I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The first time I met Jo Baer was on a hot August day in 1994. Although she had lived in Amsterdam for ten years and we are both a part of the Dutch art world. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her before. Jo Baer is slender, lively, intelligent and has a very sharp tongue. Her critique of the Dutch art world is as large as her critique of compatriots in her native country, America. My first introduction to her work was as an art history student at the University of Amsterdam while reading Arnason’s History of Modern Art which described Baer’s work within the strong tradition of pure geometric abstraction in the 1970s.
However, in 1985 in the pages of Art in America Jo Baer proclaimed that she was no longer an abstract artist. The erroneous story that she had destroyed her minimal work spread after she left the States to start a new painterly career in Europe. As early as 1976, Baer had begun to work on what she calls a “radical figuration”: in which there is no preeminence of image and space. But Jo Baer is still Jo Baer. What can be done with abstract, geometric forms can also be done with an amalgam of images from all sorts of cultural spheres and times. Again, on a hot August day, we talked about her long career as a painter, about the importance of being an expatriate and of course, about radical figuration.
Linda Boersma You’ve had three careers as a painter: a very short one, during the time you worked in Los Angeles, from 1957 until 1960—Abstract Expressionist work, which I heard you destroyed…
Jo Baer Well, I kept a few.
LB From 1960 to 1975, the years you spent in New York, you were considered a minimalist painter along with Mangold and Stella. Your third career started around 1975, when you moved from New York to Ireland, where you began your work on “radical figuration,” in which, as you define it, there is no preeminence of image or space. It seems your work changes with the places you live. Why did you come to Amsterdam?
JB I have a lot of work in the museums and I’ve done shows here. I knew that my work was appreciated even though I didn’t know anyone.
LB You’ve stayed already quite a while…I can’t get out!
JB (laughter) Don’t have enough money. I’d go to Paris in a flash if I had the money! No, they’ve been very, very good to me, the Dutch, exceedingly good to me, and when I’ve had no money they’ve given me a grant for work, so I can’t complain. It’s also a very nice city to live in.
LB So your primary reason to stay in Amsterdam was the opportunities you had here.
JB Yes, of course. I do the best thing for my work, always.
LB I read that you had majored in biology, and in 1952 you were working as graduate faculty in physiological psychology in New York.
JB At the New School for Social Research.
LB That’s an unusual background for a painter. How does it influence you as a painter?
JB It doesn’t, but I think a university background is marvelous for intellectual clarity. All artists should have had the kind of education I had, not particularly as a scientist, but certainly intellectually at the university level. I notice that many artists who come through the art schools—their abilities in logic and clear thinking are terrible. I had been trying to teach perception, how the visual system works. And I found that young artists and even adult ones, are scientifically illiterate. I’m very grateful that I can still amuse myself by following various sciences and I find it a rich source for materials.
LB While you were working on perception and Gestalt, did you have ideas of becoming an artist?
JB My mother was a professional artist and she was very competitive, so I stayed out of art as long as I possibly could. She got wild with jealousy and very nasty when I really became an artist. She screamed at me, “Your child will grow up to be a criminal. And you can’t move to New York; it’s full of Communists.” Then she went and died of cancer, secretly. My mother was very talented, but stupid. I discovered at least I wasn’t stupid. But I discovered that my personality and talents were not really those of a scientist. On my way home from an interview at Yale for my Ph.D., I saw a little Matisse drawing in a window; I burst into tears and I never went back to school. It became a question of what to do, and finding the courage to become an artist.
LB I was asking about your study of perception because in your minimal works you talked about Mach Bands. (Mach Bands, named for Ernst Mach, occur whenever there is a change from light to dark between two areas: on the light side of the edge a lighter strip is seen, on the dark side a dark band.)
JB Yes, they’re there. I was always curious why the color on the palette was different than the color on the painting. I knew what I wanted something to look like, and I found that the means to do it were so different than the end result. And then I was very pleased to discover the reasons why. So I did some writing on it. At the time, concept art was very important, and they seemed to want to discuss things constantly. I was never a concept artist.
