On ViewPace Gallery
November 6–December 19, 2020
Jo Baer has long been known as one of the premier minimalist painters, her outlined white canvases, like the Museum of Modern Art’s Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue (1964), presenting such withholding and complex faces that they gnomically take over museum walls and nearly refuse to play nice with others. Baer’s fame and art historical inclusion stem from these paintings.
But Baer stopped making abstraction in the mid-1970s (in our conversation, she dated that decision to 1975), moved away from the New York art scene to an early medieval castle in Ireland, and started painting the imagery found in her new visual environment or drawn from her vast reading that encompasses history, science, archaeology, and Neolithic cultures. These “images works,” to use a term Baer introduced for them in an earlier interview, are as multifarious as her abstractions are rigorous and develop spatial convolutions that propel the viewer alongside, above, and sometimes seemingly underneath them all at the same time. Some of these views are drawn from her familiarity with horses, pursued in Ireland, the riding of which allowed her to see “over” things, while others must be the visual equivalent of burrowing into books and studies to consume and process ever-more information.
I spoke with Baer on the occasion of her double solo exhibitions (a contradiction in terms that I wonder if she wouldn’t relish) at Pace Gallery in New York. Originals displays several decades of that image work that has consumed her now for the bulk of her career. The Risen, installed on the top floor of the gallery space, recreates five paintings made in 1960/61 that Baer destroyed soon afterward, declaring that we weren’t “ready” for these canvases. Before she did so, though, she had herself photographed with each one, her body providing scale and her forthright gaze staring us down; The Risen—her “zombie” paintings, as she described them to me—are taken from these photographs and confront the city arrayed across a building-wide expanse of window, every bit as frank as the woman who made them at 31 and 91.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): Hi Jo!
Jo Baer: We thought I could handle this myself.
Rail: I have no doubt.
Baer: You don't understand me yet. A few years ago, you would be correct. But I am 91 years old. And god knows what goes on here. Physically, I'm in very good shape. But my mind, just when I want to say a word, it runs away.
Rail: I know that you would like to start with the representational work, which is, of course, the work that you've been making for the past several decades. So I think that's appropriate.
Baer: I'd say I was making them from 1975, when I came to Ireland and decided to do this, so they have more than a few decades.
Rail: You once referred to your referential paintings as “image work.” Because you wanted to avoid, you said, the implications of narrative. What work do your images do?
Baer: Narrative is telling a story, I’m providing a situation. And it's in time, right now. Paintings are not in time. These are not narrative paintings. They can't be. Painting is boom: it's one time! It doesn't move, unless you put two of them in diptychs, or cartoon strips. And that's how they move. You can be doing narrative that way, if you want. But single paintings are a situation, they're snapshots. So, I avoid the word narrative. I'm not telling a story. I'm telling a situation. And I don't know a better way to say that. If you have a better way, please give it to me now.
Rail: I don't in fact! I've wondered—I’m thinking about the idea of simultaneous narratives.
Baer: Nobody can get around that.
Rail: Well, if you think about, for example, early Renaissance paintings, where you see the three kings and you see them visiting the Virgin and Child and you see the shepherds hearing the angels, and you also see them visiting Jesus, all of the narrative kind of happens at the same time.
Baer: On the same canvas. Yes. Well, that's essentially what I'm doing. And I have been tempted to say that I make history paintings—but I know quite well that nobody anymore knows what I mean. If you say “classic,” that doesn't mean anything, but “history painting” is what I'm doing and I know I'm doing that, but I wouldn't choose it as a way of explaining it to an audience today cause they don't know.
Rail: It's interesting. I've interviewed quite a few artists recently, and a lot of them have said that they've made history paintings.
Baer: Oh, they do use it.
Rail: Yes, yes.
Baer: Do they use it well? Do they mean, they're working off the actual paintings, or do they mean they are doing what I'm doing?
Rail: I think a little bit of both. The person who said it most directly was Peter Saul. And he is very clearly referencing painters like Rembrandt or Emanuel Leutze. But also he's making paintings of political subjects that he knows are going to exist in time and so of course, when you make a political subject painting, it's going to date itself, inevitably. And so, I think he recognizes that as history painting then.
Baer: Yeah, but as you’ve said, he's referencing particular artists, and I'm just talking about fact. That’s how they worked and how that kind of work … they therein create scenes, which is a situation.
Rail: Would you consider them research paintings?
Baer: No. Because research is grubby; it's grubby to do. It's what you do with the research. But you research everything anyway. I do a bit more, wider, vast, and more often. I'm doing things that are not generally basic … rather that are exotic, historical—which can be exotic, right?
Rail: When you were living in Ireland, were you interested in—I knew you were interested in prehistoric Irish culture—what about some of the medieval things, like the Celtic things or the strange figures on churches?
Baer: No, I wasn't interested in being Irish. And I wasn't interested in being in the Irish—in the sense of their mindset and miracles … I think you called them “myths.” But in the scheme of things, I liked the Irish and I liked living in Ireland and moreso familiarizing myself with their bewitching landscape and that story.
Rail: Of course. I was thinking particularly of a type of Irish medieval decoration called the Sheela na gig, which is a female figure who opens her vagina. And they're on churches.
Baer: I have no idea! You've got more exotic Irish than I have. My neighbors would never tell me that sort of thing. They don't talk that way to me. I think it's rather interesting: a bunch of new paintings I'm thinking of doing still keep the “Giants” in mind. I came across something a couple of weeks ago where they found bones in Northern Ireland of a woman and a man. And I guess either in the same graves or next door to each other. But they were brother and sister. Incest. Maybe like the Pharaohs: they ruled as brother and sister.
Rail: To keep the dynasty intact.
Baer: But it's an interesting thing. Because I think Egyptian Pharaohs were the only other ones that did this. But I'm sure there are more if I researched it fully. But it's an interesting thought you can find pictures of the brother and sister twins and ruminate over how that may be interpreted and thus how the story goes …
Rail: Will you depict them in life as they are, were, alive or will you depict them in the tomb?
Baer: Oh, no, alive, of course. This is just a way of designating something and then finding what I really want. I have the prints already, photographs and all that. I know where to put him. It's telling that story. Perhaps I’ll make one with a prince standing up with his feathers and whatnot and he will keep the same face. I like things like that. I like to have some fun and be creative.
Rail: You should, right?
Baer: Everyone should.
Rail: So, when you come upon subject matter or images for these paintings, how then do you start to build the image on the surface of the canvas? How do you plan that out?
Baer: I look for a lot of the images that I want to work with. I have a collection of them already for this and for other paintings. They're sitting in an enormous pile on my desktop here. And I'll organize them into folders. I will play with them and work with them. You can search for just about anything and you get hundreds of different kinds of photographs that you need or could use. Also, I use magazines or newspapers or photographs or anything I come across that looks interesting or may even be regarded as detritus in the area that I want to work with, and I play with that. I certainly do use a computer.
I don't like the use of the term “collage” for my paintings. It's not correct. Collage is sculpture. A Matisse medium. I accept it, for playing and manipulating on the computer; it just says you're sticking things together. And I certainly wouldn't have been able to do any of this without Photoshop. What I used to do with this kind of work was to grid up. But with gridding up, you find something and then you make all the grids, and you copy it, you know, with the pencil and then you use a pastel or something on the other side, and then you transfer it to a canvas. So, you've got something very big for something very small. It takes a lot of time and patience. I have actually done these on tracing paper and they're now painted and put together in different ways. Ones from different paintings put together in different ways.
Rail: And do you reuse those elements, then? Or only for one painting each?
Baer: I put them together from different paintings and make new drawings and put some paint on tracing paper and so forth. In this way, you can get a bit of a touch of blue or brown or something, and things like that. My gallery in Berlin has several large ones. They've been in shows at the Stedelijk and several other places. I mean, waste not, want not.
Rail: How do you feel that space and scale work in these paintings?
Baer: Well, you're asking me technical questions, and each painting is different.
Rail: I was curious about how space and scale work in your painting.
Baer: First thing I want to say is space is space. It's between two things. But in regard to how I work with space, I can make space empty, make it purple, make it with texture. You can play with it, but in the end, space is space, it's something that keeps things apart and brings them together perhaps. It's space to everyone. It's the other side of all the borders that you want to talk about.
