Lucy Baker

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “Divine Intervention” 1996, 54″ x 86″

I first met Lucy Baker in 1972, but I did not get to know her until the late 70’s. She was an intelligent young painter, but I had no idea that she would become such an amazing artist when we married in 1983. I liked her straight forward openness and her ability to live in the moment. Most of all, I admired her spontaneous good heartedness. Lucy loved to look at art, and, like me, was insatiable. We could look for hours and days at a time. We traveled together in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and were fortunate enough to visit Japan and South Africa.

I have been lucky enough to travel widely and to have looked at art with many of the great lookers who have shaped and expanded my taste, my ability to see and love more art. Most of them were scholars and dealers, specialists for different types of traditional art. When it came to contemporary art though, the only looker who opened my eyes like they did, was the critic, Clement Greenberg. Only Clem took the same connoisseur’s approach: comparative evaluation of originals. This meant deliberately developing a gift, practiced and informed looking. No one looked at art with greater relish and seriousness than Clem. His reactions were unpredictable and fresh because he knew how to stay open, to “go negative” as Keats and Whitman put it. He taught me that the critics main role was to champion the great, stay open and keep the big picture in view. We looked at art many times together, both here and abroad, for almost 20 years. Of course Clem was 25 years older than I was and had already followed contemporary art for a quarter of a century before I met him. He had already championed Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionists, and the Color Field painters. Clem had seen it all from the beginning. He lived in New York City and did not work, so he was very up to date. He was utterly confident and lighting quick.

Lucy came to know Clem and others in the circle around him and the Color Field painters. She helped me work on my book on Olitski in 1981. As time went by, and after 1982, I gradually came to realize that I was getting a lot more back from Lucy’s art and eye than I was from Clem. In fact, she was making him seem tired and outdated. I was astonished and excited.

Throughout the 70’s, Clem and I had looked to the followers of Color Field painting for the next great figures , and the next big movement. By appropriating Pollock’s allover “field” for more purely painterly ends, Jules Olitski had become the dominant figure after 1965. Indeed, his authority was near absolute for almost all of those new talents who followed Pollock’s path. Olitski opened the way for a more free, and full bodied painterliness. In 1968 Larry Poons began his remarkable cascade paintings which were made by throwing buckets of paint onto a tacked up canvas. This extravagant and violent way of working yielding a rough, dense, expressionistic feeling which prefigured things to come. But, in my mind, Poon’s color and field-like composition kept him in the orbit of Olitski.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “Blinky” 2003, 24″ x 18″

A decade later, Andre Emmerich asked me to organize a show of new talent for his gallery. This became the “New Generation” show of 1981. I think Clem pretty much agreed with most of my selections. There were some marvelous pictures but nothing that changed the state of things. Olitski and Poons were still the leading figures.

Then, suddenly, a new wave of Pollock-type painting appeared, but not from the direction where Clem and I were looking. This was the international movement called Neo Expressionism, which burst upon the scene in the early 1980’s. In essence, it was an assertion of Pollock’s early semi-figural, expressionist work typified by his great Mural of 1943. Here is darkness, rawness; obsessive, inchoate, frenzied. Here is what Nietzsche called the “Dionysian” side of art, which he opposed to the fully sublimated “Apollonian” art of perfect form. If Pollock’s Mural is a quintessential Dionysian statement, then his Lavender Mist, and other classical drip pictures, as well as Color Field painting as a whole, seem archetypically Appollonian. Having driven Color Field painting to the loftiest levels of beauty, sublimity, and refinement, Olitski and Noland left little room for development. There was a need for new beginnings, de-sublimation, the demonic.

After the long rein of concept driven art, which began in the 60’s with Pop, even the art world was hungry for heroic painting. Virtually overnight, Neo Expressionism came to dominate in the museums and galleries. One outstanding Neo Expressionist is the Portuguese painter Eduardo da Rosa, but he came along later and remains unknown in New York. Paul Georges late style is also an excellent example of high level Neo Expressionism. So are the paintings of the “outsider”, Thornton Dial. The best known American Neo Expressionist is Julian Schnabel who has a robust feeling for his materials and loves heroic scale. He has done some wonderful works and in several different styles. He once complained that Olitski “was only painting backgrounds”. But neither Schnabel nor any of the other neo Expressionists fully absorbed Color Field, or had a sufficiently inspired drawing, to back up Schnabel’s cheeky challenge. Even the most accomplished of the well know Neo Expressionists like Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, come off as hit or miss and lacking in focus. Their success seems to undermine their concentration. They are too easily distracted by gimmicks and irrelevant, conceptual gestures. Nowhere among the well known Neo Expressionists can be found a strong, artistic personality steadily unfolding.

