Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 7, 2012 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact Dr. Adams at Case Western Reserve University, Department of Art History and Art, 11201 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland OH 44106-7110; E-mail: henry.adams@case.edu; Tel: 216-368-4119



 

The Secret Life of Thomas King Baker, 1911-1972

By Henry Adams

 

Perhaps no artist so powerfully evokes the quality of life in Kansas City in the 1950s as does Thomas King Baker.  Yet Baker was never viewed as a real artist in his lifetime.  He was first recognized as such in 1991 when the art dealer Tom McCormick was going through the posthumous effects of the Kansas City painter and socialite Frederic James.  Along with works by well-known artists, such as Auguste Renoir, Thomas Cole, and Reginald Marsh, McCormick began to find fascinating small paintings, drawings and collages, filled with eccentric whimsy, by a mysterious figure with the initials TKB.  The first work was Visit from a Baroness, a small oil from 1957.  Gradually, others surfaced:  one from a drawer, two from a cupboard, three from a portfolio.  Soon he had assembled a small stack of them, which he collected on a corner of the dining table.  Finally a fully signed piece emerged:  Thomas King Baker.

Later, when McCormick consulted his research library at home, he was surprised to discover that Baker was not listed in any of his artist's directories.  Then one day, he had a flash of insight:  what if Baker was a local figure?  Picking up his Kansas City phone book, he turned to page 41 where he found the listing Thomas King Baker, 4618 Warwick, 733-4134.  

His call was answered by an elderly woman.  "Hello," he said, "is this the residence of Thomas Baker, the artist?"  There was a pause.  "Well... yes," she replied. "That's my husband, but he's been dead for twenty years."  "Would you mind if I came over for a visit?" McCormick asked.

The next afternoon, Mila Baker met him at the door of her flat in the Sophian Plaza with a tall, plastic Kansas City Royals stadium cup in her hand, filled with iced tea and Old Crow.  "Please do come in," she said.  "Would you like a drink?"  Glancing at his watch to make sure that it was past 2:30, McCormick cheerfully accepted.  Thus began the pleasurable task of reconstructing the artistic career of her late husband.  

 

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Thomas King Baker was born in Pittsburgh in 1911.  His father, a doctor, served as medical director for an insurance company, and in 1918 he moved his family to Kansas City, where he worked for Kansas City Life Assurance.  Baker's older brother attended college, where he picked up bad habits of smoking and drinking.  Consequently, when Tom graduated from high school at the early age of 15, his conservative parents decided to dispense with college and immediately put him to work as an insurance underwriter at Kansas City Life.  Not surprisingly, Tom picked up smoking and drinking anyway.

In 1941 Dr. Baker died, and in that same year Tom moved to a position at Business Men's Assurance Company, where he continued to work as an underwriter. Also in that year, he married Mila Hoover, a Radcliffe girl, with a background in art history.  At the time, Mila was serving as an assistant to the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Paul Gardner.  She and Tom met at a cocktail party.  Mila had just caught something in her teeth, and Tom lent her his handkerchief to pry it loose.

The war had just started, and in 1942 Baker was drafted, and sent to an airfield in Norwich, England.  For some reason, the area was spared from German bombing, and while Baker dutifully fulfilled his military obligations as a clerk, he never heard so much as a rifle shot.  His charming letters home speak mainly of cultural things:  cycling to Pickwickian villages in the English countryside, purchasing small 18th-century drawings in plumbago, and attending concerts.  Because of his interest in classical music, he was appointed to conduct the "Classical Records Evening" at the base.

When the war ended, Tom returned to Kansas City and his job at Business Men's Assurance.  Mila worked at her family's business, the Hoover Brothers Store, where she did mostly clerical and bookkeeping chores.  

Though not wealthy themselves, Tom and Mila socialized with a moneyed crowd, holding their place because of their social charm and cultural sophistication.  A small group of friends met after work for martinis, for Saturday afternoon listen-to-the opera dinner parties, and to attend opera and museum events.  The group consisted mainly of bachelors and couples without children, including Diana and Fred James, Dorothy and Charles Dreher, Richard Stern, Ken LaBudde, Dave Edwards, Montrose Kendrick, Helen Ladd and Robert Wilson.

