John Baeder is one of the best known of the Photorealists. His popular paintings and prints of roadside diners so capture the pulse of America that his images have entered the secondary market as reproductions on posters, calendars, and postcards (here the energy comes full circle, as old postcards were an important source of inspiration for the paintings). The Disney Company, Coca Cola, and fashion moguls Perry Ellis, Liz Claiborne, and Guess-at times even disregarding copyrights-have appropriated them. The diners appear on memorabilia-oriented merchandise, such as painted plates, and in three dimensions as butter dishes, planters, canisters, etc. (part of an extensive ceramic line produced by Sigma/Towle in 1979/80). Their appeal is so strong that the authors of a book on art deco chose to illustrate the sleek design of New York City's Empire Diner with Baeder's highly expressive painting of that diner, rather than with an actual photograph. (Alastair Duncan, American Art Deco (New York: Abrams, 1986)
Baeder's vision of roadside America is so expansive and encompassing that the myriad of ideas and information that the artist commands has spilled over into the enjoyable, well-known books Diners, Gas, Food, Lodging, and Sign Language. Together, the paintings and writings have impacted the commercial arena with such force that they might be considered a primary catalyst in the resurgence of current diner mania, fostered by prestigious restaurateurs and their NeoDiners. The acclaim that Baeder's art draws is a measure of a passion that goes well beyond reportage or the ability to capture the more casual elements of the American culture-primary aims of Photorealism. More than any other artist of this powerful realist movement, John Baeder has returned the favor to the very culture that inspired him.
The diner paintings were always a part of Baeder's special consciousness. Like a vanishing point, they represent the convergence of a variety of interests and influences that took some time, and another career, to formulate. In the late 1950s, Baeder attended Auburn University. His earliest works were expressionist figural abstractions inspired by the work of Diebenkorn, de Kooning, Tworkov, and others. As a serious student, Baeder read and reread the then little-known Abstract Expressionist journal of painting, poetry, and thought IT IS, published in 1958-59. The real magic of the Auburn years, however, was the trips back and forth, between semesters, from Atlanta to Alabama. It was during these drives that Baeder's romance with the back roads of America stirred and his love affair with diners took hold. As a youngster, he enjoyed bike rides with a Baby Brownie in hand; this was the beginning of his documentary quest. His targets were old relics, in particular old cars, whose craftsmanship and beauty caught his attention.
Baeder makes the astute observation of himself and of his generation that they were "image addicts." They were brought up on, and their vision was stimulated by, billboards, movies, TV, advertising, and the now highly regarded photo journalist images that covered the pages of Life, Collier's, and Look magazines. And, in fact, Baeder began his professional career as an art director. He worked first in Atlanta, from 1960-64, with a branch of a New York ad agency. Then he moved to New York City. During his years as an art director, Baeder kept his technical artistic abilities honed through drawing, painting, and photography; this was especially important as part of a process leading up to Photorealism. The many aspects of art directing, including marketing, merchandising, promotions, and public relations, kept his vision focused on American material culture.
One of Baeder's New York City ad agency offices was across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum's photography department was like a haven for him. He studied the work of Bernice Abbott, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, and other photographers of the FSA (Farm Security Administration). Baeder began to collect photography-Abbott, Atget, Evans, and Lewis Hine are represented in his collection-and he began to take pictures in earnest. Urged on by an already-developed sensitivity for the beauty and value of old things, he documented the urban environment, especially the fast-disappearing elements of city fabrics. It was a short step to the diners.
As a child Baeder also had an urge to travel, and the painful reality that his father did not drive left a void for which he now found compensation. In the late '60s, he began to collect old postcards of roadside America-not just diners, but gas stations, tourist camps, motels, restaurants, and the main streets of small-town America. With these postcards a sort of alchemy took place. Postcards have their grounding in early modern realist photography and early color lithography. They were the perfect catalyst for an Ad Man to cross the threshold into the world of the artist. Baeder's first impulse was to scale up the postcards, to turn them into paintings. His pleasure was that these simple images could hold their representational qualities while being keyed to play off abstract patterns as well. Baeder was aware of pop art and its visual, and sometimes technical, ties to the world of advertising. He saw in it a harbinger of something new and substantial, and quite the opposite of postwar abstraction. It was not long before Baeder was discovered, through the intervention of John Kacere, by Ivan Karp, and was exhibiting at the OK Harris Gallery. And it was also not long before diners became the focus of the paintings.
