Pace Live

Between Images and Abstraction

A Conversation Among Artists Inspired by the Work of Jo Baer

Recorded on December 9, 2020

Presented on the occasion of our two concurrent exhibitions with Jo Baer in New York, this online panel brought together artists Sanya Kantarovsky, Kambui Olujimi, and Rachel Rose for a conversation on the influence of Baer’s radical departure from Minimalism and her shift toward an image-based painting practice.

Using Baer’s now radical declaration from 1983, in which the artist announced “I am no longer an abstract artist,” the conversation explored each artist’s ongoing examination of image and meaning in dialogue with the legacy of Baer’s six-decade-long pursuit of painting.

Learn more about Jo Baer

Andria Hickey (AH): Hi, everyone. Welcome, thank you for joining us on a wintery afternoon in New York, at least. My name is Andria Hickey. I'm Senior Director and Curator here at (opens in a new window) Pace Gallery. We’re not actually in the gallery right now, but I hope it gives you the feeling of that. I'm sure everyone here has participated in a number of webinars by this point in our year of social distancing, but for the first timers, please note that we welcome your thoughts and reactions in the chat. We also welcome questions in the Q&A tab at the bottom. If you see a question you really want to make sure is answered, you can vote the question up to the top and we'll leave the last portion of the event for questions and answers, about ten or fifteen minutes. So, it's my pleasure to introduce our esteemed panel of artists, Sanya Kantarovsky, Kambui Olujimi, and Rachel Rose, who are joining us today to talk about some of the themes and concepts in the work of Jo Baer, a formidable artist who is known as much for her early triumphs in minimalist painting as she is for the image-based work she continues to develop from 1975 to this day.

To get us started, please allow me to share some details about our illustrious panel panelists. I'm going to share my screen so that we can see some images of works. Bear with me on my technical challenges. Can everybody see these images? My panelists, can you give me thumbs up if you’re good? Cool, thanks.

So, this is an installation view of our Jo Baer exhibition. Now as I mentioned, I wanted to introduce and share a little bit about our panelists. This is an image from (opens in a new window) Sanya Kantarovsky, who is based in New York and known for his work across a variety of mediums, as well as his writing and curatorial projects. Writing was also very important to Jo Baer and continues to be so today. The dark humor consisted in Kantarovsky’s work pits the sumptuous against the abject, and thrusts private space, the physical or psychological, into public view. Sanya’s most well-known body of work, his figurative paintings, contains drastic shifts in scale, paint application, and stylization, evoking the feeling of uneasy inner monologue, figures gawked at, exposed, coaxed or spooned medicine. They interact with one another as the edges of the canvas itself, testing the confines of their given bodies and their given frame.

Similarly, Sanya probes his art historical predecessors—something that we also see in the work of Jo Baer—both canonical and relatively unknown painters, writers, and illustrators. We're looking forward to hearing a little more about your work, Sanya. Sanya recently presented solo exhibitions at the (opens in a new window) Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland, the (opens in a new window) Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, as well as a number of group exhibitions internationally. I'm having a little trouble dancing between my two different screens, bear with me.

This is an image of (opens in a new window) Kambui Olujimi’s work. Kambui is also based in New York and a little-known fact, one of the first exhibitions I worked on in the city was with Kambui, and it's exciting to have him join us today. His work utilizes multiple media to challenge established modes of thinking. The pursuit takes shape through interdisciplinary bodies of work, spanning sculpture, installation, photography, writing, video and performance. Kambui's (opens in a new window) North Star project from which two paintings are pictured here, explores the noticeable absence of Black Rhapsody within Western art histories and cultural institutions. As Kambui has stated, “The Black body is too often saddled as a station of trauma and violence, making rhapsody an anomaly happening in spite of this and assumed inherent state. North Star asks, what does the Black body, devoid of the inescapable gravity of oppression, look like? What is the Black body in zero gravity?”

Collectively, Kambui’s work manifests collective psychic space as a means of investigating social practices, policies and exchanges. Most recently, he's been working on a series of watercolor paintings during quarantine that are primarily pulled from the medium. His works have been presented at Sundance, the Museum of Modern Art, Mass MoCA, MIT List, the Reina Sofia, and among many other institutions. This summer, Kambui presented a (opens in a new window) midnight moment in Times Square as well.

