Jo Baer, Modernism, and Painting on the Edge

By Kelly, Patricia | Art Journal, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Jo Baer, Modernism, and Painting on the Edge


Kelly, Patricia, Art Journal


Jo Baer's white canvases and abstract paintings of the late 1960s had a promising beginning. Included in important group shows in New York which helped define Minimal, and early Conceptual art, her work was ostensibly well situated to influence, and even help define, the future course of modernism. ' Baer herself seemed just that ambitious. Through her paintings and theoretical writings, she troubled both a tradition of formalist criticism and the newly emergent discourse on Minimal art.2 By increasing me depth of her stretch- ers, hanging the work dose to the floor, and painting on the edges of the canvas, Baer deçentered established pictorial con- ventions and exhibition strategies. Using the viewer's physical interaction with the work as a catalyst for the exploration of vision, she instigated a form of radical modernism intended to remvigoTate the self-reflexivity of contemporary painting.11 In short:, Baer's canvases promised the disinterested spectator participatory engagement, a tactic associated as much with performative practices as with the theatricality of Minimal art.4

But, as Baer's experience makes clear, by the mid- 1960s it was not so easy to shore up the dialectical promise of modern painting. Challenged by new technologies and media, and gainsaid by Minimal art, the problems intrinsic to painting were no longer considered theoretically central.5 As Donald Judd and Robert Morris, each in highly specific ways, worked to establish a conceptual framework for Minimalism built in part on painting's demise, Baer went on the defensive, attempting to demonstrate painting's current purchase. Yet Baer found few allies. Though her critique of Minimalism stands to some degree alongside the interests of a formalist modernism, her position as a woman artist and her commitment to a peripatetic viewership marginalized her from formalism's power base. On the one hand, Baer aligned herself with Clement Greenberg's modernist legacy through her preoccupation with the formal elements of painting. On the other, by prioritizing the visual encounter with the spectator, an experience based in real time and space, Baer cut herself off from established institutional backing. Such oppositional push-and-pull - between modern art and Minimalism, painting and sculpture, stillness and movement, and even canvas and edge - was central in Baer's efforts to radicalize contemporary painting.

Mapping this terrain provides a different point of entry into the pressures of this historical moment, particularly for artists engaged in abstraction.11 For Baer's access to what Anna Chave has described as the "inner circles of the art world," her relationship with male artists such as Judd, Mel Bochner, Robert Smithson, and Dan Graham, and Jaer fluency with philosophical and scientific discourses of the day lend a unique perspective to entrenched arguments regarding the state of modern painting in the postwar period.7 Further, Baer's production and her approach to modernism in crisis can be used to open up the broader significance of complex and seemingly insular aesthetic debates to the sociobistorical realities of late- 1960s politics. While there is no mistaking Greenberg's authority and power in the 1950s, termed the "Greenberg effect" by Caroline Jones, even tiien there were other voices troubling a stable understanding of modernist discourse.8 Harold Rosenberg, for instance, dismissed the disinterested observer crucial to Greenberg's interpretations by stressing process and shifting emphasis from the object to the creative act, while Leo Steinberg advocated a more pluralistic approach to interpretation combining formalism with an analysis of subject matter and historical context.9 By the 1960s, as Greenberg's position increasingly came under siege, Baer was able to draw from a diverse modernist tradition to examine both painting's formal potential and its social relevance.10

Sculpture, not Painting

Such emphasis on and engagement with embodied experience are evident in Baer's Stations of the Spectrum (Secondary) from 1967-69. …

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