Haynes Galleries | November 20 to January 30
by Jay Williams
Widely considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, John Baeder is best known for his hyperrealist paintings that made the diner the subject of serious art books and historic preservation efforts. His new exhibition at Haynes Galleries in Nashville, John Baeder: Work from 1962 to 2015, includes not only oil paintings and watercolors, but also ceramics and both black-and-white and color photographs. Gallerist Gary R. Haynes describes the concept of this unparalleled exhibition as representing “the total scope of John Baeder’s work.” Timed to coincide with the publication of the new Vendome Press biography of the artist, John Baeder’s Road Well Taken, the exhibition will be on view from November 20, 2015, through January 9, 2016.
Raised in Atlanta, Baeder became an art director for a New York-based ad agency at age twenty-one. Before beginning his advertising career, Baeder studied art at Auburn University and maintained his interest in photography and painting while working at the prestigious Marschalk advertising agency. After creating successful ad campaigns for clients such as Coca-Cola, he was transferred to a position at the New York offices of a sister company in the Interpublic Group, part of the largest advertising conglomerate in the world.
As Baeder’s career in advertising progressed, so did his urge to indulge his interests in photography and postcard collecting. New York’s rich cultural environment was the ideal school for a young artist who was about to launch a career in painting. Although Baeder felt increasingly pulled toward an art career, he achieved great success as an art director because of his experience and pure creativity.
With the energy of a man who has found his calling, Baeder began to paint hour after hour in a makeshift studio in the tenement walk-up at 56th Street and Third Avenue that had been his pied-à-terre while living in Connecticut. Baeder’s first solo exhibition at Ivan Karp’s Hundred Acres Gallery was a groundbreaking artistic statement to the art world. His paintings in that first exhibition—such as Octo Cottage (1972, acrylic on canvas)—reflected his interest in roadside architecture and postcard images, which were a radical departure from orthodoxy.
Baeder has been much more than a “diner painter,” as evident in the range of works on view: little-known black-and-white photographs from the 1960s, imaginative Kitchen Series still-life paintings, original diner-inspired ceramics, photographic Studio Still Lifes, and his most recent cycle, stunning oil paintings of classic aircraft of the 1930s and 40s.
Through the years, Baeder has often found inspiration in Americana from his wide-ranging collections of postcards, original and collected photographs, hand-painted signs, scale-model automobiles, and other ephemera. To reveal this vital relationship, Baeder and Haynes have selected some of the most significant objects from his extensive collections to exhibit alongside this cornucopia of original artworks.
Entering the galleries, viewers will first encounter Baeder’s early black-and-white photographs. Well before Baeder delved deeply into the work of Walker Evans, Russell Lee, and the other important Farm Security Administration photographers, he had begun to shoot black-and-white photographs with much the same spirit and content. His eager vision also led him to storefronts, street corners, and window displays in the neighborhoods of New York City that would have interested Esther Bubley or Walker Evans when they walked the city’s streets. On advertising assignments in Europe, Baeder made striking photographs while exploring London, Florence, Munich, Frankfurt, Rome, and Paris. Particularly noteworthy among the 1960s photographs on view are a delightful image of a little man with a cane peering into a barbershop window, and a striking portrait of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.
Moving to the adjacent galleries, visitors to the exhibition will encounter Baeder’s recent Aero Series paintings, inspired by his childhood collection numbering hundreds of photographs of classic aircraft. These paintings reflect his early delight in observing these aircraft as sculptural forms, great examples of modern design that formed indelible impressions on Baeder’s youthful psyche. “I am going back to images that lit up my imagination in my youth,” Baeder explains. “When I was a kid, I loved old military aircraft. I still do.” His very first aircraft painting—a large (42 x 66-inch) oil on canvas of a World War II Navy torpedo bomber, the Curtiss SB2C-4 Helldiver—captures this youthful passion. Commissioned by Ivan Karp for a 1973 all-aircraft exhibition at OK Harris Works of Art, the painting became the prototype for his recent Aero Series. When Baeder began painting the series canvases, he conceived them “in black and white,” but actually employed varied monochromatic hues, giving himself a color problem that he considers far more difficult than applying naturalistic color.