Other photorealists have chosen eateries as subjects, but none with the discipline and rigor of Baeder. Baeder has developed the diner image into an American icon. With tenacity and consistency he has made pilgrimage after pilgrimage to capture, lovingly, with his camera images of hundreds of diners across the United States. Certainly since the seventeenth century, and the emergence of genre painting as a major art form, the province of the artist has expanded to run the gamut from reportage to social commentary. One such genre, the "grand tour," developed as a cultural phenomenon of the early eighteenth century, fed by the romantic lure of ancient monuments, untravelled terrain, and foreign soil. This fascination with locale developed into a full-blown art form that featured the veduta, principally picturesque views of Venice or of the imposing sites of Roman antiquities. The culture-based art movements such as pop art and contemporary realism might, at their core, be considered the late-twentieth-century offspring of these earlier avenues of artistic expression, and Baeder's romance with the American roadside, perhaps, the twentieth-century heir of the veduta.
The congruence with Romanticism is not off the mark, particularly for an artist like Baeder, fueled by I'alta fantasia (inspired imagination). Baeder has envisioned the diner as a temple of sorts, an exotic remnant of lost civilizations. But he has come to realize that it represents more than that. It is a locus of the hearth, in Jungian thought and ideology, an archetype of basic needs-food, clothing, shelter-a symbol of nurturing. The Great Mother. This is not a stretch. Art with the vitality of Baeder's can only have the universal appeal that it does if it is underpinned by such concepts. These concepts, above all, are what drive such vision.
Diner after diner dominates Baeder's paintings, much like the ubiquitous but ever-so-versatile image of the Madonna and Child in the Renaissance. Each has a persona and a purpose for being, whether to enliven a landscape or someone's day, to be the foil for nature's moods or the seasons, or to underscore regionalism. Though their basic form is given by the early Pullman railroad dining car, their unique character is what impresses. It is the result of the individual creativity, often naive and spontaneous, of those who own and run them. Colorful paint schemes, shiny chrome, quippy signage fill the senses with pleasant and often clever simplicities. Far from the world of cryptic emblems of morality and of the memento mori of seventeenth-century genre paintings, these twentieth-century genre images offer hospitality, warmth, enjoyment. The dress code here is come-as-you-are; the architectural order is freedom of expression.
But we should not be fooled by the lack of formality we sense in these' paintings. They are superbly crafted images where composition, color, form, and technique join at the highest level so as not to compete with, but to set off, the imagery. Baeder also gives them voice. The graphic component, the signage, lends visual (calligraphic) interest and verbal appeal. Rarely are these realms so successfully combined.
Special note should be made of a particular detail in the Harris Diner. The prominent red truck parked to the left of the flagpole is identified by the logo on the door as belonging to the OK Harris Gallery. In this subtle way, one of this country's foremost realists tips his hat to his gallery, perhaps the most important in the advancement of contemporary realism. Baeder's diner paintings are Americana at its best.
As we study Baeder's images collectively we become aware that the diner paintings are above all a precious social record of a fast-disappearing American subculture. The diners and their settings document regional tastes and mores, the richness and variety of our expansive culture and society, our mobility and the personal freedoms that draw so many to our shores. In this, Baeder belongs to the tradition of nineteenth- and twentieth- century realist and regionalist painters and pictorial journalists, who explored with contagious humanity the character of ordinary Americans as they imprinted themselves upon the American landscape. And, as America homogenizes under the sign of the Golden Arches, the paintings are a potent reminder of the fast-disappearing character and diversity of American culture.
Virginia Anne Bonito, "John Baeder," Get Real: Contemporary American Realism from the Seavest Collection, Duke University Museum of Art, 1998, pp 10-15; excerpted reprint by permission of the author. For more information, please contact Virginia at firstname.lastname@example.org