I’ve been a fan of Richard Baker’s paintings for years, and this month he’s having a show at Tibor de Nagy. A week before the opening reception, Baker welcomed Brooklyn Rail Art Editor John Yau to his DUMBO studio to check out his new work. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:
Baker: It’s important for me that I do have a dialogue with the viewer. We have talked about Duchamp before and his belief that the audience completes the work of art. If I don’t in some way force the viewer to be actively involved, then I’m just simply presenting something in a kind of dismissible way. I have to construct something that you get, but that deconstructs itself as you wander through it.
Rail: Well, it’s interesting that you mention Duchamp as one of your influences. People might be inclined to say about you, “Oh, he’s a still-life painter, how can he like Duchamp.” And you’re saying, “Oh, that’s not the story.”
Baker: Right, right. But that’s the thing that’s kind of slippery about painting, these sorts of paintings. I am speaking about still-life. Ambitious contemporary painting isn’t supposed to engage with things like beautiful flowers. The still-life genre is not exactly the most elevated, ambitious way to paint these things. If I’m going to venture to do that, I can’t simply use still-life, its history, as my only model. I have to think about many different ways of being creative and being actively involved with the whole history of art. Duchamp is definitely one model.
Rail: And he had a strong interest in things as well. It’s not like he made invisible works. And this interest in things, and their identity, runs through all of his work.
Baker: Yes, from the early chocolate grinder on.
Rail: The other thing I wanted to talk about is that when you do a still-life, you are evoking our historical time. In this painting, for example, one sees copies of the New York Times and New York Post; they are upside down, and there’s a blue vase of tulips resting on them. The headlines have to do with the moment the economy collapsed. So one reads your paintings, as well as sees them. But you are neither a diarist nor a symbolist.
Baker: I would try to resist the symbols. If something is overtly symbolic, I would question if I actually want it to remain that way. I am seeking a tension between the ability to read something and the inability to read something, between legibility and confusion. I’m doing a talk in a couple of weeks about representations of cloth in painting. For me, the interesting thing is that cloth both reveals and conceals. So, in terms of symbols, if something is going to have a symbolic weight, it has to both reveal and conceal. In my paintings of blank index cards and pieces of paper, the paint itself denies the ability to put a message on it. So there’s a way of being clear and also of being confused.
Read the entire conversation here.
“Richard Baker: Paintings,” Tibor de Nagy, New York, NY. Through March 6, 2010.