(opens in a new window) Rachel Rose, I just re-watched your films, it was very exciting, I have many questions for offline. The work of Rachel Rose explores how our changing relationship to landscape has shaped storytelling and belief systems. I’m sharing images here from Rachel's two most (opens in a new window) recent exhibitions. To make her work, Rachel draws from and contributes to a long history of cinematic innovation and through her subjects, whether investigating cryogenics, the American Revolutionary War, or the sensory experience of walking in outer space, she questions what it is that makes us human and the ways we seek to alter and escape that designation. Rachel's work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Fridericianum in Kassel, the Luma Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Again, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Musea Serralves, Aspen Art Museum. and many more museums. She is the recipient of Future Fields Award and the Frieze Art Award. So exciting to see images of all your work. I’ll bring us back to Jo.

Before we begin our conversation together, I'd like to give a quick introduction to the exhibitions. We currently have a view of Jo Baer’s work. The exhibition in our third-floor galleries, (opens in a new window) Originals, presents a selection of works from 1975 to today. These two images right here are actually some of Jo's very first experiments with figuration. While Jo is often known for her minimalist work, her interest in how meaning could be communicated through form, creating a physical effect on the viewer's perception with composition, continues in this new body of work that she began in 1975. I say new because she continues to pursue this image-based practice, but following a major survey of her non-objective painting at the Whitney Museum in 1975, Jo found that the parameters of Minimalism had begun to limit her ability to authentically explore painting’s capacity for communication to broad audiences. She left New York that same year and began living at Smarmore Castle in the remote Irish countryside where she famously kept horses and served as Chatelain for the estate. Living in Ireland offered Baer a significant remove from the dominating narratives of the New York art world. Jo Baer’s search for a new visual language brought her to "radical figuration,” a term she coined and later abandoned to describe a midway point between abstraction and figuration, in which she could work with partial, edited, or layered images to generate a space for new meaning within painting.

For Jo, radicality meant not allowing a single image to dominate the space. “I use fragments of images,” she says, "transparencies, scale, and other various things to weaken the image. I use as much real drawing as I need in order to convey the name of the image. This is an arm. This is half a woman. This is an object. Figuration is radical in the sense that it's always partial in one way or another.” Jo's In the Land of the Giants series—these two paintings are from the series—begun in 2009, developed from her research into the Hurlstone—a prehistoric megalith in County Louth, Ireland. We actually are in the process of publishing a (opens in a new window) new artist book that Jo has written to share more details about his body of work and the research that she produced as part of this project. It's a book written by Jo and it's quite a treasure. We can actually do advanced ordering on our website if you're interested.

Jo’s most recent works point to themes of environmental, political, and human apocalypse that have emerged in earlier paintings. However, these works also suggest an existential meditation on our role within the time span of the Anthropocene of human life and its relationship to the cosmos and the planet. These two works were actually painted in 2019 and 2020. Jo’s still very active in the studio and it's exciting to see, when we opened the boxes things were just dry, which is always a wonderful thing.

So, this is our exhibition on our third floor of our building. On the seventh floor, we have a really unique kind of focused exhibition of a very specific body of work that Jo has called The Risen. The Risen revisits one of Jo's very first series that were actually destroyed by Jo in the early 1960s. At the time, she felt that the world wasn't ready for these paintings, and a couple of years ago, she discovered the photographs she had taken of herself in front of each of these paintings and felt that the world was now ready for them. She created these new paintings based on those same images, and we were very happy to be able to show them on our seventh-floor gallery. Lastly, we have an (opens in a new window) online exhibition, which sheds light and delves deep into a single work from Jo’s 1970s series of minimalist Single Paintings. You can take a look on our website and learn more about that early body of work.

So hopefully that wasn't too arduous. I know the conversation is the most interesting part, so I'm going to stop sharing the screen, and here we are together. I wanted to start with asking about each of your relationships to the idea of figuration, and as Jo calls it, “image face painting.” How do representations find their way to your work? And do you see that as a radical gesture yourselves? Sanya, you’re unmuted, so I'm going to start with you.