Of the sixteen aircraft represented in the show, all are classics of aeronautical design, and several (in addition to the Helldiver) are illustrious warplanes of World War II: the shark-mouthed Curtiss P-40F Tomahawk, the Vought F4U Corsair, and the Lockheed P-38L Lightning. The proportions of the aircraft, combining massive engine cowlings with long, tapering fuselages, hint at their awesome potential. Some of the airplanes are associated with the period between the world wars. For instance, Baeder included an example of the Lockheed Vega, the same model of plane piloted by Amelia Earhart in her trans-Atlantic flight to Ireland, but painted here in the long-haul workhorse livery of Shell Oil Company. Other aircraft in the series represent experiments in technology and the individuality of an aeronautical designer’s vision. Baeder selected the Grumman XF5F-1 Skyrocket, a twin-engine fighter prototype of the early 1940s, for its unique wing-forward configuration and futuristic proportions. Although only one example of the Skyrocket was actually built, the unique design was adopted by the World War II comic-book hero Blackhawk for his fictional air squadron.
Baeder manages to emphasize the overall uniqueness and sculptural quality of all fourteen aeronautical designs while including only significant details. This strategy, combined with his monochromatic palette, helps the viewer see each aircraft as a unique whole, not as a collection of highly technical parts. All the while, Baeder’s subtle brushwork softens the edges of hard shapes and unifies each composition.
Baeder’s forays into non-diner imagery do not mean that his more-than-forty-year involvement with diners is a thing of the past, as the adjoining gallery gives ample evidence. Gallery visitors will be greeted by his classic 1990 oil on canvas John’s Diner. In this section of the show, visitors will also find several examples of the artist’s paintings of food trucks. Understanding that they were closely related to the food wagons that predated diners, Baeder was the first to recognize the importance of these colorful mobile restaurants.
The source for many of the artist’s later diner paintings is what he calls “innocent images” that he rediscovered while taking stock of his documentary photography of the sixties. His archive contains hundreds of Kodachrome slides shot purely as documentation, not with the idea that they would be the subjects of paintings. “I play archaeologist in my studio [these days], as opposed to discovering promising sites along the road,” Baeder comments. “These treasures of the past have taken on a patina of time, giving them deeper significance.”
Diner, Worcester, Massachusetts (2009) is a prime example of Baeder’s reductive approach to these images. By eliminating nonessential signage, cars, and other elements, he omits anything that would potentially draw attention away from essential relationships. What remains as subject matter is simply the diner and contextual elements that give it meaning. His greater emphasis on the abstract patterns of shape and hue elevates these realist paintings beyond simple documentation. As with all his diner paintings, the Worcester watercolor has a distinct personality and mood created by the harmony of both light and dark forms as well as vertical and horizontal elements (the masculine tower and skyscraper contrasted with the grounded, feminine diner).
Perhaps the most outstanding of the diner canvases on view is his Star Diner (2012, dedicated to the memory of Ivan C. Karp), depicting a small, nondescript diner in Queens, New York. The restaurant is clad in siding that Baeder considers the visual equivalent of a double-knit suit—a brown, tan, and beige material that now seems as superannuated as old, cracked linoleum. On the massive wall that extends above the diner, a huge, remarkably eroded sign dwarfs the restaurant, its peeling painted lettering announcing HEBREW NATIONAL. In smaller capital letters the words KOSHER DELICATESSEN appear just over the diner’s sign. Closer examination reveals Baeder’s clever use of words in the slogan visible above the door. “You Ring We Bring – Call Sammy” is a play on Baeder’s pet term for “sandwich” and homage to a friend’s dog.
After seeing the painting, a former resident of the neighborhood wrote in praise: “The wonder of it is the Hebrew National billboard, in all its peeling scabrous glory.” Baeder’s painting carries us back to a different time and place through his masterful use of texture, color, and composition.
Some visitors to the show may be surprised to see Baeder’s diner-inspired ceramics. Towle/Sigma manufactured a line of twenty products, including a three-part diner-shaped condiment set, a ceramic street scene with a hotel, bar, and movie theatre canister set, bookends, menu board frame, candle holders in the form of gas pumps, and, of course, coffee mugs. The ceramic line became further evidence of the staying power of “diner consciousness.” Baeder told the New York Times, “These objects are a way of sharing my ideas on a more popular level.”
The exhibition continues with color photographs from Baeder’s American Roadside series, including images of colorful signs, mom-and-pop motels, independent gas stations, and vintage vehicles. Like his black-and-white photographs from the 1960s, these documentary images reflect Baeder’s sensitivity toward vernacular culture, the milieu of the everyday American. Asked by art critic Peter Frank why he chose to use some photos as the basis for oils or watercolors while allowing others to be presented in their original form, Baeder replied with Zen-like humor: “There are some photographs that scream to be paintings, and some that just want to be photographs.” Some of these photographs, such as Trailer, Arizona Route 66 (1975), were commissioned for a grand exhibition at the Smithsonian based on architect Robert Venturi’s research Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City. He continued the series after the exhibition with Southwest Motel (1977), Beverly’s Luncheonette, City Island (1980), and other color photographs in the same spirit.
Those who find their way to Haynes’s back galleries will be rewarded with another visual treat—two series that illustrate Baeder’s long-term interest in the still life. His Kitchen (or Window Sill) Series with its depictions of little ceramic chefs and dancers and pinup-style figurines may seem unrelated to his other subject matter—but to Baeder they are connected at an archetypal level. Like the small figures of household gods and miniature shrine figures of ancient Roman gods and goddesses, these figures “live” in one of Baeder’s most intimate spaces: his kitchen. He sees them every day, and they are objects of great affection. To him, the figurines represent “little ‘gods’ that are my friends. All these figures are Jungian, archetypal—they cover the gamut from food to sex.”
Baeder’s recent Studio Still Lifes are very different from the photographs he shot earlier in his career. Like the earlier Kitchen Series, they seem to be views into an alternate reality. Capitalizing on photography’s ability to seduce the eye, they have an even greater sense of the surreal about them. Baeder explained that he had “always been fascinated with the camera’s ability to render reality and illusion.” Incorporating imitation flowers, vegetables, and fruits, as well as scale-model cars, books, and other objects in his compositions, he used the medium of “pure photography” to work artistic magic.
To a significant degree, Baeder’s sensibilities center on the pure visual joy of color, form, and design (what he considers the “old basics”). This is the case with a still life built around an old Redbook magazine and a cream, red, and black 1956 Buick Roadmaster, surrounded by a fire-engine-red ceramic bowl filled with Red Delicious apples and glistening ripe strawberries. In this visual treatise Baeder seems to ask us, how many ways can we think of the color red? As a product of nature, as a symbol of power and speed (as in the Buick), as a fashion metaphor, and as a pure expression of energy to excite our vision. Baeder is as much of a purist in this still life as Josef Albers, reveling in the strength of this limited palette.
Another Studio Still Life features a scale model of a 1941 Fleetwood Cadillac, a classic car that Baeder actually owns and has loved since his youth. Baeder explains a crucial element in this composition that symbolizes his sensitivity to refinement and style: “The photograph includes a vase I grew up with. My mother’s initials are engraved on the vase; and I have fond memories of her using it for gardenia blossoms from our backyard bush. . . . It has great flair, like the Cadillac.”
Baeder’s selection of elegant antique perfume and cologne bottles in For My Aunt Emmy and Uncle Zolty—crowned by two lovely roses and grouped with a 1934 Packard Phaeton—may seem like a purely aesthetic choice. However, closer inspection of these Art-Nouveau bottles reveals the name Baeder on the labels or impressed into the glass.
These sophisticated containers of frosted and clear glass with their decorative gold labels were once filled with the Baeder company’s finest colognes and perfumes, which were offered by chic department stores alongside those of the finest French parfumeries. In fact, this still life with its lovely harmony of pinky-peach, yellow, gold, and crystal forms is a memorial to the Baeder family and their perfume business, based in Budapest, Hungary. The artist’s uncle, and ten other family members, many directly connected with the cosmetics firm, were victims of the Holocaust.
Through Baeder’s artistry, the inanimate objects in his Studio Still Lifes are given soul—inanimate meaning “without animus,” and animus being the Latin for soul. In these magical photographs Baeder records his road trips of the mind, instead of outward ventures along the veined highways of a roadmap. Presenting to us the “souvenirs” of his inner road trip, he unifies time and space in the imagined dimensions of his art.
Baeder’s collections of objects and images, examples of which are on view, have been a critical source of inspiration for all his artistic endeavors, not just his Studio Still Lifes. Each hand-painted sign, scale-model automobile, or figurine is strongly attached to feelings woven into the fabric of his psyche, as Eudora Welty described: “The human mind is a mass of associations—associations more poetic even than actual.” Like Welty’s stories full of local color, Baeder’s paintings, distilled from the world that his collections represent, are “fictions” that convey truths. “All my collections are an extension of me,” he explains. “I don’t care if it’s a piece of junk, if it has spirit about it. That’s what I love about it. It’s like going to a museum and seeing an artifact from the sixth century; what’s the difference?”
Baeder’s personal passion for the visual culture of America became a quest to document the essence of the nation’s identity. Like Charles Kuralt and Bill Moyers, Baeder has seen the material culture of mid-twentieth-century America as a grand metaphor to make his viewers understand that, in the words of Charles Baudelaire, “We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.”
John Baeder: Work from 1962 to 2015 will be on exhibit at Haynes Galleries from November 20 through January 30, 2016. For more information about the artist and the exhibition, visit www.johnbaeder.com and www.haynesgalleries.com.