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Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by John Baeder

December 8, 2007 - March 9, 2008

 

Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by John Baeder, the first major traveling exhibition solely devoted to the work of this important contemporary realist, opens to the public on Saturday, December 8, 2007, and remains on view through March 9, 2008 at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia.

 "This exhibition enables us to bring to our community and region the work of an artist who is justly renowned as one of America's preeminent realist painters, "said Kevin Grogan, director of the Morris Museum of Art.

Organized by Morris Museum of Art curator Jay Williams, the exhibition includes forty of Baeder's painstakingly rendered oils and watercolors, spanning the period 1974-2004, Baeder's work documents the roadside eateries he reveres -- diners, taco trucks, and barbecue dives. His depiction of them captures the pulse of America in a bygone era.

As American art critic, poet, and professor Dr. Donald Kuspit states in his catalogue essay, "Unspoiled America: John Baeder's Diners," There is a lyric ease to Baeder's handling, a delicacy of touch especially evident in his watercolors, giving them a poetic cast, in contrast to the hard-edged intensity of his oil paintings, where the diners are presented with abrupt clarity, giving them the 'sensation of the new' . . . The paintings especially make it clear that Baeder is a master of geometrical abstraction as well as nuanced representation . . . "

After its premier at the Morris Museum, the exhibition travels to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, where it will be on view in March and April, 2008, the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville, North Carolina, July - October, 2008, and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, December 2008 - January 2009.  (The Nashville showing will coincide with the artist's seventieth birthday.)

This exhibition is accompanied by a fully color-illustrated book, Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder. Co-published by the Morris Museum of Art and the University Press of Mississippi, it includes essays by Dr. Donald Kuspit, one of the leading critical voices in contemporary American art, and Morris Museum curator Jay Williams, a preface by Morris Museum director Kevin Grogan, and a statement by the artist. The book is available through the Morris Museum of Art store. 

 

(above: John Baeder, Big Boy Bop, 1985. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell Boyd)

 

(above: John Baeder, Prout's Diner, 1974. Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia)

 

(above: John Baeder, Orange Circle Diner, 1996. Collection of Fred Kanter)

 

The artist

One of America's most-admired realist painters, John Baeder was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1938 and shortly afterward, moved with his family to Atlanta where he was raised. He attended Auburn University before embarking on a career in advertising in 1960. He pursued a very successful career asan art director for ad agencies, in Atlanta and New York City until the early nineteen-seventies. 

During his years in New York, Baeder kept his technique sharp by drawing, painting, and taking photographs, while his day job as an art director kept him focused on American material culture. He also began to collect old postcards of roadside America whose images were grounded in early modern realist photography and early color lithography. They helped to inspire him to make the transition from the world of advertising to the world of art.

In 1974, Ivan Karp began exhibiting Baeder's paintings at his well-known SoHo gallery OK Harris Works of Art in New York. Since then Baeder's work has been the subject of more than thirty solo exhibitions, and it has been included in more than 150 group shows. Baeder's paintings can be found in the permanent collections of many noteworthy American museums, including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Norton Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Morris Museum of Art, to cite just a few, as well as corporate and private collections in Europe and the United States too numerous to mention.

The author of three popular books -- Diners (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978 and 1995), Gas, Food, and Lodging (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), and Sign Language: Street Signs as Folk Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996) -- John Baeder continues to live and work in Nashville, Tennessee, his home since 1981.

 

Related Event

Tuesday, January 29, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Lecture: Making Baeder. Morris Museum director Kevin Grogan and curator Jay Williams discuss how the John Baeder exhibition developed from an idea into a comprehensive retrospective. Members, free; nonmembers, regular museum admission. 

 

Wall labels and text panels from the exhibition

Quotations about specific diners:

 
Maple Diner 
 
"Fall is my favorite time of year. The symphony of color, light, and mood provides a different kind of energy for my travels and searching. . . . I have yet to capture this extraordinary light. Ironically, the "Maple" is a fall image, with a fall look, and fall colors. It was not intended to look like a department store window; it just happened."
 