Sanya Kantarovsky (SK): Well, I certainly don't see anything really as a radical gesture. I think that there's nothing radical about making paintings in general or making art, really. But also the distinction, I guess, between figuration and abstraction or objective and non-objective painting is somehow less interesting to me than just a distinction between an interesting painting and an uninteresting painting, or something like this. I think with Jo Baer, I think her transition and her kind of shift in this rupture between this kind of iconic, minimalist body of work that was so informed by her environment and by her community into this more kind of almost occult, mythological world which was driven by Ireland—that is something I'm really interested in. I'm interested in kinds of moments in which a particular dogma or system becomes unraveled, especially when it becomes unraveled via one artist or via one person's decision making. So as far as this kind of arch umbrella idea of figuration, I mean, there's an image and there's a thing. I think that whenever the relationship between the two is productive or generative, something interesting happens. I guess that would be really my answer.

AH: Kambui, I know that you also in your work have taken found images and mythological images and kind of chewed them up and transform them into something else and I wonder if you can talk about that practice and your experience of seeing Jo's work the other day.

Kambui Olujimi (KO): Yeah, for sure. One of the things that the work that I'm doing, in the video work and painting and sculpture, I think the body is often present, but I'm trying to find a language and a way of description that I think is more accurate. A kind of post-corporal description, because the means, the sort of parameters of the body, don't really discuss that echo that we move through the world where that gets that all the weight that gets imposed on us and the sort of cavities that we leave. For me, using images in a layered or... One of the things that I really love that Jo says is doing that is that her paintings exist without tense and so there's a kind of simultaneity of times. And you see it especially in her later work where she's doing stuff with Neolithic monuments stacked right on top of images she saw from Google. There's this notion that there's a simultaneity that can be accessed in all of the information from thousands of years ago from her early career and her present. So that's something, that's sort of the way I try and think about both the body and the work that I'm trying to make.

AH: Very interesting. We also talked about this yesterday, you’re all very different artists, and you work in a way that's very much a closed division of media. You use whatever media makes the most sense for your work. Sanya, you're probably the most traditional in that sense as you're working primarily in painting. But I imagine you see your practice as in an expanded field, but in hearing you talk, you can see that the kind of legacy that Jo has put forth over the course of a sixty-year career. She kind of leads us to what's possible today and I think that's really special. And I’m sort of going on rambling, but Rachel, I want to hear your answer to the same question, and not ramble too much further.

Rachel Rose (RR): Yeah, well, I mean, something I relate to, at least in some of her more recent works, is this decision to pick a site and work with a site as a source of—as a source to develop her own subjectivity, and that's something that I do in all of my works. They all pick sites in literal places or sites in time, like a historical moment, and so literally, how does representation work in my work, in what I do...It’s literally there, bodies and people, because it's film. So yeah, it's kind of like one-to-one. But this re-foiling a place or a moment to develop a feeling that's actually personal and deeply internal is maybe how I relate to her form of representation.

AH: Another thing that struck me today when I was watching your films, Rachel, and I think this is true for all of your work, is that there's a question of human civilization's connection to art and to this kind of sense of deep time and how art can address questions of the Anthropocene, and I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit in terms of, I don’t know if we want to get right into the end times, but this question of, you're grappling with really big questions in your work and how do you use that kind of storytelling device to bring people along, and then at the same time almost delight them with the magic that's also present in the work?

RR: So, I feel like one work that maybe has the most parallels to some of these more recent Jo works would be (opens in a new window) Palisades in Palisades, but just before I speak about that work specifically, I think that one of the things about storytelling in narrative form, like in a book or in film, is that it can be like a container where you can stick all these different things. Characters can represent emotions, ideas, points in time, sex, locations. It all can be like—yes, the easiest way to say it is like a container where you can dump stuff about a particular idea that is maybe an expanded form of collage that we see in painting and other two-dimensional media.

