"Vision and Prayer (Dylan Thomas)", 1996-1997, by Jo Baer. Diptych, oil on canvas with silkscreen. Photo courtesy of Galerie Barbara Thumm
American artist Jo Baer escaped New York’s commercially driven art market in the mid-1970s by moving to Europe. As she hopped from Belfast to London to Amsterdam (where she’s been living for the last 26 years), Baer’s constantly been looking for ways to renew her work and “do the right thing”.
Over the years, she has turned away from the minimalist paintings of white rectangles bordered with colored bands that made her famous in favour of a representational style rooted in metaphorical imagery. A decade-spanning selection of her paintings are currently being shown at Galerie Barbara Thumm.
Amsterdam isn’t the first city that comes to mind when I think of the ‘art world’. What attracted you to it?
I moved to Amsterdam in 1984 from London, and it was such a relief. Amsterdam was very art-friendly at the time and London was conspicuously not. Dutch museums used to be among the best in the world, they loved my work and, besides, everybody spoke English… It was the right time to leave London and I really didn’t want to go back to New York.
Why? Wasn’t New York a heaven for the arts in the 1970s and 1980s?
I wanted to change what I was doing and I wouldn’t have been able to do that with all the pressure from the people around me there. New York was a very commercially oriented place and I was a very successful artist – I’d just had a one-person show at the Whitney and there was enormous pressure on me to keep doing what I was doing. But I refused to be someone else’s little tool. I didn’t want to do what was expected of me: I wanted to do the right thing.
It’s been more than 20 years now. Are you still enjoying Amsterdam?
I really don’t need a big city – I’m over 80 now and I’m not going out dancing anymore. Amsterdam is a very nice city to live in. Dutch people have been very nice to me.
Do you value non-artists’ opinions?
Sure, that’s who I’m working for. But I’m still an artists’ artist. My biggest fun club is other artists. I always had the feeling that what you see is an elite working very much in its prime. Artists’ work filters down to people who are interested in art, and then it filters further down to the people who are sort of interested in art. Then it goes out in the real world. It takes maybe 20 years or 50 years, but it eventually comes out and it works.
In 1983, you published an article in Art in America titled ''I Am No Longer an Abstract Artist’’. Why?
The world changed big time from 1968 to 1972. Abstract art died of old age and I felt the need to reinvent my work. It became clear that everything that had gone on before suddenly fell out of date; it became somehow trivial and boring to keep doing it. I was in London when I wrote that article: I had been working in a new way for eight or nine years by then, and I felt it was time to explain what and why I was doing it.
You moved from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, and then into what you call “Radical Figuration”.
I wanted to come back to meaning. It was time. I wanted to do it, not because I wanted to tell the world how to fix things, but because I wanted to figure out what was happening. Besides, my work started to get decorative and there is nothing worse than minimal work that’s getting decorative.
How would you define your current style?
Today, I’m doing fusion art. Fusion is a physical process that allows me to formulate and map things out, then to articulate and prioritize them. You can inflect the canvas…
“Inflect”? Are you in a constant fight with the canvas?
Yes, I am. I work very slowly trying to make all the elements talk to each other in a coherent way. It is a question of assembling. I’m putting them together into a new understanding.
Could you describe, in a few words, the body of work shown being shown at Galerie Barbara Thumm.
There are eight works put together into a chronological exhibition. It begins with a painting that I started in NYC and finished in Ireland, and ends with works from the early 2000s. My most recent paintings are not there.
You majored in biology. From that to art is a pretty radical change. How did it happen?
I never regretted doing science and philosophy at university level. In fact, I recommend it to younger artists. Anyway, me being an artist comes down to what one of my professors once told me: “This is not a field for you; this is not a field for any woman. We don’t need you here.” I would have been a second-class scientist anyway, so no regrets.
Was it a hard transition?
It was. I had a very hard time becoming an artist because of my mother. She was bigger than me. She was a wonderful artist, but a horrible woman: 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.
What was the best thing about being an artist?
Being an artist is actually very hard work, but I’ve done everything there was to do that was important to me. Being so old now, I’m tempted to stop, if I only wasn’t so sure I’d be bored to tears if I did.
JO BAER | Through June 26. For more information, visit www.bthumm.de