 
 
Al Mac's 
 
"We were out dinering, drinking coffee, and scarfing down rice pudding at Al Mac's, watching the sun sitting down in haste and the looming low dark clouds moving with the speed of a drag racer. . . . 'Tell me who Al and Mac were. The original owners, eh?' Not so, More rice pudding, and then we learned that the original owner was Al McDermott. A little cinnamon on the pudding. 'Al started with his first diner back in 1910.'
 
 
 
Harris Diner 
 
"I heard about the Harris Diner at an antique show inNew Yorkin January 1991. On later trips north that year I would take sojourns to the Harris to find the right light. It took several trips before I was satisfied. The last one was made in the O.K. Harris jeep. . . . I added the vehicle to the painting to provide color, to pay homage to the gallery, and to offer another variant of its distinguished namesake."
 
 
 
Whitey's Diner 
 
"Whitey called himself a sandwichman, or a counterman, or a short-order man, and was at his craft for fifty-three years. . . . When I met him, Whitey had been at his present location since 1954. He's mighty proud of his double griddle of the same vintage."
 
 
 
Blue Sky Diner
 
"I went out on Sunday to meet the 'Blue Sky.' It was a rare day inNew York City, a clear blue sky that stayed such until sunset. Did the sky know how I felt about a diner's essence? . . . Walking around the diner, I was wondering about the notion of Father Sky and Mother Earth. I find sacredness in diners. . . . The diner is the Mother symbol-the great provider."
 
 
 
Empire Diner 
 
"I always passed the Empire during the day and knew it was out of place. . . . At night, the Empire becomes stately, changes garb, and turns into a nocturnal melody forGotham's chic, pseudo-chic, kinky, and pseudo-kinky crowd. . . . I have deep and everlasting respect for the Empire gang that had the brilliant idea to take and early 1940s Fodero diner that catered to theLower West Sidetruckies and turn it around into an upscale restaurant."
 
 
 
Street Scene, Klamath,California 
 
"This was a pivotal painting for me because it was the first painting where I started getting into detail. I was beginning to paint representationally (re-presenting the image), and I enjoyed the monochromatic paint: modeling and shaping."
 
 
 
Highway Diner 
 
"When Dick Gutman and I first met in 1973, we exchanged much diner talk-and also pictures and other paraphernalia related to diners and the great American roadside. He had a photo of this diner. I couldn't bear seeing it so small and knew it had to be painted. It was a way of preserving the picture rather than the diner. It was at that point that I began to pursue the diner as subject matter."
 
 
 
Shorty's Shortstop 
 
"When I decided to paint the bus and let my fantasies mesh into the reality of the painting, I made the aging, rusty white become rusty landlord green, a favored color of the day. It was also a favored color of Bud Holcombe, who owned the bus-turned-diner for a few years, and for unknown reasons sold it to "Shorty" McGuire, who was a chef (euphemism for short-order cook) aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II."
 
 
 
Airline Diner 
 
"If you are a visitor to New York City, more than likely you arrive at La Guardia airport and cab it into the city. Before the traffic gets too congested and tempers roar, the easy-to-miss Airline Diner sails by you on the right."
 
 
 
Roarin' Rohrer 
 
I look at these early "linen" postcard paintings, and they still hold up. Some are stronger than others. They were a phase, a beginning moment, a boost for the burner. I moved off the color linen image and on to the black and white photo image, using postcards as a base of visual operation. These images were mostly of small towns and corner drugstores and gas stations and other auto-related images. At this time, the postcard pushed me into painting more realistically. I was soon labeled a "photorealist." . . . . I was disturbed a bit by the label. I just wanted to be a painter. I didn't use all the mechanical tools, fuzzy backgrounds and extra-sharp foregrounds, slick paint, and I didn't want to have the self-consciousness that gets in the way of many "photorealist" painters. I just went ahead and painted what I believed in."
 