Rail: I agree with that. One of the things I was interested in is sometimes we see your images in your representational paintings face on and sometimes we're looking from above. And so, the space is kind of opening up and collapsing—
Baer: And it can do anything you want. Because it's space. This is just technical, and artists know how to do it. And you follow it as best you can. We can see what's happening. And we can see what we want to do. And to answer another question of yours, how do I want people to look at the paintings? And what do I want them to take? And if you ask me what I'm doing, or what is in there, and I'm just saying that these are things to do in this world. These are not stories, because stories move in time. These are things I wish to talk to each other. They relate to each other in different ways. And the ways they relate have to do with the ways they're portrayed. If they're very big and bright, they dominate, simply grab everything around. They can be bright in color, but they can be pastel, and then they're not quite so strong. And again these are all technical things: I want this to be dominant, and I will use 15 different ways to do it, where I put it; there are a million ways to do it. I can't answer you other than just to say, I know where I wish to place priority, or where I don't want to leave something out—“but it's ugly”—but you shouldn't leave something out just because it's ugly. “Do it this way, if this is working,” and so it works as I work. And I look at it and if it's okay and doing well, fine; if it doesn't, fix it. I can't tell you any more than that.
Rail: Okay, as an art historian, this is always something that's interesting to me, because I don't make paintings.
Baer: I was going to ask you that. It’s crucial to understand how things behave and what is important and what is less important. What do you want to feature and all of that stuff; it's technical. And you just learn it as you work with it. I don't think anyone can teach it. And it goes all the way back to the caves, you could see this happening and that happening. Or to put it another way, there is a curator of one of the German fairs, he came in to see a few paintings. And he said, “I can read every one of these.” But he'd been an artist. And he understood exactly what I was doing. Because it's there. It's like a map, it's all a … “map” is really the best way to characterize what I'm doing. And the funny thing is, I do all these things, and then when I go to make paintings and they are this size and then we project it, it is a totally different thing. Then you have to make a painting, but you are not making the same thing at all. The difference of scale is enormous. And it's a different journey. I hope you understand this. I think this is very important. One of my talents is I can read quite well how this will do and won't do. That I've learned because I've been doing this for 50–60 years now. And I know what translates. So, go on.
Rail: One of the things that I noticed in the current shows that are at Pace, is that you have your representational paintings just hanging from tacking edges. They're not stretched. And I was curious about how you want the people or the museums who—
Baer: Yeah, they are flat on the wall and the paintings all have raw canvas. Which have staples on them as I've made them, so they have holes. Your question about frames. Why do I not use the word “frames”? Frames are made of wood or something of the sort. I don't use frames.
Rail: No, clearly.
Baer: No, and as a matter of fact, I make the work demolish frames, because I let parts of the real painting slide over into the border, to the edges about three or four times in every painting so that they have the freedom to move. The frame does not exist for me as it suppresses. I seem to feel that a painting is no good unless it's alive. And what I mean by alive is, it moves. How it works. It takes your attention here and there and therefore it makes you move; it activates. And you don't restrict it like this, you must keep it flowing.
Rail: Is that one of the reasons that you like to make such big paintings?
Baer: Yeah, I think three foot is about the smallest I'd make. Four foot, something around there. I can do small, a lot of small things, but small drawings do not go on to the wall at all. So, scale is very important. Just to see what you can do, what you're going to do.
Rail: How would you like these paintings to live? Do you want them in museums? Do you want them in people's houses? Where do you want them to go?
Baer: A lot of them are going to museums now. I don't want them with private, personal collectors unless they go to museums. I think museums understand how to treat things better in the long run, by and large. I think that's much better. I prefer my work out in the world for all to experience.
Rail: When you think of them as being in museums, if you could have them in any part of the museum, what part would they be in? Would it be in the contemporary wing? Would it be in with the Old Masters?
Baer: I think it’d be interesting to see my paintings in with the things from other times and in fact, have rejected being in two shows where I knew that my painting would just be so totally different, especially from some of the feminist things. Really, it would just be very odd to have one of my paintings there. The big museums are great, and I'm in all of them. And actually Kröller-Müller has about four or five early paintings. Several have three or four or five different paintings, which is what I lived off of. So that was just the art world, as opposed to the profession. They've been very kind to me. When I first came here, I had no money; when things got bad, they helped me out. Thank you. Thank you.
Rail: I also want to ask you about the second part of the show that's at Pace right now. The Risen section.
Baer: You mean my zombie pieces.
Rail: Oh, I love that description.
Baer: I just received a picture from a former boyfriend, husband, from New York who just saw the show. He loved it. He sent me a photograph of it as I couldn’t be there in person. They really did a beautiful job of balancing everything. I was really, really pleased. It was not easy, you know. I just wrote them a letter saying how pleased I was.
Rail: It's a beautiful installation.
Baer: Peculiar paintings. Even now, don't you think?
Rail: They are peculiar paintings. They're kind of, they're interesting because they're flat, totally. But they also kind of remind me of, I don't—
Baer: Things, people, things!
Rail: But they remind me of Marsden Hartley’s insignias or something like Portrait of a German Officer, 1914.
Baer: Insignias! Ah, that's a good one too. No, they have a little bit more weight. They're not that far.
Rail: One of the things that you said about them is that you destroyed them early, because you felt that the art world wasn't ready for them.
Baer: Well, I'd just come from Los Angeles. These are the first paintings I made in New York. And I looked around and I didn't see anything anywhere near anything like this. And I realized that somebody could come in and show them and they would disappear. There's no way without that social backing and all the rest … you don't get to do that. This is why I decided I should move on and try something else. But, I had my photograph taken with all of them.
Rail: Did you repaint just from the photographs? Or did you have notes on them as well?
Baer: Just from the photographs. I can do this in my sleep. [Laughs] There are difficult things in the world, but that's not one of them. But you have to understand, I've been earning my living as an artist for 60 years making paintings, so you see I have a great deal of knowledge that I don't even know I have. You just have to try it yourself and see what happens. Really.
Rail: I like the photographs of you in front of them. You look really foxy.
Baer: I did! I didn’t think of myself that way though, I had a husband and I had a child. You know. Ik ben oma, as we say here, I'm a grandma—do you know of my son, you know Josh Baer?
Rail: Hm, a little bit.
Baer: It's all right. I thought he was famous across the world. Much more than me. Which is fine. He thinks he's more famous than me.
Rail: Very funny.
Baer: Yeah, well, anyway, I went to Google and asked how many hits do I have? And how many does he have? He beats me by about three million. So, I don't argue with him. Anyway, yes. He was about four years old. And I was about 28. And I was married to John Wesley at the time, he's a fairly well-known artist. We were married for 10 years. We'd come from California together, and he already had a gallery. I can't remember the name, but it was about two or three years before I had a gallery. My work was different, and I was the wife for about three years. I didn't even get invited anywhere.
Rail: Since you felt that the art world wasn't ready for those paintings earlier, why do you think that the art world is ready for them now?
Baer: I've been looking at Dutch art, which likes to be abstract art. First, the thing they like best is black, white, and gray. Second is, they like the primary colors all at once. Third, mud. This is true actually, I'm being quite fair. So, I just thought it would be interesting to just toss this into the Dutch art world. It is so not the Dutch art world but it's still abstract. I think that's my real answer: I just thought it would be funny to have this.
Although I have finished two big paintings that are in the other show, the Originals show, the latest paintings, they're full of color—for the Dutch, Moonstruck Armageddon. I wanted to show them before they went because I live here. A local gallerist came over to look at the work and didn't say one word—not a word—did not know what to do with all the color. And they still of course wanted to do it. But then they went over to a drawing, an unfinished drawing, great big unfinished drawing, from a long time ago. “Oh,” he said, “that's marvelous.” It is gray pencil. “Oh, that’s marvelous.” And I said, “I wouldn't trust my work with somebody like this,” you know. So I just said, “I’m sorry,” and I found somebody else who’ll do it after they ship them back here. There are people at the high level who like my work and are pretty good at that. And I suspect there are artists who like what I do, in general. People who supposedly know about art couldn't say a word, they weren't being rude, is what I'm trying to say, they just did not know what to do—
Rail: They didn't understand them, essentially.
Baer: Or they didn't like them, either one is the same.
Rail: I was surprised to see how many colors you were using in the “Risen” paintings. One with a pink field, “Risen”: Big-Belly from 1961/2019, and the “Risen”: Blockade from 1960–61/2019 has those amazing purple stripes in it. I was really, really surprised.
Baer: You asked me questions about favorite colors. I don't have any. I like what I need. I understand it's unusual, but I can use any color. And it's all fine with me, a gray is sometimes beautiful. I mean, it depends how it's used and where it is and what you want it for. I mean I don't prefer red over yellow or blue, or even orange, ugly old orange, you know. Color is adaptable.