LB According to Gestalt, we see in patterns.
JB So what? Try not to see in patterns! There’s so many things that science analyzes which are valuable for a conversation with an art historian or a critic. If you have to make yourself look intellectually respectable it’s very handy to have, and it helps to organize your mind, but you don’t need it for making your work. On the other hand, being able to read about perception and think about this kind of thing is very valuable in making work—damned if I could tell you why.
LB When you compare your work to that of the other minimal painters, in a way yours looks different…
JB I remember Sol LeWitt saying to me, “Why are you using a piece of color in there?” I had to tell him I was a painter, that’s what painting’s about. And I had an awfully hard time with the sculptors, because no one would even consider paintings then. And as you may have read in my writings, I feel that all the intellectual apparatus necessary for those sculptors had already happened in painting. They were taking their sculptures from what painters had already invented, and they weren’t even aware of it. A lot of the sculptors were failed painters anyway, and I’d seen their old paintings; they were right to move on. But I was discriminated against as a painter, much more than as a woman.
JB No, I didn’t have any particular trouble as a woman, until feminism became an issue. Then I started being asked to be the token woman at meetings, which I declined. I discovered a group of men were meeting with Dan Flavin and Bob Morris in a move against museums. They asked me to join and make statements. I’m not even sure what it was about, because they had already had three or four meetings. I told them that and they said, “Yes, but we need a woman.” I said, “Well, get someone else. Obviously, I’m not important enough to have been asked in the first place.” I have been included in shows I more or less should have been included in, not because I was a woman but because of my work.
LB Did they think that your minimal work looked different because you were a woman?
JB The only time I saw that happening was when I was given the cover of Artforum, and instead of printing my name in the usual black or grey they used lavender. (laughter) And a certain museum director wrote about what a fine poetic sensibility I had. The feminists had a problem with me; they used to call me a female man, because I was successful in the male world. I wasn’t painting vaginas like Judy Chicago. The work was different because I was interested in working with black and white, that is, light and dark, and color. Prior to that time there was color-field painting, which was all about color, and there was black and white painting, which was very abstract and tough. I’m not interested in that kind of Cartesian dualism. I felt that you needed both in the work.
LB Sounds like a very rigid system.
JB But that’s how it was. Read Clement Greenberg at the time. He was saying that black and white painting was on its last legs. Practically the best American art had been in black and white: Kline, De Kooning’s black and white paintings are superb, the Motherwells… It was a market thing, I think. The minimalists were placing themselves as Puritans against the hedonists.
LB Around 1975 you moved from New York to the countryside of Ireland. And in that same period your work went through quite a radical change.
JB Yes, but that was intentional. You mentioned that it changed with every country, but you know, it would change with every new studio. I accept that; it’s built in. You see the world differently—your view out the window, your space, your ceiling height—everything is different. So even at that level your work will change. I moved from New York in order to change the work. I showed you a painting I started in New York and could only finish in Ireland. The pressure of a place like New York is very strong. I wasn’t terribly fond of the direction I saw painting going in when I lived there. It was going into its dumb mode, where the dumber your work was, the better. I was not about to go into cartoons. It’s easy to stand outside and be sour, but it’s very difficult to build anything new. So, I was looking for a place to go, and Ireland was perfect, except that nobody came to see the work. I became very poor. But then when I came to Amsterdam the work changed again. Dutch art affected me; I became much more formal. I have to work hard to stay off the center and to not frame things. When you’re an expatriate you do bring your own terms with you to the place, and then you can back out a little. I’m not that closely related to the art world here; they really would rather I wasn’t here. It’s very competitive.
LB Is there an explanation for this hostility?
