John Baeder’s 1978 book “Diners” was, for many of us, our introduction to the photorealist school of painting. In 2013, the Atlanta native is still painting diners, and a gallery’s worth of the new work is on exhibit at Mason Murer Fine Art through November 2.
Most of this sprawling show, however, consists of a retrospective of Baeder’s photography, beginning with black and white photographs from his days working for an advertising agency in Atlanta soon after a stint Auburn University. In 1963, Baeder was documenting making pictures of Atlanta, Alabama and South Carolina in images that sometimes bear a remarkable resemblance to WPA photos (though his personal study of the WPA photographers came later, after his 1964 move to New York), while also documenting the demolition and construction that was transforming the Atlanta landscape. Some of the most uncannily out-of-time images date from a few years later, circa 1968, at which time he captured scenes that have nothing to do with the fast-changing world of the late 1960s that a less perceptive history of that troubled year would give us. Like their African-American counterparts photographed in 1963 in Atlanta, the middle-aged gentleman seated outdoors in wooden chairs in “Catskill, NY, 1967” could have been posing identically 30 years earlier.
By the early 1970s, Baeder had begun exploring the potential of color photography, at the same time when William Eggleston made his cutting-edge forays into color as a medium for high art. Many of the early color photos in this exhibition may originally have been intended to be documentation for paintings, but other striking images stem from the assignment that architect Robert Venturi gave Baeder (and Stephen Shore, whose 1971 Metropolitan Museum exhibition had been groundbreaking) to photograph Route 66 across America for a Bicentennial exhibition at Washington’s Renwick Gallery.
Because parts of the original Route 66 had already been displaced by the Interstate Highway System, the focus here is once again on a literally colorful past. One of the most memorable photos in terms of composition is “ ’51 DeSoto, Arizona,” from 1976, in which both the still-gleaming automobile and the pastel-tinted house next to it come from earlier eras of American design sensibility.
A few pictures from this period stand out as pieces of iconic symbolism. The house trailer painted in a Stars and Stripes motif in “Arizona, Route 66,” from 1975, parked in the desert beneath a stormy sky, is an apt visual metaphor for an America beset with lingering crises in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo, Watergate and the Vietnam War.
Those photographs are all about what is there — and, often enough, might soon no longer be there. In contrast, Baeder’s recent series of candy-colored still-life photographs is all about artifice: metal scale models of 1930s and ’40s automobiles arranged next to vintage books, advertisements, perfume bottles and handwritten journals. This extensive body of new work, which occupies an entire wall, is a conscious homage to Baeder’s earliest experiences of the America that gave rise to the diner architecture that he made the subject of his photorealist paintings.
Those diners were an endangered species by the time he began to paint them, and the new paintings at Mason Murer depict a fair number of “For Sale” window signs and boarded-up storefronts in addition to small, gleaming anomalies adjacent to the glassy architecture of post-1960s city development. The 1970s automobiles that appear in the paintings next to these relics of a previous era create a still more layered effect of rapidly vanishing moments of history.
The signature paintings of diners are still likely to be the chief draw for Baeder’s longtime admirers. But we now are able to see that if art history had gone just a little differently four decades ago, Baeder would now be regarded alongside Stephen Shore as one of the pioneers of fine-art color photography.
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