The Bakers were particularly close to Fred James, the talented painter and watercolorist, who had married a woman of wealth, Diana Hearne.  Just after the war, the Jameses purchased a beautiful second home on Martha's Vineyard, which had originally been built in the 19th-century by a sea captain.  Tom and Mila got in the practice of visiting them there for a week or so each season.

A childless couple, Mila and Tom amused themselves with travel, the symphony and opera, art collecting, reading, and lots of dinner parties. As Tom gradually moved up in salary, by inching up in BMA, they became relatively prosperous, particularly since they had no children:  comfortable enough to indulge from time to time in art, travel, books, and other small luxuries, although they were never as prosperous as their friends.  By the early 60s, Tom and Mila were able to take a trip to Europe about once a year.  They also began to collect art on a modest scale (the Stiebel gallery in Paris was their favorite), hanging their collection of prints and small paintings salon style, one work on top of another, in their living room.  

Over the years they gave a number of nice things to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art -- works by Rivera, Cassatt, Pissaro, Kollwitz, Matisse, Grosz, Derain, Picasso, Marquet, Cropsey, Daumier, and Albers.  Legend has it that Tom was the first local patron to purchase a painting by Thomas Hart Benton, after his return to Kansas City in 1935 to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute.  The painting in question--since sold--seems to have been related to the lithograph The Station.    

 

 A Secret Life

Outwardly, Baker was a normal American citizen of the 1950s, who put on a gray flannel suit and a thin tie and riding the streetcar (later the bus) to work at a major corporation.  In his spare time he was a deacon in the Second Presbyterian Church, where he taught Sunday school for twenty years. He was active as a volunteer in the sale and rental gallery at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.  He regularly attended concerts of classical music.  Something of a square in short.

But there was also another side to Thomas King Baker -- -one which was irreverent, iconoclastic, and satirical.  For in the evenings, on weekends, and in spare moments, Baker let his imagination loose in whimsical sketches and jottings.

Why and how did Baker drift into becoming an artist?  The record is a little gray, since his family never took his ventures seriously, and Baker himself never pressed the point.  Baker's one bit of formal training was a brief night drawing class at the Kansas City Art Institute with Wallace Rosenbaur, a sculptor who had studied with Archipenko.  Whatever the source, Baker was fascinated by the use of a thin spontaneous line, like that of a line drawing by Matisse or Picasso -- or for that matter, a James Thurber cartoon in The New Yorker.  

Baker's niece recalls that in the 1940s he kept sketchbooks -- mostly slightly naughty sketches of nudes.  But Baker's artistic career seems to have begun in earnest in 1953, when his wife Mila purchased him a $2.00 set of watercolors.  After that he would come home from work and disappear into the basement to paint.  

Baker's combination of sophistication with a childish quality brings to mind the cartoons of The New Yorker -- particularly, the mordant drawings of James Thurber.  In its freedom and stylishness, his sketches also recall those of the distinguished illustrator, and erstwhile waiter at the Ritz, Ludwig Bemelmans, who is best-remembered today for his children's classic Madeline.  

Baker was interested in the subtleties of social interaction, the glancing blows:  chance encounters, off balance moments, and off color innuendoes.  Like a New Yorker cartoonist, Baker often transformed casual drawings into something more memorable through the addition of eccentric captions, whose deadpan humor recalls the inanity of cocktail chatter.  Many of these one-liners create memorable images entirely on their own, even without the help of Baker's drawings.  A sampling:

   Mrs. Prodie promises tapioca for supper.
 
   How stupid to forget the peonies.
 
   The enraged bouquet.
 
   Heavens!  I haven't played that since high school.
 
   Shirley, Goodness & Mercy.
 
   Walt Whitman as Brahms.

Baker spent his weekdays preoccupied by actuarial concerns.  In fact, Baker's artistic methods were a kind of unconscious -- or perhaps conscious -- parody of what he did at work.  They are achievements of bureaucratic organization endowed with a bizarre, eccentric twist.  Much of his output consisted of Big Chief Notepads or cheap dime store scrapbooks which he would fill with clippings, mementos, drawings, and written observations about the world about him, as if he were filing them for some useful purpose.  The clippings included works by Matisse, Picasso, and Klee; likenesses of famous people; funny photographs of 19th-century actors; as well as ticket stubs, wine labels and other memorabilia from his travels.  Baker even created a collection of funny or wistful poetry, in a three-ring loose-leaf binder, which he filed alphabetically by author from A to Y (he apparently could not find a poet for the letter Z).

