John Baeder's American Idols
November 7, 2022 - Steven Heller
“John Baeder: Looking Back” is the artist’s first exhibition at ACA Galleries in New York, and the first all-encompassing intro- and retrospective in a while. Comprising five decades of work from 1972–2018, the show includes some of the most famous diner paintings from the artist’s personal collection, his final series of Matchbook Cover paintings and his luminous still-life photographs.
For me, Baeder was a match made in dinerland. Around 40 years ago, I was admiring those quintessential American roadside eateries, thinking what a great book could be made of such uniformly customized ephemeral structures, when I saw paintings that made me drool. Hanging in OK Harris in SoHo were large photorealistic canvases of the very diners I was dreaming of. They were by John Baeder. This was the era of photorealism, and while I’d been impressed by the skill of many artists, I was in awe of Baeder’s passionate precision.
We met. I went to his then-apartment in Midtown. He had what amounted to a full-scale vintage soda fountain in his living room—chrome cabinetry, swivel seats, the works. All that was missing was a soda jerk who looked like Andy Hardy. The rest of the flat was filled with gems of vernacular, the inspiration for many drawings and prints. On the walls were more diners—paintings and photos or paintings that looked like photos. The smell of linseed oil and cola syrup filled the room.
He had come to New York to be an advertising art director from Atlanta, where he studied at the High Museum. He was born in South Bend, IN, but he was such a New Yorker. I only knew he was from the Midwest because he’d slip into a lilting twang from time to time. We worked together on a dummy for his book that became Gas Food & Lodging (Abbeville); he introduced me to his book agent and friend, who became my book agent and friend; we hung out and were excited by many of the same things. Then he up and moved lock, stock and luncheonette down to Nashville, TN. We stayed in touch, through the ups and downs of his artistic genre, his change in focus to other realms of popular culture, and his expanded mediums. In 2018 Baeder was diagnosed, as so many of my artist friends have been over the past two decades, with macular degeneration, an eye condition that continually weakens the vision. The artist’s curse. The disease forced him to turn from his signature super-realist style to a looser, more gestural technique, as in his Matchbook Covers and his recent landscapes, which verge on total abstraction.
As noted above, the ACA Galleries, one of the pioneer purveyors of the American 20th century, is currently exhibiting a panoply of Baeder’s best. It is a must-see-to-appreciate experience.
Below is some of what to expect—and here is an article I wrote that reveals some of his story. There is so much more to show and tell.
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