—all of it just blatantly lying around with nobody noticing. I remember a farmer once bragging about one of my fields, “Oh yes, there used to be an earth mound here, but I plowed it away.” I told him that its ghosts must have been causing him a lot of bad luck.

In all, it was pretty remarkable to someone from the outside; in fact it hit me as close to surreal. Here were immense records of time, and as a history junkie, one of my evening pastimes was tracing ley lines on my local ordinance maps, which mark every megalith, ford, graveyard, and tomb. When I really began researching these old stones, I discovered that the Neolithic, mound-building North Atlantic maritime peoples who erected them were unique because they were the first farmers there, and landed in Ireland around 4500 BC. Their forebears had left Jericho around 7000 BC, colonizing as they sailed along the coasts of Iberia and Brittany and on to the British Isles. Two of the earliest court tombs in Ireland are still at their western landing point, sited on either side at the end of the aforementioned path—a ritual track. One finds other epic menhirs and lost henges clasping this line, and they surprised me into a full commitment to the entire Neolithic project.

These paintings are not about memories—mine or time’s—they are more about a variety of temporalities and their related forms. They are really abstract paintings made with images, as I believe that a painting ideally does not represent or illustrate a concept, but, rather—as it’s always been—is about its own very deep structure. I think it’s important that people are able to “read” these paintings like a map with lines that go from here to there.

The viewer will come to understand that I’m a magpie: For decades, I’ve collected photographs of odd things, pictures that seem to go together for me to make a subject. I used to look in second-hand bookstores for images I could use, and then I would trace them on a grid for my paintings. But as soon as I could use computers to grid up—circa 1995—I did. Typically, I compose some images on a field, print it all out in black and white, and then take colored pencils and change things around. I then scan the image back and play with it some more until I get what I think will look and be right. When it goes up onto the much larger surface of the canvas, more changes must be made. In these particular paintings, the process results in a sense of the compression of time and memory and imagery that is obvious: The paintings speak a digital language but the coding isn’t difficult to discern.

Right now I’m turning this series of six paintings into replicas—smaller pigment prints using oversize ink-jet printers and this beautiful Fabriano watercolor paper. The prints will have the feel and a sense of the paintings, if not the impact. Made for smaller exhibition spaces, they will be large enough to stand on their own in a room along with some of their smaller working drawings. Picasso got around an awful lot that way, didn’t he? I think I’m going to do this with all of my image output, at least with those of the past few years. I don’t see why paintings should just sit around in warehouses, never shown. Still, it took me nearly fifty years to get my so-called Minimalist work into the canon, and as this work is pretty much on the edge also, I’m not expecting an immediate popular response. However, perhaps pigment prints traveling about to today’s many available nonmuseum spaces might go some way towards abbreviating the process.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler