Richard Baker is best known for his still-life paintings of tabletops, often tilted at impossible angles and covered with out-of-print art books and other bric-a-brac, such as ceramic pots, to-go food containers, candy bars, and tulips. Ranging from the lowbrow Learn to Draw by Jon Gnagy (Mr. “Learn-To-Draw”) to the hefty catalogue of the exhibition Paris-New York (1977) — the year the artist graduated from high school — Baker’s non-hierarchical representations form an inventory of the books that have, at different times, been central to his ongoing education, stretching from when he was a teenager until the present.
In 2004, Baker branched out and, working on a one-to-one scale, began making gouaches of books, beginning with ones he had read, including Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, Ezra Pound’s The ABC of Reading, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. These initial choices evoke that period of adolescence when some teenage boys, in an attempt to understand the changes they are undergoing, begin reading intensely subjective narratives.
Later, Baker began making gouaches of books he had been meaning to read. Eventually, he realized that every limitation that he set on the project would crumble, that there was always a different order to be discovered and made. This has helped keep the project fresh.
By his own estimation, Baker has done at least two to three hundred gouaches, all based on specific books. In order to do the gouaches, he has to have a copy of the book before him. There are stacks of books on almost every surface of his studio as well as on the floor, reminding me of a secondhand book dealer’s office or backroom, especially since there multiple copies of particular volumes — order bordering on pandemonium.
The difference is in the topology of his paintings on the studio wall, where he has broken his work down into distinct groups — gouaches of books, book covers without type (they resemble geometric abstractions), record covers, and other printed material, including comic books, which he has set off to the side.
As much as it is a body of work, it is also the expression of Baker’s ardor for knowledge. (Isn’t this synthesis true of our best artists?) He is not trying to be hip or show off. You cannot explain your passions, but you can convey your enthusiasm, which Baker’s gouaches do. (He is the opposite of Richard Prince, who knows not to be enthusiastic in his art because that would convey vulnerability.)
* * *
Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library” comes to mind:
Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accustomed itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?
At one point, I ask Richard what motivated him to make gouaches of these particular record covers, and he points out that, except for the tiny words on the side of the album, these covers are among the only ones that didn’t have names on them when they were first released. It is his subset within a larger group, a way to make some kind of order out of the unruliness that is the record industry.
There is a row of gouaches of the cover designs of City Lights Pocket Poets, all without their titles. I recognize the red-and-blue cover of O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and the black and white format used in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Kaddish.”
Baker talks about different book designs, but is particularly glowing about those of Alvin Lustig (1915–1955). Lustig was a designer who, according to Steven Heller (Eye Magazine, 1993, vol. 3, no. 10), “introduced the principles of Modern art into graphic design that have had a long-term influence on contemporary practice.” Each time I have gone to Richard’s studio, I have learned about another facet of his passion.
* * *
There is an exhibition I would like to see that would replicate a wall of Richard Baker’s studio and cover it with his gouaches. The show would include Daniel Douke’s three-dimensional hybrid paintings of the boxes that computers come in, Richard Artschwager’s “Table and Chair” (1963–64), the German painter Peter Dreher’s 18-panel, 33-foot-long panoramic oil painting of a Pacific Beach motel room, Josephine Halvorson’s recent blackboard paintings, Tom Burkhardt’s “FULL STOP,” a walk-in, cardboard recreation of his studio, Maria Bussmann’s “Long Beach, NY,” which is a continuous sixty-five-foot-long drawing on Telex paper of the shoreline, and Dawn Clements’s life-size drawings of her kitchen sink and other areas of her environment.
These artists have synthesized their imagination with their fervor for meticulously bringing it to bear on commonplace things. Some have pushed this combination into the domain of installation art, while others, like Baker, are poised on the cusp. Historical precedents would include Kurt Schwitters’ six Merzbau, Jasper Johns’ two works known as “Painted Bronze” (both 1960), Willard Midgette’s “The Loft” (1971), Red Grooms’ “Ruckus Manhattan” (1975), Jackson Pollock’s studio barn, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and Morandi’s studio, which is installed in the Museo Morandi in Bologna, Italy.
In the right hands, diligence can become a radical act. It is not about appropriating or copying, but about the subjective nature of experience. We do not experience everything the same way — a fact that many want to deny. Subjectivity is what Warhol worked very hard to suppress, though traces of it are in all of his work, even if the art establishment willfully ignores it. Warhol wanted to become a machine because it would mean that subjectivity played no role in his work. As his “Camouflage Self Portrait” suggests, he desperately wanted to be recognized, but was deeply afraid of being discovered.
(Isn’t appropriation or what some call conceptual art, as Prince and legions of others practice it, the latest period style?)
* * *
Baker shows me four different gouaches of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.” Each gouache is of a dog-eared copy with Stein seen in profile. He is, in effect, doing a portrait of a photographic portrait, which is perfectly in keeping with the writer who is famous for saying, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” (Which we ought to remind ourselves can be heard as “eros is eros is eros …”) It also seems fitting that he is doing multiple portraits of a book in which the author has taken on the persona of someone else and written her autobiography.
Baker owns nine copies of the Stein book, and is thinking of making gouaches of each. He tells me that he is beginning to think of himself as the August Sander of books, that he is making portraits of specific objects, and that he doesn’t distinguish between the good examples and the bad.
While he could never have met him, Benjamin has a lot to say about Baker’s desire for specificity and for knowing:
The period, the region, the craftsmanship, the former ownership — for a true collector the whole background of an item adds up to a magic encyclopedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object. In this circumscribed area, then, it may be surmised how the great physiognomists — and collectors are the physiognomists of the objects of the world of objects — turn into interpreters of fate.
At a time when books can be downloaded, and they are in that sense beginning to disappear, like the wooly mammoth and the dodo bird, Baker’s passion has led him to become an “interpreter of fate” both on the local and on the global level.
* * *
It is no surprise to learn that reading has always been a big part of Baker’s life. Early in his life, a book was a portal, a gateway to another time and place. (For Warhol, whose parents were immigrants who seemed to have instilled little love for books and reading, movies were the portal, the gateway to freedom and the realm of the imagination.)
There are those who believe the world exists to be turned into a media image, that nothing can escape media’s electronic grasp. Everything is surface — there is neither depth nor interior. This view is a perversion of the French symbolist poet, Stephane Mallarme, who said: “Everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.” Or, if we follow the unspoken logic of Baker’s project, everything in the world exists to end up as a book cover.
You should not judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes, but a dog-eared book cover by Baker stirs up the chaos of memories while implicitly acknowledging the disorder that is waiting to greet us all. As works on paper, his gouaches are portraits of our resilience and susceptibility, our purposefulness and helplessness.
An exhibition of Richard Baker’s work, Tight, is on view at Albert Merola Gallery (424 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA) through August 30.
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