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In the thoroughly absorbing exhibition Donald Baechler: Early Work 1980 to 1984 at Cheim & Read, there are two works, both from 1982, in which the artist appears to be unlearning how to draw.
The shapes are raw, awkward and deliberately artless. In “Standing Nude (after Shelby Creagh),” the model’s head is truncated by a brushy cloud of white paint that activates an otherwise empty expanse above the figure. The woman depicted in “Reclining Nude (after Shelby Creagh)” is squashed into the lower right-hand corner, with a full third of the sheet unoccupied save for three curious, short horizontal dashes on the far left.
Hands, feet and faces aren’t even attempted, with arms and legs tapering to a sharp point or cut off by the paper’s edge. These works signal an abrupt break in Baechler’s style, at least within the arc documented by the show, between the comparatively graceful “Monotone Drawings” of 1981, in which the forms are created in washy grisailles and then outlined in graphite, to his willfully graceless works of 1983-84, where thick black or blue brushstrokes converge into primal, emblematic, childlike imagery that retains every bit of its punch.
There’s something forceful about the lack of articulation in these two drawings, and purposeful in their resistance to the conventional objectives of life drawing. Here the artist seems to be forcing himself to see with fresh eyes and to feel out what he’s seeing, perhaps through the use of his non-dominant hand.
Among the more puzzling aspects of the drawings are their titles, which indicate that they are “after,” or copied from, someone named Shelby Creagh. If they are copies of another artist’s work, then the “de-skilling” supposition outlined above, in which Baechler chooses to discard his natural facility in order to achieve a more authentic engagement with form, is turned on its head.
Baechler explained in response to an email that Shelby Creagh was a classmate of his at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. They were both required to take a life drawing class, but Creagh, who was already deeply engaged in Minimalist and Conceptual practices as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, didn’t take the course seriously. He ended up giving his drawings to Baechler, who, in 1982, was already basing his work on drawings made by others, and he asked Creagh’s permission to copy them, which is how these images came about.
We may never know how faithfully Baechler went about copying Creagh’s work. But to look at the “Monotone Drawings” from the year before, or a couple of gray, black and pink pieces from 1982 — all of which approach a kind of naïve elegance — is to infer that Baechler discovered a new sense of linear strength in the act of reproducing Creagh’s jagged and ungainly forms.
Baechler’s appropriation of these drawings, then, shifts from the observational to the conceptual, which apparently had been his focus all along. The pre-Creagh works in the show, primarily in graphite and oil-based enamel on paper, appear to be derived from the kind of generic imagery you’d find in magazines and newspapers (including, intriguingly, a sink, dated 1981, which immediately recalls Robert Gober’s sink sculptures of the mid-‘80s; in the same email exchange, Baechler stated that while the two artists knew each other, he believes that Gober never saw his sink drawing).
After the Creagh copies, Baechler’s work turns ruder, rougher, and more markedly textured. Line becomes a meandering entity that thoroughly melds painting and drawing. The surface takes on its own bristling personality, with pasted-down scraps of paper and torn-out sketchbook pages augmenting the tactility of the ground. The collage elements also serve as erasures, blotting out portions of the image, which are sometimes restated or revised, and sometimes left as lacunae.
In a interview with David Kapp in BOMB Magazine (Summer 2000), quoted by David Rimanelli in the exhibition’s catalogue, Baechler says, “One reason I build my surfaces up is because I don’t really want to know what the line is going to do. I want this built-in fracture; when I drag the brush along the canvas I don’t want it to be a smooth, easy voyage—I want some problems along the way.”
From the evidence presented in the exhibition, this material abrasiveness first came to the fore with the Creagh drawings, where scraps of muslin are applied to create a tougher, denser surface, and graphite and black acrylic lines are forced to maneuver through a shifting topography of ridges and cracks — a self-imposed impediment that slammed the brakes on the splashy gestures of his previous work.
Cheim & Read often saves the best for last, and the selection of pictures in the smaller room behind the main, south-facing gallery is a knockout. Aside from the above-mentioned paintings on paper from 1982, the work is all from 1983-84, a vibrant set of rudimentary images, mostly of heads, made entirely out of line against fields of bright yellow or warm, mottled gray.
The abject characters begat from Baechler’s art-brutish lines populate a postmodern absurdist comedy into which the artist seems to have relegated himself, having written his name in large, red script across the surface of a few paintings, including one explicitly titled “Self Portrait” (1984). This disembodied, potato-shaped head, with a single, scribbled oval for an eye, a set of squiggles for hair, a shriveled, limp slip of a nose, and an incongruous trace of a smile, is laid over what appears to be a whited-out figure falling from the sky, an Icarus or Phaethon brushing too closely to the sun.
Another bodiless head, also from 1984, sports a slapdash arrow through its temples. It is called “Afrikareise,” apparently after Unsere Afrikareise (Our Trip to Africa, 1966), a short, impressionistic, quietly polemical documentary by the Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Peter Kubelka, which follows a group of white European hunters as they blast away at big game on an African safari. Despite the film’s non-narrative structure, the inequities of colonialism and the contrast between the cosseted foreign exploiters and the ingenuous, indigenous exploited couldn’t be starker.
The stoically miserable head floating in the center of “Afrikareise” conjures a host of associations, from Custer’s Last Stand and, by implication, Manifest Destiny’s history of conquest and despoilment, to the sight-gag arrow Steve Martin used to wear as part of his ‘70s standup routine.
“Afrikareise” and the works from these years, while remaining decidedly deadpan, manage to personify both the farcical highs and tragic lows of Ronald Reagan’s Shining City on the Hill, appearing at the moment when a mysterious epidemic, first called GRID and later AIDS, was beginning its trail of devastation, particularly in the lives of gay men. Baechler’s portraits, in their crudity and pathos, evoke a time when everything was broken, including art.
Donald Baechler: Early Work 1980 to 1984 continues at Cheim & Read (547 W. 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 30.