Critics’ Picks

John Baeder, Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, pigment photograph, 11 x 14".

John Baeder, Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, pigment photograph, 11 x 14".

New York

John Baeder

ACA Galleries
529 West 20th Street 5th Floor
November 5, 2022–February 18, 2023

Since the late 1960s, Photorealist painters have been known for their scrupulous fidelity to the way life supposedly looks. Yet the genre’s domain is decidedly narrower than that of reality. Its earliest practitioners immersed us in the warped mirror that the United States held to itself at midcentury. Most Photorealists were born during the Depression and aged into a postwar America incongruous to the poor country of their youth, filled with thriving suburbs, unrepentant automobile worship, and metastasizing highways.

Among this group of artists is John Baeder (b. 1938), who is interested in the humbler, dustier textures of everyday life, not some high-def mimetic version of it. His retrospective here, “Looking Back 1972–2018,” encompasses paintings (in acrylic, oil, and watercolor) of old diners; photographic still lifes; a painstakingly crafted, five-and-a-half-foot-wide canvas depicting a promotional postcard for an octagonal-shaped cottage; and blown-up renderings of matchbook covers from a series that he began in 2018 while losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. The artist’s painterly photographs and photographic paintings envision an America with polished veneers and crumbling interiors. Baeder knows that vibrant surfaces can hold sadness inside. 

Take the still-life photograph Homage to Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty, 2012, which features a scale-model 1934 Packard, faux roses, bottles of vintage scents, and a handwritten recipe book from the Budapest perfume factory that Nazis seized from Baeder’s Jewish forebears before condemning them to Auschwitz—a chilling revelation from a deceptively innocent-looking tableau. Miss America, 2018, one of Baeder’s matchbook-cover paintings, renders the chrome of the titular railcar diner without any details, offering only flat, cartoonish washes of silver paint. The color may be seductive, but ultimately Baeder forces us to acknowledge the thinness of the American enterprise.