Jo Baer, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012, oil on canvas, 86 1/2 × 118".

Jo Baer, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012, oil on canvas, 86 1/2 × 118".

Jo Baer

Jo Baer, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012, oil on canvas, 86 1/2 × 118".

In 1983, Jo Baer announced she was no longer an abstract painter. Instead, she said, she was committed to working in a mode she dubbed “radical figuration.” However, as “In the Land of the Giants,” the series of paintings she has been making since 2009, demonstrates, you can’t ever really think abstraction without figuration or vice versa. Even as she dedicated the 1960s to patiently exploring and exploiting the parameters of the abstract canvas, her vision from the outset expanded beyond its limits.

By 1962, Baer had stripped back painting to its bare bones. She painted neatly executed ribbons of color around the outer edges of white-painted canvases, layered flush against one another so that the colors appeared to shimmer and move. She would later paint some of the canvases gray rather than white, but the principle remained the same: an emptying-out of visual incident that explored the edges of what painting could contain. Although Baer frequently exhibited alongside her Minimalist peers, including Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt—makers of what Judd dubbed “three-dimensional work”—she remained a fierce defender of painting, including in the pages of this magazine, where in 1967 she described Judd’s and Morris’s views on painting as “objectionable.” By 1969, her interest had turned toward scientific theories of perception, light, and color.

In the mid-’70s, Baer moved to the Irish countryside, where she was drawn to the wild expanse of open fields and skies, and in particular to the Neolithic standing stones that scatter the landscape. These became frequent motifs in her painting, circling and studding large, spare canvases whose strange, quasi-surreal imagery hovered somewhere between the geological and cosmological. The strange, holed “hurlstone” features more than once in the current series. Baer was taken by the idea that this apparently natural phenomenon contained at its thick center a perfect hole.

Other motifs layered, painted, and traced across the surfaces include naked classical female forms, stars, and spheres. Heraldic symbols recur, invoking mythic, peopled pasts, while an earlier series features nudes muddled with natural forms and household plumbing. An abstract sense of mapping is present in the recent work, in which stones and lines mark out bounded topographies on the canvas. With its all-but-blank middle area, Dusk (Bands and End-Points), 2012, emphasizes a sense of the land’s end: borders and edges again. This is less an object lesson in perception than an invitation to project and participate, to believe, even, in Baer’s literal and allusive mythological conjuring.

Over the past twenty years, Baer has used a computer to manipulate, combine, and layer images as sources for her paintings. Through paint, Baer imbues her imagery with a vitality that makes it seem even stranger, but all the better for that. Certainly at first glance, Baer’s recent works are a world apart from her earlier abstractions—but there are detectable allegiances, too. For Baer’s “Minimalism” was always capacious. From the start, it contained a larger world within its spare surfaces. It was always, also, leading elsewhere. The original title of the series was “In the Land of the Giants,” but in their current installation, hung alongside a group of Baer’s earlier, abstract paintings, the works are renamed “Towards the Land of the Giants.” This newer title invites speculation as to what kind of links we might imagine between the earlier, stark Minimalist paintings and Baer’s contemporary practice, “towards” which the abstract paintings apparently point. To end, then, at the beginning: The show opened with two small paintings from 1960 and 1961 that depict a series of stars set against a dark monochromatic background. Perhaps the later works that were on display here signal not a turn but a return to nature, to the cosmos as well as to terra firma, to abstraction as well as to the figure and ground.

Jo Applin