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Donald Baechler. Photo: Brian Buckley.
Donald Baechler. Photo: Brian Buckley.

Donald Baechler (1956–2022)

Donald Baechler, who made a name for himself in New York’s 1980s East Village with his flat, playful, almost naïve-seeming neo-Expressionist paintings that frequently cast everyday objects as symbols, died April 4 in New York of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five. The news was announced by the New York gallery Cheim & Read, a longtime representative of the artist’s work. Arriving on the downtown scene alongside Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Baechler stood apart for his interest in German contemporary art and for his work’s childish aspect, which he insisted was not intentional. “It’s a reading of my work that I’ve never encouraged,” he told Whitehot Magazine’s Noah Becker in 2017. “I’m really not that interested in children’s art.” Writing in the pages of Artforum in 2010, Robert Pincus-Witten succinctly described Baechler’s oeuvre. “Like Buster Keaton, Donald Baechler nimbly treads an elegant path between the banana peel of the obvious and that of the obscure; one slip and his work falls into comedic bathos. But,” concluded Pincus-Witten, “the work alights without fail on the side of refinement and tact.”

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1956, Baechler as a teen worked as a janitor in a museum, where he first gained an appreciation for art and an intense desire to possess it. “It was summer and the museum was closed for one month to the public,” he told Lacanian Ink ’s Josefina Ayerza in 1991. “But I was still cleaning the floors every day and I felt like I owned them — it was a marvelous feeling. It was very unlikely that I would own paintings like these. I needed these things in my life and I had to start making them, there was no other way to have them.”

Baechler earned a BFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from New York’s Cooper Union. His interest in German art piqued by a group of exchange students he met at the latter institution, he departed for Frankfurt, where he studied at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste. On his return to New York in 1980, he took a job as a guard at Walter De Maria’s Earth Room and began exhibiting work at such downtown venues as Artists Space and Drawing Center. He struck up a friendship with gallerist Tony Shafrazi, who would show Baechler’s work alongside that of Basquiat, Haring, and Scharf, somewhat to Baechler’s discomfort, as he did not share those artists’ graffiti-oriented aesthetic. “I always used to tell people, ‘I’m an abstract artist before anything else,’” he told Bomb’s David Kapp in 2000. “For me, it’s always been more about line, form, balance and the edge of the canvas—all these silly formalist concerns—than it has been about subject matter or narrative or politics.”

Though he embraced a process involving a great deal of photographing and collecting and cataloguing, Baechler admitted that the lion’s share of his amassed trove never found its way into his work. “It’s necessary to accumulate all of these things to get to the point of what's important,” he told Kapp of the thousands of images occupying binders and cabinets in his studio. Though his work appears especially free and unforced, almost breezy at times, Baechler owed that painting did not come naturally to him and that he tended to overthink each work. “Is the edge of this line painted correctly? Should these drips be here or not? I think about these things for a long time before I change them, or I change them a hundred times before I get them right,” he told Ayersza. “I feel like I'm sculpting somehow. I'm always paring away at the image.” Baechler did in fact expand into sculpture, rendering these in his typically flat fashion, some of the works appearing almost two-dimensional. Perhaps the best known and most polarizing of these is the thirty-foot-high Walking Figure, 2008, the striding form of a woman, roughly fashioned from aluminum, that greets visitors at Suffolk County, New York’s Francis S. Gabreski Airport. 

Baechler exhibited widely during his lifetime, participating in the Bienal de São Paulo and the Whitney Biennial and enjoying solo shows at Kunsthalle Basel and Austria’s Museum der Moderne Salzburg. Among the institutions holding his work in their collections are the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

“I am quite uninterested in narrative readings of my pictures,” he told Pataphysics in 1991. “However, I don’t at all intend the pictures to be ‘meaningless.’ Meaning derives from an accrual of small episodes, the way a cucumber floats over the bald guy’s head, or whatever. ‘Supression of meaning’ may be ‘transient,’ in that a meaning, or several meanings will be revealed over time to anyone who wants to bother thinking about it. But I guess,” he concluded, “most art is like that.”