But I made this work, Palisades in Palisades, which is about—maybe it's useful, just because it's also right here, right across from the George Washington Bridge—about the Palisades Cliffs, which is this two hundred-million-year-old cliff, and just like ten minutes outside of the city. And on top of it sits this park that was more recently designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, but the site where the park was was also the site of the battle of Fort Lee during the Revolutionary War, and it's also where the film industry—before there was Hollywood, there was Fort Lee, New Jersey—and in fact, that very same cliff is where the first serial television show was shot, something called, The Perils of Pauline, and the term "the cliffhanger” in storytelling emerges from that exact clip. I bring up this one work because in the work I was taking this sort of geologically ancient site and thinking about how to trump, how to think through time of different scales of things that have happened there and how those things might be connected around questions of mortality or questions of storytelling. The device through which I linked those vast things in history was actually a very painting device, which is trompe l’oeil. So the film is cut by—like you think you're in a trash bag in the park, but the camera comes out of the trash bag and you're in an animal's stomach. That animal is actually in a painting that's representing the battle of Fort Lee, of two soldiers who are standing where that trash bag is now in the park. So this kind of cyclical thing where the edit is constantly morphing and pretending to be one thing, but actually transporting you to another space is a painting technique that editing has stolen. So, I don't know if that brings us back to Jo, but that's why I was thinking about that work in relationship to her.

AH: Absolutely, that's something I see particularly as Jo's image-based work progresses over time, is the way composition informs a narrative trajectory that becomes subjective in the eyes of the viewer. So she's using different techniques like foregrounding or layering or cropping to emphasize or de-emphasize particularly semiotic codes that would lead you through painting. But when I think about contemporary artists who are using all different kinds of media to create the same effect, the question of film editing keeps coming to mind and this idea of moving through time and space, which you're kind of doing in your head when you look at a Jo Baer work. Kambui, can you also speak to this? I think that you're using a lot of the same devices in your own work.

KO: One of the ways in which, especially in the video work, is sort of separating the screen, so allowing, creating different physical—well in another work is a work I've called (opens in a new window) Homecoming, where I have a series of prisms that I made. So the video goes through and physically gets separated and so you walk into an array of video projections. It's a way that, on top of collaging, the video channel is a way to sort of separate and create these different layers, so you walk through a portion of video from Detroit and a portion of video separately in Brooklyn in a single space in a video installation, and there was so much that can be talked about with Jo's work. One of the things that sort of stuck out to me is when she moves away from minimalism, she talks about it no longer being a language in the 1960s that is a language that's viable for communication. She's like, "it doesn't speak to our times and that's what the work should do." Often I keep thinking about how there's a kind of lag in the processing of the way we make images and traffic images in our sort of vernacular space, and then the way it gets aestheticized in art-making, and so what is the way in which I can sort of best bridge that is a question that keeps sort of popping up. And for me, that physical, adding physicality to video, the video experience, is one, but I think it stems from this sort of question that's the sort of age-old question, that is what is the most compelling and accurate description of the visual language of our time? And ourselves, you know, I think this is a personal sort of question that has to be re-asked over and over as we continue as makers. The way I make work now and is not the way I made work ten years ago, and I'm not the same person, but what is that language, and what's the sort of carryover from that?

AH: Sanya, can you speak to these ideas as well? I want to read something after and get your thoughts on Jo as a conceptual artist. We didn't really talk about that yesterday, but I'm throwing it out there. Sanya, can you hear me?

SK: I’m sorry, did you address me? I didn't hear my name.

AH: Sorry.

SK: OK, so the question was what? Could you rephrase the question?

AH: Yeah, it was a little windy... These references made me think about how the arc of Jo's practice can also be read as a conceptual gesture over time, and not conceptual in the traditional sense of capital-C Conceptual artist, but very much of almost like a philosophical gesture.

SK: You're referring to the gesture of leaving New York and starting this new, this second body of work?

AH: Yeah.

