Jo Baer (b. 1929) is an American painter best known for her involvement in the Minimalist art movement in the 1960s. Moving from Los Angeles to New York City in 1960 signaled a shift for Baer from her 1950s Abstract Expressionist style to that of her Minimalist investigation, which would last until 1975. Baer’s paintings from this period are dominated by white (sometimes grey) expanses of paint that are enclosed in thick black borders accompanied by thin colored bands. See “Korean”, 1962 and “Stations of the Spectrum (Primary)”, 1967-69. These bands of color are playfully set between the contrast created by the black edge and white (or grey) interior, creating a physiological retinal effect, which causes the colors to fluoresce and appear brighter. Through these works and her writings in the 1960s, Baer was actively engaged in the debate concerning the developing definition of ‘minimalism’ and she became a defender of painting and paintings’ role as equally minimalist as Donald Judd and Robert Morris’ sculpture. Judd and Morris were incredibly skeptical about a painting’s ability to exist without illusion and allusion. However as Baer argues in a 1967 letter to Artforum’s editor, “all art always alludes to something else”. This argument is best explained in her letter to Robert Morris also from 1967: “If an unvisual, literary set of non-lookers must “see” me as a surreal illustrator of clean pages, empty vistas, forever-space or 19th century void, then by that same token, they must “see” that you and Judd build boxes; Noland designs yards of gaily striped fabric; Stella makes giant insignia; USw. Allusion didn’t start or stop with pictures (I hear you all make surrogate statues), but art is art, or not; picture, statue, or table aside.” Regarding her own work, she writes in the same 1967 letter to Robert Morris: “A painting is an object which has an emphatic frontal surface, I paint a black band which does not recede, a colour band which does not obtrude, a white square or rectangle which does not move back or forth, to or fro, or up or down; there is also a painted, white, exterior frame band which is edged around the edge to the black. Every part is painted and contiguous to its neighbour: no part is above or below any other part. There is no hierarchy. There is no ambiguity. There is no illusion. There is no space or interval (time).” Baer’s work is conscious of its own physical nature as three-dimensional object and the paint contained in this object refers to its own dimensions. The creation of an artificial object depends on a process of pre-planning and execution, sometimes involving the application of color to a surface or shaping of that surface. This prerequisite is equally shared by Judd (see “Untitled (box with trough)”, 1963), Morris, and Baer, all who engaged in an attempt to create as minimally as possible, painting and sculpture alike.
Baer continued her minimalist efforts with works such as “H. Arcuata”, 1971 and “Untitled (Wraparound Triptych – Blue, Green, Lavender)”, 1969-1974. By 1975 she left New York for Ireland, breaking with Minimalism, sensing that it was too formulaic. She began works that embraced imagery rather than non-objective shapes, labeling this as “radical figuration” in 1983. These paintings are an attempt to use imagery in a non-narrative way by not allowing any particular image in the work to dominate the space or interpretation. Baer’s rejection of and move from Minimalism toward the figurative parallels the development of the Neo-Expressionist movement. See “Of a Fearful Symmetry (bound Hand and Foot)”, 1991, and “Testament of the Powers That Be (Where Trees Turn to Sand, Residual Colours Stain the Lands)”, 2001. Jo Baer is represented by Gagosian Gallery and Galerie Barbara Thumm in Berlin. She currently lives and works in Amsterdam. See also: Frank Stella, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel.