Jo Baer

Jo Baer discusses her new book

Left: Jo Baer. Right: Cover of Jo Baer’s Broadsides & Belles Lettres: Selected Writings and Interviews 1965–2010 (2010).

Jo Baer has been painting since the early 1960s and is known for her inimitable hard-edge abstractions as well as figurative works. Her book Broadsides & Belles Lettres: Selected Writings and Interviews 1965–2010 is available this month from Roma Publications; an event for the collection will be held at 192 Books in New York on July 7. Matthew Marks Gallery will open an exhibition of her and John Wesley’s paintings from the ’60s, curated by her son Josh Baer, on July 6.

I WROTE THESE ESSAYS when I had something to say. But it was always clear that I’m a much better painter. I never thought of myself as a writer. When the opportunity for this book came along a few years ago, I knew exactly what I wanted in it. After everything was Xeroxed and digitized, I worked with Roel Arkesteijn, whom Roma brought on as the editor, to refine it. In the process, I realized that one of the most important things to include was the “dialogues” I made with other artists from 1966–67, especially since these pieces had never been published before.

In 1967, Carl Andre gave me a poem, and I created a graphic analysis of it, which he in turn commented on; Mel Bochner wrote out the entries for existence and nonexistence from Roget’s Thesaurus; Sol LeWitt gave me a plan for his exhibition at Dwan Gallery in April of 1967; and so on. These are works I own and, of course, they’re very valuable to me. Most of them began with just sitting around at Max’s Kansas City and having drinks at night. I knew many of the Minimalists, and the Pop artists as well. At the time, I was also taking dance classes. I really admired Trisha Brown; also Yvonne Rainer, whose classes I took because I needed exercise. The picture in the book of me in Yvonne’s Trio A performance is funny: I have this pimp walk, one shoulder down, very aggressive!

While all of this was happening, I was trying to work in the studio and also tending house, taking care of my child, getting the groceries, and such. I remember it was a very busy time. In 1975, when my son went off to college, I moved to Ireland. But after six months there I realized what a truly strange person I am––I don’t do whimsical things, I didn’t intend to live in a castle, but that’s what I found, with fireplaces, no heat, one plug and light socket in every room, and I adored it. I felt very much at home. I still owe the coal man three hundred pounds.

This is my first hardcover book, and after living in Amsterdam for twenty-two years, I’ve noticed that I’ve had to struggle to remain a painter and not try to become a graphic artist. Collaborating on the layout was very interesting. The Dutch are the best graphic designers in the world. My work on the cover, Untitled (White Star), looks totally different; the designer took all the painterly stuff out of it. Happily, it still would never have occurred to me to do something like that. It looks very forceful, nearly sinister. When I was painting it in 1961, I was trying to do something subtle and ambiguous, but this cover is like BAM!

The book and the process of doing it has made me think a lot about control, which I’ve realized is very central to my work. I’ve always asked questions about control and who is controlling whom and so forth. I don’t see how you can be a woman and not have to think about control. I think it’s a very natural subject if you have your wits about you. Some of my drawings allude to brown rats displacing the black rats, or depict horse bridles and saddles. Revisioning the Parthenon, which will be produced as a booklet with the selected writings and interviews, is also about control.

Revisioning the Parthenon is still a work very much in progress. It is now about eighty pages long and explores and illustrates how Athens used the Parthenon as a propaganda machine. It was partially inspired by the first time I saw the Elgin Marbles in London at the British Museum. I was afraid to say this out loud, but I thought they were really fussy and funky, and I didn’t like them. It wasn’t until ten years later that I began to read about what was going on in Athens at the time, and the fact that they were the first institutional slave society in the world—not to mention how they disdained and treated women. It was no wonder I hated those marbles!