SK: Do you see it as a kind of performative gesture or do you see it as a—yeah, I mean, I was telling you guys yesterday that when I first encountered Jo Bear and her work, when I was doing a residency in Maine like ten, twelve years ago, and she did this really amazing talk where she read this very dense, very obtuse review of one of her like minimalist shows. She kind of read it in this really droning monotone that almost was like challenging people to stay lucid and to stay present. Then she kind of created this really abrupt rupture in the talk where she said, “and then,” and then she started talking about Ireland and the work that came after Ireland, and somehow there was a sort of liberation that was almost being performed, like a kind of tearing herself away from the dogma of New York Minimalism that she was like physically performing in this talk. I think it's really interesting because you have kind of, in painting specifically, but also in film, obviously things always push against other things. And I think what's really interesting is she kind of—this transition was almost like a kind of analog for how Minimalism came about, and then how Minimalism kind of quieted down. It became a kind of a self-contained example of that, that was very conscious I feel like on her part. But what I think is really interesting is that in the work you could see the connections, and the work we were talking about, edges and borders and how there's this kind of constant fixation and overidentification with the shape, regardless of whether it's an abstract painting or a representational painting. So, yeah, I mean, I do think that it was a highly self-reflexive transition, that it wasn't just like a whim.

AH: No, I think it's interesting to be able to look at a practice like Jo’s over such a long period of time where she's actively responding to the contemporary moment and her practices were evolving with the same gradation of time. You mentioned the other day this text, which I also really love. Jo is a great writer, and anyone has time to get—oh, my stupid screen doesn't let me do it—the great book of her writing that, if you have time to get it, it's a real treat. But this is from her 1983 very famous essay that was published in (opens in a new window) Art in America. I'm just going to read a short bit and ask everyone to respond. She says:

“I'm no longer an abstract artist. My description of abstraction’s demise is more than a disputatious recounting. It is a conviction I have acted upon,” and I'm going to skip ahead a little, and she says, “to construct a radical figuration is to reject the pre-eminence of either image or space to correspond to the of subject and its locale. This proposition was touched on, picked up, and dropped by early Cubists. Today, (unseduced by Modernism) it wants a non-illustrative approach that puts the emphasis on the glossary of structure rather than trends towards fable in non-expressionistic manner to avoid tantrums, pandering and the distractions of matériel. A radical figuration further requires a subject that is akin to myth but not the mythological. Myth is a form of discourse where the subject remains invisible, where the subject is a retelling or illustration of a mythology. The unit of meaning is closed and therefore inconsistent to discourse. To enhance discourse is to paint and draw and fragment, which is an open adventure. It is having paintings talk (as opposed to talking about parts of others’ paintings). The topology is not complete until the contours and coastlines are arranged upon a coherent surface, enforcing a cleaving together of those chosen fragments, split from former context and be formed into a new unity of meaning.” And she ends with, “Twenty years have seen some changes.”

I chose this excerpt of this well-known essay because I think it speaks to something at the heart of Jo's practice today and maybe in the heart of most artists' work, is this question of how communication functions, how meaning gets made. How does art make meaning, and how does it do that outside of language, or how does it engage with symbolic language or semiotic language or image language in order to make new meaning, instead of repeating meaning? That's not really a question, but I'm hoping it sparks some thoughts, more questions. Does anyone want to respond? Kambui, I see you smiling. You're muted there.

KO: I'm always smiling, but yeah, I can. I am sort of digesting still because there's so many sorts of modules to the passage and also to the question. I mean, the question of legibility comes up. I think I just have a lot of questions like, you know, which—so in historic restoration when you restore a building, like a Lloyd Wright building, where you say when do we start to restore it to? Do you restore it to the 1980s or do you restore it to the 1950s? And I think there's a question when—I'm always interested in legibility and what narrative, what position of language do you pick, and so that's something that comes up—like to move away from a language that served her initially, in the midst of so much turmoil, I'm interested in what were the conversations that were happening that then stopped happening. Yeah, come back. Come back. But those are some of the questions that I have. I think there's a lot to think about, also how we do—so the language is definitely altered by the means we have for production, so the fact that she doesn't actually physically need to get images when she starts to move into this way of working that requires images. She was talking about having literally this sort of envelope of time that you can just pluck through on a screen, how that changes the expectations of the work, but I'm still processing.

