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Jo Baer.

PAULA COOPER GALLERY

The early work of Jo Baer is often described as Minimalist. Featured in group shows with pieces by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris throughout the '60s, her geometric canvases (presented singly, in serial pairs, or diptychs) were seen as pictorial counterparts to the Minimal object. Not everyone subscribed to this characterization of Baer's work, least of all the Minimalists themselves, who held radically divergent views of painting. Judd and Flavin took the most extreme position, rejecting the medium out of hand for its implicit illusionism, its suggestion of a rational consciousness projected onto the world (both figurative and abstract painting were charged with the crime of anthropocentrism). As far as they were concerned, only a three-dimensional work could escape the negative implications of the pictorial, and they did indeed abandon painting for the production of objects. At the same time, the Specific Object (as Judd referred to this new work) suggested something more. Conceived as "neither painting nor sculpture," the Minimal object exposed the obsolescence of the Modernist exploration of the formal constraints of painting - the very strategy Baer (or artists like Frank Stella or Robert Ryman) - continued to pursue. If a major thrust of Minimal esthetics was an unrelenting literalism (whose implication was a rejection of painting) then pictorial Minimalism was an internally conflicted venture, uneasily poised between the late-Modernist paradigm of self-reflexivity associated with Clement Greenberg and Minimalism's challenge to that teleological narrative. While some of the artists working in this vein would go on to produce convincing bodies of work, others were less able to negotiate these opposed positions. Stella, for example, the most important Minimal painter of the '60s, quickly abandoned the monochrome format and materialist surfaces of his stripe paintings for the coloristic illusionism of his later work. Baer herself would reject the Minimal idiom during the mid '70s for an unapologetically representational manner.

Baer's recent show consisted entirely of paintings done between 1963 and 1975, prior to this change in direction. The earliest, an untitled canvas of 1963, already demonstrated the characteristic features of her mature style: a thick square or rectangular canvas with a pale monochrome center framed by a black surround edged in color. Baer's simultaneous exposure of the canvas' "empty center" and highlighting of the edge has been much noted, and it is this format that she would make her own. Within the field of Minimal painting her work stood out. Most artists working with the medium articulated the literalness of the support. Stella's earliest stripe paintings presented a consistent and unbroken pattern reverberating from the center to the edge of the support; Ryman's and Marden's early monochromes, slathered in buttery paint, did not so much thematize the framing convention as expose it as an absence (the leftover canvas). In contrast, Baer's blackened borders, rimmed in purple or ochre or green, reasserted figure/ground tensions to produce retinal play. While Baer's spare deductive format and excessively thick stretchers exemplified literalist style, the optical ambiguity of her work suggested a dialogue with the Day-Glo canvases of Kenneth Noland and the mid '60s Stella, or the contemporaneous phenomenon of Op art.

Initially, Baer's own path was unclear. Though boldly conceived, Untitled, 1963, was tentatively executed: a few short blue lines float uncertainly on the black surround, while the stretcher's sides reveal countless randomly placed staples. In contrast, subsequent works suggest an increasing refinement. In Untitled (White Square Lavender), 1964-74, the surround is flush with the canvas' edge, a quality that, along with the square shape of the canvas, made this painting the most self-contained and balanced work in the show. Baer later reused this format in diptychs with rectangular supports and borders lined in green, destroying the equilibrium achieved with the lavender square. In front of these works one's gaze is never still, rebounding from one canvas to the other in a restless Ping-Pong motion. In a subsequent series, the "wraparound" paintings, such effects of perceptual simultaneity are explored within a single canvas. Considerably thinner than the earlier works, with allusive gray grounds, the wraparounds suggest a retreat from the Minimal object. Moreover, the black surrounds are here replaced by symmetrical bars lined in red (the bars "wrap around" the stretcher's sides). While the earlier diptychs produce a dynamic vision, these works force a perceptual equilibrium, containing one's gaze within the symmetrical confines of a single canvas. In the final "wraparounds," produced during the early '70s, Baer restored the thick stretchers of the early works, yet decorated these surfaces with asymmetrical color planes and rainbow stripes. The meeting of such compositional schema with the Minimal painting/object seems forced. In these final works, above all, the underlying tensions of pictorial Minimalism were baldly exposed.

- James Meyer
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Title Annotation:Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, New York
Author:Meyer, James
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:788
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