JB Maybe they don’t want people coming in from outside. They give all their funding to their friends. But so many of the very best European artists were also expatriates—Picasso, for example. It’s almost a necessary thing to do. I find that most young artists here don’t understand originality. They don’t understand when I object to a kind of work I’ve seen for thirty years. They say, “Yes, but I’m doing it better.” I say, “You’ve had thirty years to practice; why wouldn’t it be better and who cares? Better is not the point.” They don’t understand art as a living language, that you must destroy things in order to build new things. This is the general characteristic of European artists, Dutch certainly. So for these reasons, the Dutch are antagonistic to me, probably because I’m the ranking foreigner in this country. They can’t push me around too badly, because I do have some international prestige. But some of them have been very, very good to me. They are now going to start putting me into shows with Dutch artists. It’s good for them. I brought some very good things from America. I brought, “I couldn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks.” I brought the notion that I would like to be European, but not Dutch, not English, not Irish; at least I grew through those things. As far as I’m concerned I’m about half-European and half-American, and I will be Dutch when it suits me, or when it fits well.
LB In 1983, in an article in Art in America you state very clearly that you’re no longer an abstract artist.
LB You start the text by saying that modern avant-garde art died in the seventh decade of the 20th century. Why do you think it died at that time, and how could you be so sure it was death?
JB It died of old age. The world changed in the ’60s. We understood that revolution was no longer possible in 1968, that multi-nationals ran things, that Marxism as we had understood it did not work, that social justice was not imminent, that the optimism, which was the whole thrust of the twentieth century, was no longer current. The work in the ’60s was utopian. We already knew it was over and we were saying, “Yes, but…” think that was what characterized minimalist work.
LB But what exactly was utopian about it?
JB Utopias always happen in situations where the world has become too terrible to contemplate. We had Vietnam and all manner of things that, to my generation, were unthinkable. Every decent leader was assassinated: the Kennedys, Martin Luther King… The whole world was coming to an end. So art went into the utopian ideal; it avoided the reality. There was an enormous amount of political naivete. Art was quasi-political, not truly political but not without politics, by any means. Ambiguity is a real thing: art should be as complicated as the world and our world can no longer be parceled into “either/or.” Yet from the end of the Sixties on, abstract and concept art became more and more attenuated, decorative, and intellectual. You could feel it wasn’t saying what was necessary; it was speaking to wishful thinking—that you can fix the politics by making propaganda for people who already feel and think the way you do. Most of the concept art—especially the political part—was useless because worst of all it made people feel good, as if they’d done something. And of course, they didn’t do anything. Nobody could do anything; nobody understood anything in the Seventies. And so you could feel something else was coming and was going to happen. But certainly not these old ideas—they’re from the beginning of the 20th century and they’re finished.
LB You mean that the forms are exhausted or meaningless in a changing world?
JB They’re no longer relevant. I find that most abstract art is pure decor now. It isn’t communicating. And it only speaks to a very limited audience—those who understand how it’s made. Art is always elite, but this is too small an elite.
LB So it separated itself from the world and had its own language and preached for its own parish.
JB Yes. And that’s why you have enormous amounts of corporate money coming into that kind of art. The big businesses want to keep it at the decorative level; they don’t want things speaking and they don’t want any challenges.
LB Do you know the article, “Minimal Art and the Rhetoric of Power?” According to Anna C. Chave, minimal art has exactly the same ideals as multinationals: they look industrial, impersonal, powerful. They are impressive and look as if they can control the world. The organic part was controlled and replaced by industrial science. This Art in America article of yours…
JB Let’s call it a polemic. I exaggerated it quite a bit in order to write it.
LB What was the art world’s reaction to it?
JB None that I know of. I have a blessing that’s a curse: I’m ten years ahead, and I find myself stuck, really out there, with no one to talk to, no one to argue with, or even play with. Nobody knows what the hell I’m talking about. Now, almost twelve years after the article it seems normal, but at the time no one could relate to what I was saying. They thought I was a troublemaker or a crazy woman who ran away somewhere anyway—what do we need her for? None of the Europeans understood that I wasn’t attacking the process of abstraction; I was merely saying that we have to broaden what we do as artists, and that making installations, spreading out in space, is not the way to make things different. I adore being a painter because it’s in one place. It has so many traditional aspects, you can forget about new technologies unless you need them. And you can work out really complicated ideas in painting. It’s easy to make an object that’s desirable. I see a lot of “good” sculpture in that sense, desirable objects that I don’t mind looking at. I see very few good paintings.
