New York

Jo Baer

School of Visual Arts

Twelve paintings by Jo Baer suspend time and create their own silence at the gallery of the School of Visual Arts. These are early paintings done in 1962–63. Their basic format is simple: a six-foot white square echoed by black bands about four inches wide, placed several inches in from the outer edge of the canvas. A narrow blue border rims the inside edge of the black on all sides except the top. Variation in the paintings occurs at the top, where blue banding is used in simple patterns that create surprisingly strong differences in the feel of each canvas. The black band also fluctuates in width at the top. Although their stringency makes it hard to accept, these paintings were worked out intuitively. They are not an arbitrary series; the problems in each canvas were solved with six inch by six inch gesso working drawings before they were painted. No tape was used. They are immaculately but not mechanically done, and their edges still show the rigor required to produce them with a brush.

Seeing these paintings is so different from the cool, rational experience of most so-called Minimal work, that it would deny their true visual quality to talk about them in the arid terminology commonly used for the work of artists who began painting pictures as things-in-themselves in the early 1960s. Given sufficient viewing time, Baer’s canvases begin to convey sensations ranging all the way from baroque or romantic to archaic and implacable. They are about light and mood rather than geometry. (Dan Flavin saved most of them from destruction by the artist after they encountered considerable hostility when they were first shown in 1964.) Some canvases appear to reflect light from their square white centers, while others absorb or radiate it. I wanted to view them as windows or archways, especially since they are hung low enough to walk through figuratively. But my eye was stopped from penetration by an intuition that space is only alluded to in those squares. They hover at the wall’s surface, filled by impervious light, rather than receding illusionistically. If they are windows at all, they must open on more luminous atmospheres than ours.

It is possible to explain how these paintings are perceived with specific information about how they were painted. For example, black and blue areas in the canvases both stay on a par with the white because a fine white beading was brushed up and over the edges of the dark areas to prevent the black from popping forward and the blue from dropping back. Also, the pictures are not seen as schematic landscapes because the design of the canvases is heavier at the top. For the same reason, the white areas are brushed vertically rather than horizontally: even faintly-perceived horizontal marks would suggest the traditional spatial recession of landscape.

But the inexplicable qualities of these paintings are far more fascinating than the specific ones. How does one explain the Alice-in-Wonderland feeling that the pictures could be minute or infinite, a sensation that disconcerts the viewer’s perception of his own scale? What about the way they radiate powerful, iconic mystery, inklings of infinity close to religious elation after a certain amount of viewing time has passed? There’s no explanation for the peculiar hostility they convey when you first walk into the room, a threat dispelled after a few minutes when they begin to expand and generate their magic. These paintings are a repeated surprise, even to eyes trained by nearly a decade of Flavin, Judd and Stella. They have not lost their mystery.

Kasha Linville