 
 
Schanaker's Diners 
 
"This was my sixth painting and second diner postcard image, but I was still very green when it came to painting and exposure to diners. However, the thrust of my newfound career was upon me. I had to keep cleansing my confidence. The contrast of the diners was exciting."
 
 
 
King's Chef 
 
"This Valentine diner was an extremely fine example of an owner's imagination and fantasy. . . . Why does he think of himself as chef to the king? If he had more personal pride, he would be the king. And then he could have named the diner 'King Chef.' A man's diner is his castle."
 
 
 
Prout's Diner 
 
Prout's is the kind of diner you'd not expect to be around for another five years. I returned to it five years later: still there, same color, same everything-like it was sealed in a vault. It had a few more gray hairs and needed some cosmetic work; that's all."
 
 
 
Majestic 
 
"After fifteen years, I returned to the Majestic inAtlanta. It was the same; as with all diners, it says what it is and nothing more. . . As we walked out, another early visual experience confronted me: a bright yellow Colonial Bread truck. . . The sight of the truck and the reacquaintance with the 'May-Jay' made me very happy."
 
 
 
Super Diner 
 
"I find more diners while getting lost (but usually not inBrooklyn). Well, I was doing one of those psychic trips on myself, thinking about my need for a diner. . . I passed a couple of heavy-duty wrecker trucks, and I was thinking to my self (no kidding now): 'I need a super diner just to get me out of this mess and make it through the day. . . Eh, I might as well forget it.' . . . The light turned green; me feeling lost; two blocks up to the left there was a glowing light, and it was reflecting metal. I got closer and hee-hawed to myself as I answered my own question as to what that glimmer could be."
 

Quotations about more general topics:

Diners 
 
"I am concerned with process: the revelation of a particular and
poignant part of the urban landscape, and thus the preservation
of a unique and rapidly disappearing icon of American roadside
culture. (Take from culture in one dimension and contribute
back in another dimension.) A significant aspect of the process
is the quest, which basically is the transformation of
documented archaeological findings-travel, investigation,
gathering of material. Painting is the mere act of transcendence;
an end product that enters space and time; the final leg of the quest." 
 
"I was taking photos of diners while still in the ad business for the 'fun of it,' not knowing I'd paint full time nor paint diners as subject matter. After that beginning, I started doing road trips, going on what I called 'archeological digs' for more research."  
 
Diners are "very nurturing kinds of places, horizontal, earth-hugging in form, and the grill is the hearth. You know when you enter that you're going to be treated like family and served family food."
 
 
"I am moved by diners; it cannot be explained. It is absurd to ask an artist what he means by his product. . . . There is a certain spiritual lift to be gained by having been touched by deeper material things." 
 
"The journey took me. I didn't take it. The diners found me. I didn't find them."
 
 
"The diner is a great leveler, indeed, a people's place, a place in which everyone is equal, where class distinctions are blurred and irrelevant, for everyone can afford to eat there, and one can find the everyday kind of food that everyone eats. I am suggesting, strange as it may seem to say so, that Baeder is a folk artist, for the diner is a place where everyone is "just folks"-a feeling that Baeder seems to yearn for, as his travels through the back roads of America suggest."
 
Donald Kuspit, art historian
 
 
 
John Baeder on Signs: 
 
"I love the way all alphabets look: letterforms, signs, anything involving type and typography."
 
 

On John and his work, in general:

 
"John Baeder is the Galahad of barbecue, a man on a quest, a man in search of the ideal: a perfect meal in the perfect setting.  His metaphorical journey has set him on blue highways, clocking more miles than it is possible to imagine on more cars -- usually, shall we say, "vintage" and massive ­ on roads that are typically identified by three and four digits."
 
Kevin Grogan, Director, Morris Museum of Art
 
 
 
"For Baeder, making a painting is like creating a short story or a poem, not like writing a newspaper article. As Eudora Welty observed, "It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations-associations more poetic even than actual." Baeder balances actuality with sufficient ambiguity, enough edited detail, to encourage larger associations and hint at universality. Welty understood that "from the dawn of man's imagination, place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place." John Baeder has said that he was first attracted to diners because they reminded him of temples, places to celebrate the values of the "sacred small town." He understood intuitively that diners acrossAmericashould be interpreted more as expressions of spirit than of matter."
 