LB You’ve been working on a construct you call, “radical figuration” since you stopped painting in the abstract. What exactly do you mean by “radical figuration,” and how is it different from traditional figuration?
JB Radical means that you don’t allow any particular image to dominate the space; you’re not doing portraits, or storytelling, or illustration, but using images to convey meanings. I use fragments of images, transparencies, scale, and other various things to weaken the image. I use as much real drawing as I need in order to convey the name of the image—this is an arm; this is half a woman; this is an object of some sort. The figuration is radical in the sense that it’s always partial, in one way or another. A lot of American work is just a single image relating to its space. They do it the way the old Abstract Expressionists did it, by playing with edges and lines, which I do also—I’ll do anything I need. But, if you’re using a number of images in a complicated space you have to get from one to another, so the transitions become very important.
LB But if you compare the way you use myths or historical developments to Anselm Kiefer, for instance, who works with German history and also goes back to non-written art, in what way is there a difference in figuration?
JB Some of those early Kiefers are marvelous paintings; they use radical figuration. I don’t mean I’m the only one who does it. I just mean that figuration must be different. I don’t bring in myth to raise the prestige quality of the painting. I’ll only use myths that I think people will recognize. It’s working with clichés that people can understand and relate to. There’s an enormous vocabulary from the past that we can use in our own ways.
LB You choose elements from different historical times and assemble them on your canvas. You’ve said that if you assemble them with “contemporary commitment,” it might be possible to revive reverenced icons or even trite icons that can communicate meaning.
JB But I’m not interested in the resuscitation of old images.
LB But what is their meaning then?
JB The meaning is incorporated in the whole, in the total canvas. Single images don’t mean anything, other than naming themselves or their activity. I choose things and I structure them to get new meanings. You’ll have your own readings.
LB But in your latest work, there is a definite message.
JB Several, probably. But I also think it’s necessary to say propaganda is not very good art; decorative stuff is not very good art. We all have an understanding of things that are alive in our time, that speak to people in our time, and for time to come. Good art will always have this peculiar quality that it carries through the ages. It really does change people, their mindsets, their emotional sets; it speaks in very complicated ways. But please don’t ask me to explain it.
LB You say you don’t want to be a storyteller, but your images are very evocative.
JB That’s exactly what I mean. I consider it mandatory to be rude in every painting at certain points. It’s important to include some of the less pleasant aspects of life, like death and shit. And also to make sure your work doesn’t become kitsch. If I could place a precise definition on my work, it would no longer be very effective and it would certainly go out of style in six months.
LB I was wondering, when I was looking at the minimal paintings and the work you’re doing now, to what extent this radical figuration of yours contradicts the minimal work. Would you say there is a contrast?
JB Well, you can’t sum it up, it depends.
LB I was wondering to what extent both kinds of work could be seen as a result of a fascination with what a painting is.
JB Painting should remain self-conscious and formal in the sense that Greenberg once spoke of it, and I still believe in the shallowness of the space. I’ll fool around with bits of perspective, but it’s very shallow, and obviously artificial. I’m using the same kind of information in these figurative paintings that I used in my minimal work, which was about light and edges. I’m still concerned with light, and sensitive to edges of line, forms and canvases, but I’ve broadened the vocabulary considerably.
LB You are speaking about the formal organization, and the parallels between the minimal work and the work you’re doing now. But I’m thinking that the content of both works might not be so different either.
JB Well, I’d be interested in hearing about that, because that’s something I don’t know about.
LB In the ’70s you wrote some clear political statements. There seemed to be a parallel between the formal organization of your work—the relation of form and the surrounding space in a painting and a political content, the question of invading territories and extending borders on land. This political view seems to reflect both your abstract and figurative work.