At work, Baker was surrounded by note pads, daybooks, desk calendars, forms, and letterheads.  These materials often provided a surface for the vivacious line drawings which he produced in his basement studio (or, very likely, in spare moments of boredom at work).  His drawings often uncurl on old insurance forms, and he enjoyed creating eccentric calendars, often starting with the insipid imagery of the commercial variety, which he would alter and annotate to create subversive new meanings.  

A typical example is Teddy Bear's New Year's Eve, 1956, a sentimental chromo of a Shirley Temple look-alike hugging her Teddy Bear.  Like a naughty schoolboy, Baker maliciously altered the image -- placing martini glasses in the hands of both Shirley and the bear, and darkening the eyes of both figures, so that they stare idiotically into space, in a liquor-induced haze.  Thus, an utterly saccharine image is translated into something funny -- or perhaps not so funny, since the final result contains dark undercurrents of alcoholism and of old men's fantasies about little girls.   

Even when making fairly straightforward paintings, Baker liked to use odd surfaces.  Many of his oils are on bits of old wood, which he salvaged from construction sites, or on bricks, sea shells, tin, construction paper, or other odd surfaces.

Not simply a painter, Baker produced literary spoofs, such as a novel in a social-realist style by the Scandinavian writer, Gren Ristfarb.  The most elaborate of these parodies was an imaginary life of the German composer Fritz Buscht, a temperamental Teutonic long-hair.  For this elaborate farce, which went on for years, and which Baker sent in installments to his friends, he not only imagined little-known compositions by Buscht (such as the one which was "badly in want of a revival since its last performance in Prague in 1902"), but even visualized whimsical stage sets supposedly designed by Brancusi, Arp, and Miro for Buscht's operas and ballets.  

Though he put hard work into these efforts, they were apparently intended for an audience consisting only of his close friends.  In one instance, however, Baker created a libretto for an opera which was actually produced--albeit, five years after his death.  In partnership with the composer James Adair (who studied at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and collected manuscripts of old music), Baker composed the librettos for an opera, Isolde and the Shortstop, completed around 1950.  

The plot details amorous intrigues in a theater dressing room, just before the curtain rises for an opera by Fritz Buscht.  Sadly, Baker never saw his creation produced, but in 1977, five years after his death, it was actually staged by the Opera Society in Sacramento California, where it proved very popular, running through over fifty performances.  "Funny Opera opens season on good note," a local critic declared.  No doubt Baker would have been particularly delighted that according to this article the singers had as much fun as the audience.  Not surprisingly, opera features frequently in Baker's sketches, in works such as Oh, for Pitty's Sake, We've Already Seen This Opera

 

High and Low

Much of Baker's art plays with the building blocks of high culture:  modern art, theater, literature, opera, high fashion, symphonic music.  For example, he was fascinated by famous artists and composers, and collected photographs of them and of their work.  In his humorous letters to Diana James he liked to pretend that he was a famous artist, jealously watched by other famous figures.  In one early letter he boasted to Diana James that his painting Shore Dinner would be "as monumental as The Card Players was to Cezanne," since he had produced so many preliminary studies.  

In his art procedures, Baker carefully mimicked the devices of artistic superstars.  Thus, for example, when he experimented with monotype, he dutifully numbered his print 1/1, just like a real printmaker.  Sometimes he got a second rubbing, which he would number 2/2.

Baker was particularly fascinated by the zaniness of the Abstract Expressionists, who were grabbing newspaper headlines in the 1950s, and liked to pretend he was one of their peers.  Thus, in a letter to Diana, he joked about his use of improbable materials.  "If Jackson Pollock wants to see Rest on the Flight into Egypt, OK, but don't let him smell it.  Don't know why I can't have one technical secret, and he'd detect coffee at once."  In still another note he commented:  "Incidentally, dig the de Kooning painting in the new TIME.  First of my disciples to master blotter art."   In such passages, which tellingly reveal his awareness of recent happenings in the art world, he took aim at the outrageousness of Abstract Expressionism.  But his words also reveal an undercurrent of pain, that he himself was never truly taken seriously.  