RR: Yeah, it seems to me that maybe what she was inching towards, in terms of how her work has a relationship to symbolic meaning, is that she felt like she wanted the stories to be within the images themselves and not the story to be within across conversation. One of the things I think about, with when the art world was smaller and the camps were more defined, is that each camp got its own story. So the origin legacy story, it's conversations around it, its rules of it, what makes minimalist stuff minimalist, or landmarks landmarks, or whatever it is. It seems like what she was feeling was a frustration with that encasing of story, and that she wanted to engage with story directly through what she was doing. I don't know if I'm reading correctly or questioned or not, or if I'm limiting too much, but it seems like she's sort of a pioneer in that respect within what she was doing in that transitional moment.

SK: I also think for Jo Baer, like the distinction between allusion and illusion was a very important one, and it's one that she came back to kind of over and over again in her writing and used it as a kind of weapon against all of many of the male, kind of macho, minimalist dudes that were constantly having these very aggressive debates with her—Smithson, Morris, etcetera. I think that this idea of allusion became a kind of central tool as well. I think that it's about a work not necessarily being or not being memetic or representational, not necessarily being the engine of meaning, but rather a kind of, more like a conduit that can be created by alluding to certain things, and then those things alluding to other things. And that is something I personally identify with very much, because for me it's always like, I’m less interested in the acceleration of language and I'm more interested in a delay of language, when you have to, in order to arrive somewhere as a viewer, you have to kind of not—read between the lines is I guess a hokey way of saying it—but where there's a labor that has to happen on the part of the beholder in order to make meaning. I think that's really interesting to think about in relationship to both bodies of work, actually. What that distinction actually means between creating an illusion or alluding to something.

AH: That would be a great essay, just throwing that out there.

KO: She starts to draw on the narratives that are pre-existing when she goes to the castle, like this, the Giants series, she's directly pulling from pre-existing narratives as a springboard, but there's still a kind of cautiousness of embracing narratives and mythology. There's always a kind of tension, which I thought was really interesting because she goes really hard in her research to find every nook and cranny of the stories, but also the physical world of it. It made me think about how narrative gets discussed in sort of an art context versus the way it gets, it can easily get weaponized, and whether it's like ideas of a nation or other kind of systems, and I think my guess, and this is an inference, that that was part of that hesitation to embrace narrative, as is so often is used outside of both in art context, but especially outside of art context in a way that can be nefarious at best.

AH: That's really interesting. Jo actually talks about that in her some of her writing and specifically around a particular piece that is very much a gesture against the nation-state and the idea of fascism as it relates to nations and patriotism. In that same work, she's referencing nuclear war and the destruction of the planet and mass graves, and I think you're very right, she's very cautious of that space of how narrative is weaponized. I also think there's a real space of subjectivity that she wants to ensure in all of her work so that you as a viewer are as important as her interpretation. It's not the kind of work that you need to read the book to understand it. Your reading of her work is as valid as the references that she's put together after the fact, which I think is also a political statement.

RR: Well, I was just curious, political in what way?

AH: Political not in the sense of party politics, but political in the sense of there is no—like the artist's narrative is not the grand narrative. There is no grand narrative. My subjectivity and everything I bring to that painting, or you with your subjectivity, everything you bring to that painting will fill in the gaps between the images that are coming together in her composition to create a whole story that is as important. And to me, that's a kind of democracy in meaning-making that I also think comes across in a lot of art film or films made by artists, where the editing process allows for that subjective space where you, you as a viewer have to participate in making that meaning come to life.

RR: I mean, what I think is so cool about perspective in her paintings is that you get close, far, aerial, wide, and they all flow together. And it doesn't feel like a map exactly either. It feels like you're entering one space and that space is like a kind of dimension that you haven't experienced before, and maybe that's something that is similar sometimes to film, I guess. It depends on the editing.

AH: I think that's also political in a way, now that you're saying it. It enhances that subjectivity where you are sort of in and out of space and time.

