New York

Jo Baer, Snow-Laden Primeval (Meditations, on Log Phase and Decline Rampant with Flatulent Cows and Carbon Cars), 2020, oil on canvas, 67 5/8 × 60 1/4".

Jo Baer, Snow-Laden Primeval (Meditations, on Log Phase and Decline Rampant with Flatulent Cows and Carbon Cars), 2020, oil on canvas, 67 5/8 × 60 1/4".

Jo Baer

Pace

Jo Baer can be provocative, but the effect is never for the sake of mere provocation—without fear or apology, the artist says what she thinks. For example, in a 1967 letter to the editor of this magazine, she faults Donald Judd and Robert Morris for their high-stakes rejection of her preferred medium—painting—which the duo called “antique” for its implicit illusionism. In the final line of her communiqué, she writes, “An ‘inescapable’ delusion moves the above critics. It is objectionable,” her last word a cutting pun on Judd’s 1965 essay “Specific Objects.” Baer’s 2010 book, Broadsides & Belles Lettres: Selected Writings and Interviews 1965–2010, further showcases the vivacity of her thinking. In a 2003 conversation with historian Judith Stein, the artist sounds off on always speaking her mind: “It’s the only way to be, if you’re female. You don’t get anywhere otherwise.” While the art world struggles to reinvent and reawaken itself, Baer, with her resilience and perseverance, especially as an outlier within Minimalism, yet again provides a beacon of hope. This attitude was crystal clear in a two-part presentation at Pace spanning six decades of the artist’s work.

“Jo Baer: The Risen” featured five fresh hard-edge canvases modeled on compositions she made after arriving in New York from Los Angeles in 1960. She destroyed the originals, but luckily not before some photographs were taken of her posing alongside them. Baer’s renewed interest in these works prompted her to remake them in 2019 from the pictures. For me, the most important aspect of this gorgeously installed grouping was the way a piece such as The Risen (Wink), 1960–61/2019, creates a throughline to her subsequent and probably best-known abstractions, the tripartite Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue, 1964–65, a subtle investigation into perception and opticality via the Mach band effect. Today, the pallid centers of these paintings, framed by bold black lines rimmed with thin strips of color, prompt a timely meditation on “whiteness” and its long and problematic entanglement with art history.

The other exhibition, “Jo Baer: Originals,” spanned the mid-’70s to now and followed the artist’s rejection of Minimalism in favor of “radical figuration” (as she termed the use of image fragments) after she permanently emigrated from the United States to Europe on the heels of her 1975 survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (As she told Stein, “I didn’t like the pressures of New York. People want you to keep doing exactly what you’ve already done, because it makes money.”) Here pinned directly on the wall, these unstretched canvases have always seemed to me vintage Baer, particularly the earliest pieces, showing an artist doing exactly as she wished, changing her style to suit her own needs and no one else’s. The show featured the series informally known as “The Giants,” 2009–13, which I thought at the time of its making would be Baer’s swan song but thankfully was not. It is based on a group of otherworldly Neolithic standing stones in rural Ireland—where she lived before permanently landing in Amsterdam—and corroborates the continuing significance of her liberating exodus from Manhattan and from Minimalism.

Most exciting of all the works on view were Moonstruck Armageddon (Meditation, on Predators and Prey), 2019–20, and Snow-Laden Primeval (Meditations, on Log Phase and Decline Rampant with Flatulent Cows and Carbon Cars), 2020. In the latter, a pocket-size woman genuflects with arms open under craggy cliffs and a waterfall. Adjacent to the figure are selected lines from the last chorus of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s verse drama Hellas (1822): “The world’s great age begins anew. . . . The earth doth like a snake renew.” Baer’s parable-like commentary on climate change—a theme not uncommon in her output of the past few decades—again underlines the liveliness of her fecund mind at ninety-one and her resistance to imaging destruction as yet another elegy for the planet. I saw the tiny figure as a self-portrait of Baer, forever tough and untiring, right at the edge of the infinite.