In 1984 Lucy became the one to fully realize the potential of a post Color Field, Neo Expressionism and thereby create an alternative to Olitski, just by becoming herself. She electrified Color Field painting with her vivid drawing even as she sublimated Neo Expressionism with her dazzling colors. If Olitski maintained a lofty impassiveness, Lucy came roaring out at you. Her’s is an altogether more aggressive and personal mode of address. It is testimony to Olitski’s largeness that, when Olitski first saw Lucy’s pictures, he spontaneously uttered the word “major”.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “Rhythmic Explosion” 1993, 30″ x 98″

Pollock-type painting has sometimes been criticized by feminists and others for being ?macho?, favoring as it does, the big attack, largeness and expressive power. But, male or female, if the artists feel strongly, he or she must express themselves vigorously in order to be true to themselves. Consider the case of Helen Frankenthaler who has been the leading female in the development of Pollock-type painting. Her historic role was to unite Pollock’s stained and bare canvases of 1951 with bright color. She precipitated a second wave of Color Field painting. She has been amazingly consistent over many years. She has painted many splendid large pictures. But, she rarely reaches the authority and power of Morris Louis and, within her own generation, she must be ranked, in this respect, after Louis, Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Friedel Dzubas. As great as she is, in this company, her work seems a bit soft, light and “feminine”. Lucy on the other hand, could not be more “macho”, more hard hitting and powerful although she too has her subtlety and refinements. Unlike Frankenthaler, who is completely the colorist, Lucy is the expressionistic, sculpture/draftsman type like Picasso, David Smith and Pollock. Drawing and hand writing, involve kinesthetic arm, wrist, and finger movements and express the personal self most directly, its unique rhythm, character, and feel. (Lucy studied Chinese calligraphy at Goddard College). Draftsmanship also lies closest to conception, indeed, it is conception taken in its broadest sense. This is why the great sculpture/draftsman types are often leaders, opening up new vistas. This has certainly been the case with Lucy who has been the key figure for an entire movement of brilliant artists, the New New Painters. He she has led both stylistically and in the use of the new acrylic paints and gels. She fully embraced the new gel already in the early 60’s before it had been clarified and while it still had a yucky, repugnant look. And she immediately put to use all of the new acrylic paints which technology has subsequently made available. Child of the 60’s, she can show a tacky, punk, psychedelic sensibility and can sometimes carry physicality to the edge of grossness.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “Zulu”, No. 35, 2086, 64″ x 59″

Lucy’s Neo Expressionist figure style grew organically out of her abstract style, but was further inspired by seeing Zulu dancers in South Africa. Skeletal and gestural her naked male figures are featured in her Zulu series, and Human Being series, where they perform a demoniac, ecstatic dance of death. These paintings are also virtuoso, “one shot” performance done without sketches. They show the same aliveness, singularity and fearless freedom characteristic of all of her works. Lucy also loves to paint animals, especially horses, in styles which range from the sharpest realism to the classical to the expressionistic. The same range can be found in her seascapes, landscapes, and occasional portraits.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “David and Goliath”, 1988, 117″ x 1865″

The best of Lucy’s heroic scaled, narrative pictures like David and Goliath, Destiny, The Golden Door or The Death of Mandla are often inspired by her dreams and in my view, go beyond Matisse’s Red Studio, Music, and Dance, which they recall. Lucy’s pictures are much larger and far more intense in both drawing and color. They are also genre defying (like Matisse’s cut outs) in that they are not exactly paintings and far too intense and commanding to be stage design. De Rosa calls them “banners”. Whatever we call them though, they convey vigor and boundless confidence. They have an epic drama and raucous humor.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “A Clear Day,” 1994, 18″ x 24

By turns, Lucy’s paintings can be tacky and classical, punk and exquisite, extravagant and severe, and much more. All the while she has done outstanding sculpture: carved, modeled and assembled; figurative and abstract. The big point here is the largeness of her mind, how much she has to say.

Lucy Baker,
Lucy Baker, “Horse,” 1985, Bronze, 18″ x 19″ x 6.5″