RR: Yeah, like the sense that—well, this is kind of a simple thing to say, but I feel like an artwork is generally successful when it feels like a dream. Any kind of artwork, like forget the medium, just anything from music to whatever, and so there's something spatially about her works that feel parallel to how, at least like memories or experiences of space in dreams that I've had, and it's not just this sense of like, maybe like a space opening up into another, or trompe l’oiel, but this kind of sense of gravity shifting things, floating, not floating. I don't know where that's sitting here, but yeah.

KO: Something that you brought up, Rachel, just now about this idea of the weight and the sort of slippage that happens in dreams, just like the hanging of the word. In conversations earlier, Andria, you were talking about how there was a desire or sort of a connection to cave paintings, right. So I was thinking about that and how it's part of the architecture, like there's no edge in a cave painting, like it is where you are. It just continues. I think that there's something really nice about that, that desire to have this just be where you are. You are in this.

AH: Well, we're ten minutes left to our time, and I wanted to invite people to ask some questions of our panelists, offer some thoughts, use the Q&A tab or the chat. I don't see any right now, but hopefully people will be brave and ask. In the meantime, I thought we could talk a little bit about writing, because I know Kambui and Sanya, writing is an important part of your practices and it's a huge part of Jo's practice. Rachel, I don't know this for a fact, but I imagine as a filmmaker, writing is also really critical to what you do.

SK: Just to put it out there, I don't know what text you pulled that from, but writing is not... I wish writing was a bigger part of my practice, but actually, I don't consider myself as into writing.

AH: Ah interesting, I had read an essay, or maybe it was just about your curatorial practice, maybe.

SK: I think someone, I knew when you said that I was like, I remember writing an email to whoever... I mean, I have written, but I don't—I feel much less comfortable writing than I do painting or making stuff, but I always envy artists who are good at writing and for whom writing is important. Some of my favorite artists are almost better writers somehow.

AH: Kambui, Rachel, do you want to speak to this?

KO: I mean, for me, it started with collage and poetry is the way I got into art. It was like that was the gateway, and so it's still—it's weird because it's just a different kind of, I notice there's a different gear. It's like a different tricycle, like when this one, this big wheel, I need to switch to another one in order to play and go in the mud, so I feel like that's happened over a number of years. It'd be nice to, I mean, the project we worked on, I ended up writing a novella, so that was the first like real prose that I had ever worked on and I think it allowed me to move with a sharper knife, and it's really short, sort of bursts of energy, in part because I think there's something performative, like I hear the words, so at the end of the sentence, it's all gone, whereas I keep looking and I think with that there's a—you set the time of engagement.

RR: I mean, they think about—I don't have a choice but to write, because when I go into making a work, I usually have limited time, a specific budget, a bunch of people I’m working with. If I don't have a clear script that we're working with—well, as my work's progressed, it's more and more an exacting thing, but other times it's been more open—like I'm fucked, so I have to write, but one of the things that I think about writing is that it doesn't mean anything unless you're absorbing. So usually writing for me is like a final thing after a lot, a lot, a lot of reading, so for me, I think of writing as like the technical thing you do when you read enough.

SK: I hear that.

AH: I hear that, too. We have some questions here. I'm happy to see a friend from Cleveland is on here, Royden Watson. He says, “I'm thinking Baer, as well as Philip Guston, who we were talking about yesterday, as they move through their times and away from abstraction while using narrative devices like setting, antagonist, protagonist’s point of view. How do you all see the audience's role? How is there an advantage for telling our current stories? Is a stage theatrical, cinematic, dreamy or maybe iconographic?” It’s a big question, but let's see if we can...

SK: Question about Jo’s work specifically? Yeah.

AH: Yeah, I think he's thinking this question of how Jo and also artists like Philip Guston move through their lives and move further and further from abstraction.

