PRINT March 1963

Martin Baer (1894–1961)

“WHOSOEVER LOVES NOT PICTURE, is injurious to truth, and all the wisdom of poetry.”—so Ben Johnson wrote, and his dictum rings oddly indeed today, if not at odds with the dominant view and use of art in our time. For, though paintings are highly valued as objects of conspicuous expenditure, as treasures of world conquest, and as energies of a changing culture, picture is all but despised. Men seeking to enrich their sensibilities and to improve their status grow impatient with the artist for whom vision is primary.

To dig the work of Martin Baer we have to follow our sense of the painter picturing his world. Aware as he is, as we see that awareness even in his early student work, of composition and of medium, his primary search in art is neither for esthetic values nor for the expression of an emotion (I am thinking here of the motor abstractions of American art in the ’40s and ’50s of this century, now debased in the painting of museum pictures), but his search is for a picture he apprehends. He seeks to illustrate aspects of a humanity in things.

The lake studies, where we see the range of his formal play, where there is elegance and subtlety that show an esthetic, are ultimately related to his feeling for the human condition. The thinness, the patient bearing and the poverty of the models in Germany during his student days in the ’20s, or the sadness of experiences lingering in the faces of Spanish and North African gypsies; the most human associations in kitchen still-life and garden landscape of geraniums; the ready reference to fire and water in the Chinese abstractions done in San Francisco (and here again, the reference to the colors of the geranium leaf and flower); the final portraits of children in their serious grace, and the grave studies of cloths in their folds: the aim to picture what humanity is remains constant.

So that we see a fruition of the lake studies in the series of portraits done of the old Indian woman. For a perspective of Martin Baer’s inspiration we might take this series as central; to see the work of his student years in Munich ripened and fulfilled there. As, too, we see that the folded cloths that fascinated Martin Baer in his last period are not only husks and cerements of humanity in death but also refer to the folds and resistance that give nobility to the Indian woman’s face.

There is the germ kept alive in this man’s work of a neglected intent in art. That we have neglected the imagination of this thing humanity or this idea humanity hangs over us now, the very hubris of our almost heroic effort to make the universe pay. The moving intent in Martin Baer’s work, the very fact that that intent is always humble and individual, points towards the possibility of a return of art to the immediacy of a man’s life from the splendors and fame of museum walls and millionaires’ collections. For these paintings do not win us by their expense but by their unfolding picture of the artist’s life.

Robert Duncan