New York

Jo Baer

Whitney Museum of American Art

In her catalogue essay to the Jo Baer exhibition Barbara Haskell presents Baer as a “radical painter” dealing with “issues of Minimalist theory.” The 25 paintings in this exhibition, which spans from 1962 to 1975, suggest that if Baer is anything she is eccentric and not in a very profound way. In all of Baer’s work sensuous, nonintellectual experience is frustrated or denied. Her art can seem at times blatantly didactic, at other times arbitrarily and meaninglessly decorative. These aspects undercut rather than elaborate each other. Baer spells out “pictorial” characteristics so simplistically that she almost seems to parody painting, and yet she is not humorous or perverse, she’s a serious painter. I understand from both the paintings and Haskell’s catalogue essay that Baer is interested in certain optical phenomena in painting and also in the opposition of “literal” and “depicted” elements. But you don’t look at Baer’s paintings, you read them. Experiencing this work requires a deliberate esthetic effort and a suspension of the associations which her paintings have and of the usual expectations for visual pleasure.

You look at the white centers of the paintings from 1962–66—a strange intense, hard white—but ignore the black borders which look like blown-up stationery (especially in 1962 and 1963 when they appear to be monogrammed). You look at the way a black bar painted on the corner of a painting from the late ’60s makes the corner dip in, but ignore that it also looks like inlaid furniture. And in the early ’70s, when Baer takes four-inch thick stretchers, you look at the way the shapes flatten and establish as a single surface the planes of an otherwise thick volume, despite their references to Art Deco and radiator covers. This kind of suspension occurs least in the plainest white paintings from 1964 to 1966, probably the best in the exhibition. But in these, Baer is painting the same experience of whiteness again and again. Barbara Haskell does not make Baer any more convincing in her catalogue essay. She presents Baer strictly within the context of the ’60s, as if by describing the decade she is both describing and justifying Baer’s work. We never really get a sense of how Baer developed, of what she thinks about painting, or about other art, or what compels her to paint as she does. Haskell states of the ’60s that “emotional detachment was the era’s central value.” This is an erroneous generalization: all art comes from some emotional necessity. That necessity was different in the ’60s than the ’50s, but it was still there, and its profundity is something both Haskell and Baer seem to have missed entirely.

Baer’s work is not profound; it’s aggravating. The aggravation is similar to that which artists like Richard Artschwager and Ralph Humphrey initiate in their work. Their surfaces, like Baer’s lack of surface, are slightly offensive; their images, like Baer’s Art Deco references, have associations which we don’t like to make with art. But Humphrey and Artschwager resolve the aggravation: Humphrey’s surfaces are finally both optical and personal; Artschwager lets us in on his art jokes and his craziness. Baer is trying to be eccentric in a purely formal way, but she ends up being brittle and often insipid. (For formal insanity as well as Art Deco associations which have power, Stella leads the field and I’m afraid Baer is to Stella what Ann Truitt is to Don Judd.) Baer is not crazy enough or personal enough to get away with being aggravating; she never resolves the aualities in her work; she leaves you intellectualizing about the experience you think you should be having, but aren’t.

Roberta Smith