SK: Well, I think it's a pattern that I feel can kind of be clearly identified with artists. I think now, interestingly enough, is a time a lot of my friends that I speak to who make art are—everyone's feeling this kind of massive cognitive dissonance between the turmoil on the outside and this very insular kind of navel-gazey space of the studio where you're supposed to make things to let out into the world, and to allow your subjectivity to kind of splinter off and resonate with other people. And in these times, in times when the outside world is particularly harsh, you feel that cognitive dissonance becomes really intense because you—especially if you are like Guston, he famously said, like, “fuck all that purity”—like suddenly this idea of transcendence or this end goal of Ab-Ex felt very disconnected to him from real life, and from I think with Jo Baer there is something similar where there was a disconnection between real life and nature and history and this very insular, very dogmatic conversation in New York Minimalism. I think that partly why she, or James Baldwin moving to France, is also like another example of someone like withdrawing themselves into this other world and being in connection to the earth, almost into like the basic building blocks of how we make meaning in life, I think. I am thinking about this all the time now, also like what is, what's the role, like how are we supposed to communicate suddenly? Is representation the only way, the only mode of communication, or is or can abstraction kind of communicate something that feels relevant?

AH: Those thoughts are on all our minds. Kambui?

KO: think about that move, and one of the things is, you know, when somebody like Baldwin or Nina Simone leaves to go to Europe, I think part of that is a safety concern. Part of that is like the perpetual danger of being Black in this country, and I think it’s trying to stop a noise, a constant noise and anxiety. I think with Jo Baer’s work it, in her interviews, it seemed like there was an understanding. This is an inference that the navel-gazing studio and the sort of space of Minimalism was ignoring so much of what was happening to so many people and could no longer say that it was speaking the language of the moment in doing so.

I've often thought about what the purpose of the studio is, and it's a place of synthesis like what you were saying, Rachel, where you've read enough and then you then synthesize into writing. The studio has been both a place of synthesis, but also it's not a separate space. For me at least, it's a place that in some ways is kind of porous with research, and one day, I wonder if this break from and this movement is it just a—like I'm inferring that it's a—it can't speak, this language no longer speaks, this language has been ignoring so much of what's happening, or is it just something that happens when you have a sixty-year career? I wonder how many artists that started out in terms of making figurative work move into abstraction as they get further along. Is that just the sort of the arc of a career that long and trying new stuff and being interested in discovery? I don't know.

AH: I don't know, I mean, when you think about like, we have Sam Gilliam on view at the same time right now, and he's also had an extremely long career.

KO: Yeah.

AH: He continues to explore abstraction and opacity, we talked about the other day, and I think there are some people who are looking to answer those same questions in abstraction. I think that the critical question of how we communicate is at the heart of it.

SK: Yeah. I'll just clarify that I actually wasn't making a value statement, like that representation was the only mode of communication, but I think in these kinds of moments, all I was saying is that artists tend to question things that they have been, you know, that they've settled into up until that moment.

AH: Yeah, we are just about out of time.

KO: Imagine sixty years, can you imagine that? Sixty years later, you'll be looking back at the things that you're making like, “oh.”

RR: So, to respond to this question about our current stories—what's the advantage for telling our current stories?

AH: Yes, you should we should wrap it up because we're almost out of time.

RR: Well, I don't know what the advantage of telling like a literal, a story that's happening in live around us, like the election or something, but I think that one thing that storytelling in art can do that other forms can't do is hold together lots of states that an audience or viewers can come to and feel in that state. And I feel like it's the responsibility of an artwork to coalesce a feeling that's underlying for the artist that they're picking up in that moment, and offer it back to the viewer so that we can all get together and become more aware or something like that. For me, the audience's role in an artwork, in looking at a painting or film or a piece of music or whatever it is, is the whole point, because why else work to coalesce that feeling?

AH: Kambui, Sanya, do you want to also comment?

SK: I mean, amen, you know.

AH: Well, I want to thank everybody, all of you, for your generosity and honesty and presence in this conversation. It's really special to be able to talk about Jo's work with all of you. Everyone who is online with us, please take note, December 16th, we're doing another conversation this time about Sam Gilliam’s (opens in a new window) exhibition. We'll have (opens in a new window) Courtney Martin and Fred Moten in conversation, so it'll be another special day. December 16th at 2:00 PM. You can register on our website. Not at 2:00 PM, at 12:00 PM Eastern. Sorry. Thank you, everybody. Have a great rest of your week.

  • Pace Live — Between Images and Abstraction: A Conversation Among Artists Inspired by the Work of Jo Baer, Dec 15, 2020