Jay Williams, Curator, Morris Museum of Art

Selected gallery guide text:

 
Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way:
A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by John Baeder
 
 
Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats along the Way celebrates the life and work of one of the South's most important painters, John Baeder. Born in Indiana, Baeder spent his childhood in Atlanta before attending Auburn University in Alabama. Drawn back to the region, he moved to Nashville in 1980, where he still resides.
 
Baeder is known for his unusual subject matter, sometimes categorized as roadside architecture but more often narrowed down, simply, to diners. This is the focus of the Morris's retrospective exhibition.
 
Initially derived from postcard images, Baeder's diner paintings depict unpretentious restaurants from the mid-twentieth century that catered to residents and travelers looking for "meals like Mother makes," a descriptive phrase found above the image in Dutch Diner, his very first diner painting. Home cooking was especially appealing to weary tourists, who hit the American highway in increasing numbers between the 1920s and the 1960s. To meet their needs, diners spread along the system of national roadways. "I remember noticing diners and small family businesses along U.S. 29 when I was driving to Auburn in 1956, before the interstate highway era," Baeder reflects. "These images stayed in my mind. I didn't think of them then as paintings." When Congress passed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956, it doomed the diner, along with other mom-and-pop businesses-although few understood the impact of limited access superhighways before 1970.
 
By this time John Baeder had begun to collect old postcards picturing life in America's small cities and towns, gradually becoming obsessed with these timeless, almost surreal, views. "Postcards and their images played a pivotal part in my life," he wrote, reflecting on his decision to give up a career in advertising for life as a painter. "They were a catalyst in setting thoughts and feelings in motion. Postcards were responsible for a career change and a new beginning." Identifying with the viewpoint of "the anonymous photographer," Baeder began to document downtown storefronts and diners with his camera long before he decided to commit himself to painting. Once he began painting full time, he soon concentrated on diners as his main subject matter.
 
For Baeder, making a painting is like creating a short story or a poem, not like writing a newspaper article. As Eudora Welty observed, "It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations-associations more poetic even than actual." Baeder balances actuality with sufficient ambiguity, enough edited detail, to encourage larger associations and hint at universality. Welty understood that "from the dawn of man's imagination, place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place." John Baeder has said that he was first attracted to diners because they reminded him of temples, places to celebrate the values of the "sacred small town." He understood intuitively that diners across America should be interpreted more as expressions of spirit than of matter.
 
In Baeder's paintings the image of the diner becomes a symbol for accommodating the enduring values of hearth and home, a connection threatened by postwar mobility and affluence. Each of his classic diner paintings invites viewers to embrace America's values before the era of corporate consumerism.
 
-- Jay Williams, Curator
 
Notes
1. John Baeder, Diners, rev. ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 96.
2. John Baeder, Interview with Jay Williams, October 25, 2006, Nashville, Tennessee.
3. John Baeder, Gas, Food, and Lodging (New York: Abbeville Press, 1982), 9.
4. Eudora Welty, "Place in Fiction," in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (New York: Random House, 1978), 118.
5. Welty, 123.
6. Baeder, Interview.
7. Baeder, Gas, Food, and Lodging, 117.
 
[Illustrations]
 
Al Mac's, 1991, Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches
Collection of the Philbrook Art Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, museum purchase, 1998.9
 
Street Scene, Klamath, California, 1972, Acrylic on canvas, 42 x 66 inches
Collection of Diane and Judd Maze, New York City
 
Maple Diner, 1973, Oil on canvas, 42 x 66 inches
Collection of the John and Maxine Belger Family Foundation
 
Darling's, 2000, Watercolor, 23 x 30 inches
Private Collection
 

Please click here to view the checklist for the exhibition

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