‘Sensation is the edge of things. Where there are no edges, there are no places.’
At first glance, Between the Lines (R.A.T.S. however…) brings together a diverse group of works by Jo Baer (1929). Her formal strategies, use of material and the viewing experience are central, as are several, sometimes furtive, recurring thematic aspects. The interconnections between the works reveal themselves along the way and are emphasized by a changing, evolving arrangement.
Baer has explored various media and styles in her long career and now has, as she laughingly says so herself, ‘tricks for sixty years’. After working briefly with an abstract expressionist idiom, she positioned herself as a minimalist artist in the 1960s, contributing to the development of hard-edge painting. With her departure to Ireland in 1975, when her career was at its peak, her work also changed. She developed her so-called ‘radical figuration’, or ‘image works’ in which she rendered recognizable forms partially or layered, and which she continued in Amsterdam where she has lived and worked since the mid-1980s. This figurative vocabulary enabled her to better convey meanings – albeit without becoming truly concrete. But above all, it allowed her to address a wider audience.
The intuitively composed constellations of sometimes suggestive and other times more specific forms in her prints, drawings and paintings go beyond a single narrative. Instead, in relation to each other, they rather have the subtle, emotive effect of a poem. “The meaning is incorporated into the whole. I choose things and I structure them to get new meanings. I am leaving it for anyone to construct the painting. It’s half-structured. Loose ends, I like that”.
In Between the Lines (R.A.T.S. however…) this type of work forms the center of gravity, with a focus on the drawings and prints Baer made after arriving in the Netherlands. These are the five drawings Anisotropic Relations (1988), Farmers (1990) and the monumental collage Corner Stone (1992). Gradually, these works are complemented by the early drawings Untitled (1961) and Hinges (1964), the imposing collages The River Thames and The Mighty Hudson (1992), the later sketch-like series Altar of the Egos and by her most recent paintings The Elephants Graveyard (2023) and Sister & Brother(2023). Cornerstone and Sister & Brother form, as it were, two poles in the show. Where Cornerstone seduces with floral patterns, lines suggesting a saddle and (prehistoric) erotic effigies, Sister & Brother is darker and more explicit. In contrast, Baer’s playful nature comes to the fore in the pastel series Anisotropic Relations, which can be seen as a light-hearted reckoning with her five ex-husbands.
Furthermore, the emphasis of the exhibition is on Baer’s ability to vary and play with formal language, color, transitions, connections between recurring or repackaged visual elements, themes and connotations. Mountains, rivers, caverns, boulders, passages, vanishing points, maps, the (female) body and animals recur repeatedly. The exhibition also invites the viewer to consider the works while walking around and playing with connections and comparisons. The curation of Between the Lines (R.A.T.S. however…) will change several times during its run to highlight new visual relationships.
Baer does not express an explicitly feminist message in her work, and throughout her career, amidst the dominant sculptors, she felt discriminated against as a painter rather than as a woman. Nevertheless, an edginess and determination shines through in all her choices. “Rude is the only way to be, if you are female. You don’t get anywhere else otherwise”. As a successful artist, she felt responsible, knowing that few female colleagues were in a similar position: “I knew that I was asking for trouble by not keeping quiet, but I felt that speaking out was the right thing to do”. And speaking out she did, particularly in favor of painting, which male minimalist sculptors had declared dead. Feminists at the time, however, did not want anything to do with her. They disparagingly called her a female man because she was successful in a man’s world. The exhibition includes some essays and letters by Baer that highlight her militancy.
Although the exhibition presents a selection drawn from different eras and seemingly diverse in nature, Between the Lines (R.A.T.S. however…) shows the consistency of Baer’s practice. After all, she ultimately works with the same principles in all her work to explore the potential of painting; light and darkness, contrast, edges and lines. Within this spectrum, she continues to renew herself and declare her messages. At the age of 94, her fierce energy is still apparent. As she herself says: “I am so old now, I can really do anything I want.”
ROZENSTRAAT would like to thank Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Hans Klasema, Leo Arnold and Galerie Barbara Thumm for their support in realizing this exhibition.