Walking into the Dia Center's exhibition of Jo Baer's early work, created in the 1960s and early '70s, can be something of a shock because at first, glance there appears to be hardly anything there. Your expectation of paintings as such--pictures on the wall--is thwarted. The large squares of white canvas with black borders so mimic the rectilinear architecture of the room in which they are displayed that they appear to be part of it; they make the room look cleaner, more spacious and elegant, and would have a similar impact on any room in which they happened to be placed. Once you do focus on the individual works, you become aware of their similarity, one to the other, and of their minute differences. Baer's premise here was narrow; she was dealing with the edges and sometimes the sides of the stretched canvas, leaving the center a uniform white. In Primary Light Group: "Red, Green Blue" (1964-65), for example, each of three identically sized panels is bordered by a black band on the front plane that runs just edges like a frame. Inside the black band is, in each case, a thin bright strip of a single color that softens the transition from black to white, almost like a shadow. While these strips of color are in actuality somewhat milky, their placement between the black border and the central expanse of white causes them to fluoresce and appear brighter than they are. The sides, bottoms and tops of the stretched-canvas panels are all painted white. Throughout, Baer laid the paint down flatly and evenly, and she made no effort to hide the texture of the canvas.
The three panels of "Primary Light Group" are impossible to take in at one glance; instead, they cause the eye to bounce around until they become mesmerizing. The more you look at them, the more you become aware of a disconnect between actual perception and retinal afterimage, which causes the work to appear to reverberate gently, setting up what Robert Irwin called, in reference to his own work, a "hum." There is also a sense of light emanating from the center of each canvas (Baer has referred to her black-banded canvases, at times, as "light" paintings), as if from a window, and an actual white glow appears on the wall just above each painting, the reflection from the white-painted canvas on the top edge of the stretcher. There is a solemnity here that society generally reserves for momentous occasions, and there's a gentle irony in Baer's celebration of the non-death of painting with images that resemble nothing so much as death announcements.
In making this work, Baer was responding to fellow artists Robert Morris and Donald Judd, who had gone so far as to assert that the possibilities of painting were exhausted (a sentiment since echoed at regular intervals in certain art journals, to no effect) and whose own work blurred the line between painting and sculpture. Was it possible, Baer asked in these canvases, to create a vital painting that did not depend in any way on illusion, content or even quality of mark, that was about its own architecture, its actual physical structure, yet did not cross the line into sculpture? It's marvelous to remember--given the current artistic climate, in which anything goes--that people once actually cared about such things. But they did, and passionately.
While Baer's premise was intellectual, the result is work of great formal beauty, which, whether she wanted it to or not, delivers an emotional impact even in its restraint, a feeling of tranquillity engendered by a certain perfection in proportion and execution. It's similar to the way a Shaker house or early Philip Johnson building is devoid of overt decorative expression, yet the "rightness" of simple elements creates a serene, irreducible presence. Baer's paintings are also format in the non-art sense of black ties and long white gloves; one wants to stand up straighter in their presence. Her untitled series of six panels (1969-71), in which black bands run along only the left and right sides of each, is strongly classical in feeling, the bars like columns in a Greek temple. In each of the panels, the black bands are again paired with, a thin strip of color--salmon, pistachio, pale blue, beige, mauve or ocher--but, here both band and strip continue around the lateral edges of the canvas onto the sides, wraparound-style. Incorporating the sides into the format of the painting makes the work look blocky and sculptural, and serves to emphasize even further that it is the object as a whole that is the statement, not simply what was notated on its face.
I first encountered Jo Baer's paintings when I was a young artist in the mid-'70s, and although I may have seen the work only in reproduction, I was extremely affected by it. I learned from it that an unmarked surface could be made to be just as expressive as one that was worked. The white centers of Baer's canvases suggested to me not a place of emptiness, but of infinite unspoken possibility. For some years afterward I made work in which the image, although more complex than Baer's, occurred only around the edge. That Baer was painting "frames" and not much more, using something ordinarily seen as ornamental to make a non-ornamental statement, struck me as an amusing twist, and one thing you did not expect from the Minimalists was a sense of humor.
What impressed me most, however, was that such a strongly austere statement was being made by a woman. The other female Minimalists I knew of and admired, Agnes Martin and Dorothea Rockburne, brought a decidedly feminine softness to the genre, and this was their strength. But that a woman could have the confidence, the boldness, to stand behind such a stark, pared-down image, blew me away.
While continuing to make her black-banded paintings, in 1970 Baer began a new series, which, while based on a similar premise, differs considerably from her previous work. These paintings are long and narrow, typically 22 by 80 or 96 inches, on 4-inch-deep stretchers, and hung either vertically on the wall or horizontally, nearly flush with the floor. On off-white grounds tilted toward beige, warm gray or even lemon, Baer imposed abstract swerves and stripes that do not act as a frame, but cleave to one or both of the long sides, overlapping the face of the canvas only slightly. While the center is again left relatively empty, here it is more like a backdrop than an enigmatic void. The colors are not the near-primaries and secondaries discreetly inserted between the white and black of her earlier work, but more muted, complex hues such as orangy terra-cottas, violets, leafy greens and even pastels. It is probable that the colors and even some of the shapes were inspired by the orchids that Baer was then growing and had become obsessed with, and she used the flowers' scientific names, such as H. Tenebrosa, as titles for the paintings. These two groups of work are so different that it's hard to imagine them being done by the same artist, let alone at the same time.
Baer was deviating from the traditional shape and position of painting by elongating these canvases, making them especially thick and blocky, and by positioning them on the wall at any place but eye level. These experiments came some three years after Anne Truitt began making her narrow freestanding totemlike "paintings" and Californian John McCracken his elegant "planks"--lengths of plywood with lustrous single-color resin and lacquer surfaces--which weren't hung, but simply leaned against the wall. In contrast, Baer's contribution to the dialogue seems tepid; the work never sings with the singular conviction evinced by the black-banded paintings. Instead the proportions are unwieldy, and the images she used, which now look like restrained versions of the psychedelic graphics of the time, seem arbitrary and decorative rather than intrinsically related to the architecture of the support..
In 1973, however, Baer created a brilliant series of nine screenprints (28 by 21 inches each) titled "Cardinations," which continue ideas she had executed in tiny (4 inch square), tender drawings (not included at Dia) more than a decade before. In a way, these prints represent a culmination of all she had previously done, while adding a dramatic new element: cryptic symbols based on Aryan cardinals, an ancient diagrammatic numeric system. Rendered in black augmented by a thin sienna pinstripe, each is a variation on a halved or quartered circle which floats below center in a field of pale, luminous celadon green. These dynamically positioned glyphs address both the eye and the mind, as though to convey some inscrutable mystic message.
Such ripe imagery would seem to lend itself to infinite investigation, but, again driven by a polemic, Baer has chosen to spend the years since the '70s exploring figuration in work that has only rarely been shown in the U.S. Like it or not, she can't get away from the art world's fixation on her black-banded paintings, which surface every so often as emblems of a time when the nature of art was being scrutinized and its boundaries extended. We are now living in the future toward which they were pointing. In this chaotic time of war, eerily similar to the one in which they were created, these paeans to structure and symmetry are particularly relevant, as they continue to ask more questions than they answer.
"Jo Baer: The Minimalist Years, 1960-1975," curated by Lynne Cooke, is on view at the Dia Center for the Arts, New York, through June 15, 2003