JB Yes and no. In the ‘60s we were much more interested in self-determination. Certainly there was a sort of political content to the minimal work, as far as I am concerned. But it really seemed to be about identity and the rights of individuals to maintain themselves as individuals. I now contradict myself and say I’m not sure just how many rights any individual has outside of the true context of the society and the world. It’s much more complicated, and that’s why I’ve been characterizing all the minimal work as enormously naive. If there’s any real change that is necessary, it’s to get rid of that naivete. Naivete is dangerous in the real world, especially in American politics.
LB You said that images and their sources do not constitute a painting’s meaning. Then you said it’s the organization of images by the artist or by the viewer which produces meaning.
JB Both, either.
LB And changing positions and circumstances shape forms and meanings. The forms in your paintings come from very evocative systems. You say you don’t want to be a storyteller, but I wonder if this might be a contradiction. In the 1993 catalogue of the Moore College of Art, you talk about a specific meaning, or a certain figuration, such as the lioness and the horse.
JB Yes. But that was a parallel text. The work had already been finished when I wrote it. This specific meaning is only alluded to in the work in a few places. I found the subject so interesting that I wanted to explore it in writing. But you don’t need that text in order to look at the work. The painting is the vision of what I’m trying to say.
LB Looking at the work you make now, and then back at your minimal work, I suddenly had this association like a slide-projection screen.
JB Thomas McEvilly said it’s like the back of a projection screen that has flipped forward. These are all very interesting ideas, but they’re not mine. Perhaps you take the images too seriously.
LB For me, it’s difficult not to do so. The way the series is composed—the woman, the horse, the saddle—it’s not pure coincidence.
JB Of course not. The saddle sits on the horse, and the woman sits on the saddle. The saddle is an invention of control. Being able to control animals and the world around you are the effect of surpluses, of civilization reaching a certain place where we begin controlling each other. You have slaves and servants, and animals. And women fall into that capacity in certain levels of civilization.
LB I don’t know why you bring that up.
JB Because of how I structure things, of course. If you’ve got a horse around you might as well have a saddle. Or, you might have a whip, a plow, or a chariot. These are choices that speak. The fact that I combine it with a woman shows that I was interested in what it means to domesticate something, the difference between the wild and the tame.
LB Does your last work have a title yet?
JB Yes, it’s called, When Every Lamplight’s Spent. It is a diptych. The two panels are titled separately, underneath. The square one is The Sardana Becomes Infernal, and the second one comprises the rest of the lines: And Shadowy Lucifer Descends on a Prow of the Thames or Hudson or Seine, Thrashing Bituminous Wings, Half-Shorn From the Effort to Tell You: ’It’s Time.’ That’s the title.
LB That was my second question.
LB To me, it looks like an evolution diptych.
JB I don’t see why.
LB Well, there is a globe on the left side, “three hundred million years,” written under it, all these animals, and a mixture of Egyptian culture and contemporary buildings. On the other hand, there is this idea of doom, a black bird descending, and a nuclear U-boat.
JB I’m mixing organic, the new and old, and the mythical. The bird is a harpy, a carrier of souls. The one on the left side is about messengers; the other one is the message. When I worked as a minimal artist on a diptych, I used interaction and made them identical. But in this case, I’ve made them different sizes, connected but different, so they evolve. The painting is about time—but not time in the evolutionary sense, it’s about time spans. So I’m not saying pyramids became modern buildings. As with animals and dreamers, in a painting there is no such thing as a future or a past tense. The painting is also about light and dark and space. The panels are no longer identical because the world is no longer that simple. Will that satisfy you as an explanation, or are you still unhappy?
LB No, let me put it this way: Do you think that there will ever be a return of a live abstract art?
JB Anything’s possible. I don’t see why not, 20 or 30 years from today. But I think what the 20th century invented was style, and that’s what we have to get rid of. I’ve used all kinds of styles, but 20th century artists used style itself as their overriding theme—trying different ways of organizing very complicated materials, figuring out one overall concept in order to handle it. We can now see that that doesn’t work. But there’s no real reason why what was done in abstract art can’t continue to be done just as well with images, instead of triangles and squares.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee