Chicago

Jo Baer

Rhona Hoffman Gallery

It is more than just the vagaries of fashion or the recent focus on geometric abstract painting that has rekindled interest in the Minimalist paintings of Jo Baer. Her works seem to be imbued with a kind of probity, a sense of relentless logic and structured accomplishment that is refreshing. There may be a faint air of nostalgia to such interest, a wished-for return to the issues broached a generation ago. The seven Baer paintings in this exhibition, done between 1962 and ’72, address the “classic” agendas of Minimalist painting: its concern with the painting as a physical object, its interest in the function and articulation of the edge, its determination to reduce pictorial data to the simplest and least referential voice possible, its cult of the flat, and its intense urge toward analytical and intellectual essences, which gradually took on an almost puritanical ferocity.

Baer’s pursuit of the severe began with a sequence of pictures in which a flatly rendered white field is framed by a painted black border and a thinner border of a single color. Simple, pure, austere, and indefatigably pleasing, these paintings are somnolent and slow-moving, yet instantly accessible. Another group of paintings, including Untitled, 1962, recesses the black border a bit from the picture’s edge and introduces small and crisp tapelike lines of color near the top of the painting. These works suggest a support for the image’s own gravity; they seem to argue for a differentiation and ordering of pictorial space.

By the late ’60s, Baer’s investigations had moved beyond her persistent inquiries into the two-dimensional surfaces of paintings. In works such as Untitled (Wraparound Brown), 1969, she began to probe the possibilities of the five separate surfaces that a stretched and unframed canvas presents to a viewer. By carrying her painted border from the “front” of the painting to its “sides,” Baer asserted, reinforced, and reinvigorated the plastic, three-dimensional nature of the object. The rectangular field here evolves into a curious polyhedron; what begins to define a painting for Baer is its act of being stretched, its splay into pentagonal objecthood.

Untitled (Double Bar Diptych—Green and Red), 1968, is Baer at her stubbornest. The diptych format sets up halting doublings of rhythms. Stability and order become impenetrable masks here, forcing the work toward endless systemic extrapolation and variation of the kind several of Baer’s colleagues later pursued. But not the artist herself. Baer’s relocation to Europe in the ’70s, and her subsequent renunciation of these works and of her vocation as an abstract painter, gives these paintings a special cachet. It makes them missives of a forgotten urgency, the palpable remnants of a spent faith.

James Yood