Jo Baer: The Minimalist Years, 1960-1975
Jo Baer: The Minimalist Years, 1960-1975,
through June 15, 2003
Richard Serra’s initial reaction upon seeing Jo Baer’s orchid-inspired “Wraparound” paintings, Baer has recalled, was to ask, “How does it feel to do revolutionary work?” [quoted in Stein, see below]. Moreover, the first important art-world article on Baer’s work — a cover article by Carter Ratcliff in Art Forum (May, 1972) — focused on her wraparound paintings, two vertical and three horizontal, from her Orchid series. So why did the predominant critical reaction to her recent DIA exhibition strongly favor Baer’s earlier black band paintings over the wraparounds? Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, and Carol Diehl, in Art in America, both strongly praised the black band paintings while disparaging the wraparound paintings. (A notable exception was Jim Long’s review in the Brooklyn Rail, (Winter 2002) which strongly preferred the wraparound paintings exhibited in the third room at DIA.)
To fully appreciate these disparate claims, one needs to consider a range of historical, psychological, and conceptual issues. First, from a psychological point of view, there is likely to be a primacy effect-the black band paintings came first and were well received. The likelihood of a primacy effect is heightened by the fact that the wraparound Orchid paintings were so different from the black bands that Diehl describes them as looking as if they were done by a different artist. There are also art historical reasons why a favorable reaction to the band paintings might have occurred. The black band paintings appear to be a direct reaction to the claims of the prophets of Minimalism — Judd and Morris — that painting was dead. In effect, they are attempts to produce minimal works that are clean, cool and direct and yet retain a certain singularity peculiar to painting. It is as if the blinders were removed from Greenberg’s eyes and he could see that such paintings were nearer to specifying the unique properties of painting than had ever been achieved in the 1960’s by his favorite color field painters, Noland and Olitski.
Clearly then the black band paintings are historically important, but from another point of view they are more limited and less original than the wraparound Orchid paintings. Indeed, their optical glow appears somewhat reminiscent of certain of Flavin’s neon rectangles. On the other hand, if one assumes that an important antecedent of Baer’s paintings comes from her training in the psychology of perception, we can view her wraparound paintings as an attempt to explore more complex modalities of perception than she attempted in the black band paintings. In the words of James J. Gibson’s (1966) seminal work, Baer was in effect exploring “the senses considered as a perceptual system.” Viewed from this perspective, the wraparound works are a considerable advance over the black band paintings. Specifically, the black band paintings are disembodied-all the action is in the eye, giving in Carter Ratcliff’s (1972) prescient words, “a reduced version of seeing.”
Elaborating on Ratcliff’s observation, it may be claimed in contra-distinction to the black band paintings, the wraparound Orchid paintings entrain the body in terms of requiring various postural adjustments to solve the manifold perceptual puzzles posed by Baer. Such explorations supply kinesthetic feedback so that what the eye sees is augmented by information from other sensory modalities. Thus, it may be argued that these paintings draw upon an embodied view of perceiving-they compel us to repeatedly shift our bodily orientations if we want to detect Baer’s edgy messages which are never fully in view from a single point of observation. Such perceiving by doing fits J.J. Gibson’s (1966) concern with perceiving-acting cycles whereby what we do affects what we perceive and what we perceive affects what we do.
These paintings are embodied in a second sense-they make claims on architectural space. They teach us about how perception works in the real, cluttered architectural environment. Here, angles of vision are constantly cut off and/or obscured. Ordinary seeing involves sightings in between, over or under environmental structures. Viewed thusly, the wraparound paintings go beyond creating a visual pop based on retinal responses. Rather they bring us closer to how in Gins and Arakawa’s (2002) terms, we partition the world in the process of landing in it. Like the real world, they open us up to the inexhaustible information provided by the perceptual system when it is allowed to operate naturalistically. These paintings make perceiving a sited process involving our responses to line, color and space.
In these terms, Baer’s wraparound Orchid paintings prepare us for navigating the real world in its inexhaustible complexity rather than eyeballing a cool, beautiful object in a virtual world that is in the end an optical tease. Such navigations provide a multi-modal aesthetic experience that is deeper and longer lasting than “the cheap thrills” of the black band paintings.