New York

Jo Baer and Bruce Robbins

112 Workshop

Established in the ’60s and ’70s as a Minimalist of great formal rigor, Jo Baer has gone from hard-edged to organic, from contained and carefully graduated color to scumbled hue, from four-inch thick stretchers to unstretched canvas hung from cardboard tubes. “To change one’s habits has the smell of death,” goes a Portuguese proverb, but for Baer “style is the dress of thought,” and she has merely put a new one over her own body of ideas.

Carter Ratcliff, writing about Baer’s work in Artforum in 1972, remarked on two concerns that have remained constant: “doubleness” and “the equation of what is seen to seeing itself.” He also alluded to “references to physiology which crop up in her discussion of her painting,” references which were prophetic, less apropos concerning the old geometries than the new representations of sexual organs and body parts.

Now the burden of duality is shared by Bruce Robbins. His three interiors, Smarmore, backstairs; Smarmore, front-hall; and Smarmore, drawing-room (Smarmore, an Irish castle), are meant to be viewed in a partnership with Baer’s three entries, Turning (into/about), Facing (toward/down) and Cleaving (apart/together). In only one way do they stand in the shade of Baer’s work—Robbins’ palette is dark, Baer’s light. His amorphous rooms, peopled by coats and cloaks, make a kind of integument for her anatomical fragments. Inner and outer, appearance and reality—dichotomies abound. Individually, as well, they each endorse a Manichean view of the world. Her swarming amoeboids are caught in the act of fission; his empty flowing garments hang in velvety fields divided by wall, curtain, or screen, with unyielding objects—a stair (?), stirrups, a fire-screen (?)—occupying the other side.

Despite their distinct outlines, two of these entities read as ambiguously as the quarters they furnish. The stair could be a fan or an accordion (without the title, you’d certainly never know it was a flight of winding steps); the firescreen, a suitcase. Moreover, the drapery of front-hall is highly suggestive of a stage. Put these all together and you arrive at a conclusion of theatricality, a variety show with demonstrations of musical, equestrian, and magical skill. Art as virtuosity, entertainment, and illusion is the message.

Perhaps this is an over-determination. But there does seem to be a certain sleight of hand challenge in the shifting gradients of the Smarmore apartments. And such a self-conscious commentary would match the turning back on itself that has been typical of Baer’s creative enterprise. For, while at one time very involved in illusion, pledged to reveal perceptual comings and goings, Baer presently uses biological processes to symbolize artistic coming-into-being that could not be further from chimera. Nothing could be less glamorous, less mysterious, less “accomplished.” These genitalia, breasts, and buttocks, brought, so to speak, into the light of a pastel day, are a stripping away (which explains the armature of the faintly pencilled grid) of the disguises behind which compulsive activity hides in order to expose its origins in genital, oral and anal crudities. In Turning (into/about), the procreative is personified by two insectlike beings possibly mating among gray and brown forms. They may be flies—they are probably unspecifiable—but somehow dung beetles come to mind. The Egyptians called these scarabs and held them sacred, acknowledging the power of the excremental. Which may explain why, if Baer’s new works don’t seem as “pretty” as her old, they do seem necessary.

Even with their many oppositions, this is an almost seamless collaboration between Baer and Robbins in that it looks as though it has been done by one person. A mutual concern for color and shape that won’t stay put was emphasized by the installation, with a list of titles, not immediately in sight, that was helpful only if one started from the right end. Since “whose is whose” is a question that is deliberately provoked it’s fair to say that Baer and Robbins are disputing the notion that art has to do with a forging or expression of a personal identity. This isn’t new, but they may be the first to be willing and able to relinquish the claim to an individual uniqueness—so necessary for the making of reputations and big bucks—not by depersonalization, but by what might be called trans-personalization.

I’ve heard that when Baer first saw Robbins’ work she felt that he had dreamed her paintings. Since then they have both labored to enhance the feeling that these are the products not of two egos, but of an ego and alter ego, melding a conscious, waking reality with an unconscious dream state. It seems odd to pay a compliment by saying that one can’t tell for certain which is which. But if the ’40s and ’50s gave us the Abstract Expressionists’ cultivation of the “signature,” the direct expression of personality, and the Minimalism and Post-Minimalism of the ’60s and ’70s advocated the impersonal revelation of structure, Baer’s and Robbins’ procedure may be the arbitration we need for the ’80s.

Jeanne Silverthorne