During the early 1960s he was amused by the efforts to reintroduce figurative art, and in 1961 clipped out a quotation from Arts Magazine:  "Reality is coming back to art -- slowly and badly, but coming back."  The quotation might be seen as an unintended slogan for his own artistic efforts -- and an effective apology for its "slowness" and "badness."  But would the writer have dreamed that the return to reality would prove so subversive? The notion that France was the center of art, culture, and fashion is a continual undercurrent in Baker's work.  At one level, Baker's art expresses a fervent, drooling homage to the work of the French greats, such as Picasso and Matisse, whose spontaneous line he imitated.  He even emulated surrealists such as Tanguy in his wistful Surrealist Landscape, 1957.  Nonetheless, given the distance -- cultural as well as physical -- between Kansas City and Paris, Baker knew very well that his work could not stand on equal footing with that produced in Paris.  Moreover, his own amateurish technique made any direct comparison painful.  

Baker's genius as an artist was to capitalize on this pain--through an infusion of wit and satire.  It is this element of savage wit which lifts his art into the realm of something memorable and devastating--and even artistically important.  Like all good humor, Baker's satire pushes us in two directions:  towards admiration for the high achievements of art, and towards head-shaking over the imperfect world such achievements must stand in.  

One of Baker's more curious devices strikingly reveals his fascination with the tension between the real and the ideal.  Not infrequently, in works such as Europa Victorious, he portrayed mythological or allegorical figures -- for example, helmet women with spears, like those in an opera.  Certain European artists, such as Jean Cocteau or the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, used this same device, but for a self-taught artist in Kansas City it was even more startling and poignant.

Along with high art, high fashion was a constant source of both wonder and amusement.  One drawing, for example, features an astonishing ball gown and carries the caption:  "The five hundred tiny taupes that laid down their lives for the magnificent cloak opposite would not regret their martyrdom could they see what a grand swoop from shoulders to floor their skins make in Vanti's creation."  Another sketch shows the figure of a woman standing beside a mathematical calculation which floats in the air behind her.  The caption tells the story:  "Just enough for the Norell jump suit!"  Baker was also fascinated by foolish fads. Thus, when Go Go dancing emerged in the mid 1960s, he promptly responded with the cleverly titled Let My People Go Go.  

 

Double-Entendre

Baker's charming letters reveal his fondness for silly wordplay.  He enjoyed peculiar metaphors, which stretch language to the breaking point.  Thus, for example, he once described an artist (an imaginary one--this was one of his spoofs) as "a pilot light on the gas flame of surrealism."  Perhaps Baker's favorite form of play was silly puns.  Thus, in a letter describing a visit to the circus, he mentions his delight in "the animal acts, the clowns and trapezoids (or are they Trappists?)."  Similarly, in a letter about a road trip, he records that, "We spent Thursday morning touring Newton Center, Newton Heights, East Newton, Upper Middle-Class Newton, and finally found our highway in a little-known corner of Fig Newton."  This delight in puns worked its way into his drawings as well, which often derive much of their effect from their ridiculous captions.  Thus, for example, a picture of a woman with a fan hanging from her belt is titled The New Fan Belt.  

Baker was fond of visual puns as well.  In his sketch Girl at a Window, for example, he uses the tassel of the window-shade to denote the nipple of a nude woman; in his Valentine Painting the lemons on the table unmistakably take the form of female breasts.  In one of his letters to Diana James he alluded to another visual joke of this type.  "Am working on a little picture of a green pear and a hazel nut against orange and blue," he wrote.  "The pear looks like someone's rather large rear.  Electrifying the effect."  He later titled the piece, The Large-Assed Pear.

This issue of double-meaning probably explains Baker's fascination with plugs and electric outlets.  With their male and female parts, they seem to have served as a natural sexual metaphor.  Thus, a drawing such as Can't You Even Make Toast? not only wonderfully skewers the daily practical incompetence that most of us suffer from, but explores even deeper levels of embarrassment.

He enjoyed female nudity and its potential for naughtiness.  One sketch, for example, features a nude woman looking over the back of a sofa to watch a parade. Thus, she is simultaneously both properly attired and publicly undressed.  His Girls at a Window (already mentioned) also contains an element of double-entendre. The subject of the piece is a double-profile, like those employed by Picasso, in which one visage contains both a front-face and profile view.  Thus, we can read the face either as one or as that of two people pressed against one another.  Not content with merely formal double expression, Baker endowed this double-image with a distinctly lesbian quality, since (if we choose to read it that way) we can see woman aggressively poking her tongue into the mouth of the other.

 

The Meaning of It All

In terms of effort, Baker's art was clearly a serious affair.  He worked at it assiduously, rushing down to his basement studio day after day, and even developing a numbering system for his works, so that he could track his daily progress on individual pieces in his journal.  Yet Baker assiduously maintained a humorous public front, presenting his activities to his friends as a hobby and an amusement.  While he knew several notable artists, he never asked them for criticism of his work, preferring to remain free to bend to the vagaries of his internal compass.  In his home he never mixed his own work with the "real" art on view in the living room, displaying it only in the basement or the kitchen.  His only recorded exhibition, in his aptly named "Endive Gallery," took place in 1953, when he offered works for sale at prices ranging from 39 cents to $3.95.  Only once did he attempt to publicly show his work, in 1957, when he submitted a work to the Mid America exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was rejected.  

There was a dark undercurrent to Baker's vision.  The fact is that his art was a product of frustration -- boredom with the dull routine of the insurance business, ennui with the meager cultural resources of Kansas City during the dull gray years of the Eisenhower era.  In the 1950s there were no good restaurants in Kansas City to go to -- Putsch's cafeteria was on the high-end of local cuisine.  There were no art galleries to speak of, other than frame shops, such as The Little Gallery on State Line Road, which sold work by Benton and Fred James.  The art scene was essentially limited to the activities of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. To be sure, Baker was part of an unusually cultured group, including artists, musicians, composers, librarians, museum curators and wealthy dilettantes.  But the group was relatively small.  The same crowd of about dozen people, in slightly varying combinations, would see each other night after night for years on end, and do their best to think of something new, informative, or witty to communicate.  Nearly everyone drank too much.  Both Baker and his wife Mila drank far more than was good for them--a good part of their health problems as they grew older.

In fact, drinking ended Baker's life early -- as it later did that of his wife Mila.  By 1972 his health had seriously deteriorated and he took early retirement.  A few months later, while Mila was off doing errands, he died of liver disease in the little breakfast nook, where he liked to retreat to read or draw.

Baker's art seems arresting to us today for the very reason it puzzled his contemporaries.  To his friends, Baker's work was visually arresting and extremely entertaining, yet they wondered if it was truly art.  It had none of the technical polish of other notable Kansas City artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton or Frederic James.  Its form was irregular and eccentric.  They were puzzled by its whimsy, its parody, its subversiveness.  

These unconventional qualities are precisely what capture our attention today.  Still difficult to categorize, Baker's art seems closest to that of so-called "outsider artists."  Yet rather than being poor, black, or mentally unstable, Baker pursued his work from the vantage point of a prosperous white middle-class male, who held down a desk-job in a major corporation.  More than any other Kansas City artist of the 1950s, his work captures the feeling of the 1950s, the Eisenhower period of affluence and blandness, when to have intense artistic interests, as Baker did, was to be a little strange.  Unlike other Kansas City artists, who focused on traditional subjects, Baker focused on small, odd, awkward moments, which though easily overlooked or passed over, form much of the substance of life as it is actually lived--perhaps even constitute its real meaning.

Did Tom Baker harbor secret bohemian dreams? McCormick asked his widow Mila.  "Tom never rocked the boat," she replied.  "He did what society and his family expected of him. That was that."


About the author

Henry Adams is Professor of American Art at Case Western Reserve University

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 7, 2012, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on August 19, 2011. An exhibition titled Thomas King Baker: His Secret Life was on view April 17 through June 29, 1997 at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri. A catalogue accompanied he exhibition.

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

To view several images of the art of Thomas King Baker see Google Images.


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