Rail: Oh, orange is my favorite color!
Baer: Fine! It isn't the worst; it's the same as any other color. The Dutch use orange for all their sports and stuff like that. Very orange. As a matter of fact they come from the county Orange, or something. Their royals are from the House of Orange. Is there anything else that you particularly want to know about?
Rail: Well, I was really curious, since you've been interviewed quite extensively …
Rail: Is there anything that you always wish people would ask you that we don't ask you?
Baer: No, but I was thinking of segueing into a little story.
Baer: Yes, you were asking me about white. And that has to do with something, that's contrast effects. There's an event that happens, that happens with humans, with all the senses indeed. It’s vision, but it's smell, it's taste. It's wherever the senses are, that when there is great contrast between black and white, or perfume or non-smell, it increases the blackness or the whiteness on each side. And so you get extra white. You get a deep black, deeper than it is, because there are lines right there. And in the white paintings, the glare, the white paint with light on it actually has something called glare on top. So you can get a very, very aggressive white.
And, alright two stories: early on Ivan Karp came to see my work for Castelli. And he saw these white paintings that I made, which are called the “Korean” paintings. They're strange, they're the first paintings that, actually, I made after the “Risen” ones. And I didn't show them for about three years after they were made. He said to me, when he saw me, he said, “These are the most aggressive paintings I've ever seen. And I can't imagine anybody in the world buying one.” And then he left. Now that's a peculiar thing to say about a painting, right? So I've been warned, I guess. What has happened over the years? There are people who dislike these paintings in a strong way, and I can't imagine why people would dislike paintings or hate paintings so decisively.
At the Stedelijk there’s a stairway, a big stairway, that goes up, and one day I saw an old man coming up the stairs. I had one of these paintings hanging on the far wall, one of these white paintings. He comes in, he walks over to it, he gets up to it, after that he goes like this, jumps! He turns around, he gets out of there as fast as he can and goes down the stairs. Now, what the hell! Thousands of years after I've wondered what the hell was going on, I ask myself the question, and now in my 90s I suddenly realize how white things are with a lintel above them, which is a track thing. And what they're doing is they're seeing the white at the end of the tunnel, meaning they're going to die. They're walking into their own death. I think this is what really was happening. And without knowing what was going on, they just go, “This is, this I hate. You don't kill me,” you know, something like that. This is what that kind of white brought up; he just jumped up. It's true. “Tunnel” does not do justice to that. But I think that it's where the action is happening. It can be shocking, for what it's worth. You couldn't have asked me that question.
Rail: No, I couldn't have asked you that question. There's no way I could—
Baer: You were asking me questions about color and white light or rather white paint came to mind. And I was saying, white light, because I knew the strength of these paintings. Light is light and paint is paint. This is special. You don't mix colors and get white. Paint’s a thing and the other is airborne.
Baer: One more thing. My best and truest answer to many of your questions is: Who are we? What are my paintings, you ask? This is what I'm looking for, what I'm looking at. That's how I put my work together. I mean especially in the historic things. Here you can watch this happening. You can watch modernism happening, things like this. I'm asking questions, where did it come from? Oh, my god, look at this. I'm playing with this stuff. And well I’ll tell you one other thing that I do tell people, I don't know what I'm doing or where it comes from. I know how to make the painting. But I really have no idea how it began. Suddenly it seems like there's a good idea floating around. I actually bother to write after I finish the paintings, to try to figure out what the hell I was doing and why. Quite often this question of religion bothers me. I don't like organized religion. And I'm questioning: is it wired, are we wired? Actually, I would answer you no, thank god. We are wired for ancestor worship, preferably.
I'm actually amusing myself, so to speak. A bit more than amusing. I'm curious. And I hope my curiosity spills over for other people. Because I think these things are very interesting. Who are we? Is it true? Picasso has said something the same about artists: we really don't know where it comes from, what we're doing. But I'm really very curious about this because I'm highly educated in science, particularly, so I’m interested in asking things. I was on my way to being a real scientist. I realized that I really had nothing I wanted to figure out in particular. There was nothing for me to do; the world doesn’t need a second-rate scientist. So, I didn't do it. I was in my 20s, almost 30, when I became an artist, which means I walked into it understanding things with a lot of heavy, heavy background knowledge. I’m curious. Always. I mean, I'm odd all the way. Original.