John Baeder is best known for his popular paintings and prints of roadside diners. His images so successfully capture the pulse of the American quotidian that they have spilled over, so to speak, into the secondary market in the form of reproductions on posters, calendars, and postcards. [Here the energy comes full circle as old postcards were, as we will see, an important source of inspiration for Baeder’s paintings.] The Disney Company, CNN, Coca Cola, and fashion moguls Perry Ellis, Liz Claiborne, Nicole Miller, and Guess – at times even disregarding copyrights – have outright appropriated Baeder’s paintings of diners into their fashions. The diner paintings also appear on memorabilia-oriented merchandise such as painted plates and, in three dimensional form, as butter dishes, planters, canisters, and the like (part of an extensive ceramic line produced by Sigma/Towle in 1979/80). Further attesting to the extraordinary appeal of Baeder’s paintings is the fact that the authors of a book on art deco chose to illustrate the sleek design of New York City’s Empire Diner with Baeder’s highly expressive painting of that diner, rather than with an actual photograph. [Alastair Duncan, American Art Deco (New York: Abrams, 1986]
In the spirit of his love for roadside America and diners Baeder, who commands a wealth of information on this subject, determined to share not only the paintings but hearty helping of delightful diner lore as well in a series of enjoyable, very popular books: “Diners,” “Diners: Revised and Updated” “Gas, Food, Lodging,” “Sign Language,” “Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way,” and “John Baeder’s American Roadside: Early Photographs.” Collectively, the diner paintings, the books and the secondary-market-merchandise have impacted the commercial arena with such force that they are considered a primary catalyst in the resurgence of current diner mania and the phenomenon of NeoDiners. The acclaim drawn by Baeder’s imagery is a measure of a passion that goes well beyond qualities such as reportage or the ability to capture the more casual elements of American culture which stand among the primary aims of Post War realism, particularly the power stroke that has been termed Photorealism. More than any other artist associated with the powerful Post War realist movements, John Baeder has returned the favor in kind to the very culture that inspired him.
The diner paintings were always inherent in Baeder’s special consciousness. Like a vanishing point, they represent the convergence of a range of interests and influences that took some time, and another career, to formulate.
In the late 1950s, Baeder studied Fine Arts at Auburn University. His earliest works were expressionist figural abstractions inspired by the work of Diebenkorn, de Kooning, and Tworkov, among others. As a serious student, Baeder read and reread the then little-known Abstract Expressionist journal of painting, poetry, and thought, IT IS, published in 1958-59. However, the real magic of those Auburn years was the trips back and forth, between semesters, from Atlanta to Alabama. It was during these drives that Baeder’s romance with the back roads of America stirred and his love affair with diners took hold. As a youngster, Baeder had enjoyed bike rides with a Baby Brownie in hand. These bike rides were the beginning of his documentary quest; his targets were old relics, in particular old cars, whose craftsmanship and beauty captured his attention.
Baeder makes the astute observation of himself and of his generation that they were “image addicts.” They were brought up on, and their vision stimulated by billboards, movies, TV, advertising, and the now highly-regarded, photo journalist images that covered the pages of Life, Collier’s, and Look magazines. Baeder, in fact, began his own professional career as an award winning art director. He worked first in Atlanta, from 1960-64, at a branch of a New York ad agency, subsequently making the move to New York City.
During his years as an art director, Baeder kept his technical artistic abilities honed through drawing, painting, and photography; in tandem these dual pursuits proved especially important to his future as an artist. Indeed, the growing dialogue, in this period, between advertising and the fine arts catalyzed the over-arching progression towards the Photorealist movement. The many aspects of art directing, including marketing, merchandising, promotions, and public relations, kept Baeder’s vision focused on American material culture.
While working at Ted Bates, in the mid to late ‘60s, Baeder found himself directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum’s photography department proved to be a haven for Baeder. There he studied the work of Bernice Abbott, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, and other photographers of the FSA (Farm Security Administration). Inspired by their unique vision, he began to collect photography – Bernice Abbott, Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine and John Gutmann are represented in his collection. At this point, Baeder began as well to take pictures in earnest. Urged on by an already highly developed sensitivity for the beauty and value of old things, he focused his lens on the urban environment, purposefully documenting the fast-disappearing elements of city fabrics that had lent such remarkable character to their surroundings during the years of expansion and growth. From here, it was a short step to the diners.
As a child, Baeder had been nagged by a desperate urge to travel, and the sore reality that his father did not drive had left a void for which, during the Auburn years, he had found compensation. By the late ’60s, and many road trips later, Baeder began to expand his sights not only as a photographer but as a collector, centering in on old postcards of roadside America – of the diners, gas stations, tourist camps, motels, restaurants, and the main streets of small towns that he discovered as he wound his way ‘cross country.’ It was with these postcards in particular that a sort of alchemy began to stir.
With their grounding in early modern realist photography and early color lithography, the postcards became the perfect catalyst for Baeder the ad man to cross the threshold into the world of the artist. As Baeder explains, his first impulse was to scale up the postcards and turn them into paintings. In these earliest paintings, his pleasure was that these naïf, relatively flat, pared-down images could both hold their representational qualities while offering visual tension through the structuring of abstract patterns. Baeder was acutely aware of Pop Art, with its visual and sometimes technical ties to the world of advertising; he, in fact, recognized Pop as a harbinger of something new and substantial, and, at quite the opposite end of the scale of postwar abstraction. It did not take long for Baeder, through the intervention of John Kacere, to be noticed by Ivan Karp, who immediately added him to the roster of artists exhibiting at the OK Harris Gallery. It was not long either before diners became the singular focus of Baeder’s paintings.
To be sure, other Photorealists chose various aspects of popular eateries as subject matter for their paintings, but none with the same dedication and rigor as Baeder. It can, in fact, be argued that Baeder single handedly developed the diner image into an American icon. With tenacity and consistency he made pilgrimage after pilgrimage to capture, lovingly, first with his camera and then in paint, images of hundreds of diners across the United States.
Baeder’s quest is reminiscent of the early 18th century phenomenon of theveduta. From the 17th century onward, with the emergence of genre painting as a major art form, the province of the visual arts was forever licensed to run the gamut from reportage to social commentary. Particularly germane to our discussion is the early 18th century cultural phenomenon of the ‘grand tour.’ ‘Grand tour’ travel, fed by the romantic lure of ancient monuments, untraveled terrain, and foreign soil prompted a fashionable genre known as veduta painting. Vedute [Italian for ‘views,’] specifically references pictures that captured the fascination with these special places and that developed into a full-blown, extremely appreciated art form. Especially sought after among the 18th century vedute, were marvelous representations that featured the magic that is Venice; the stunning antiquities that were reminders of the glory and power of ancient Rome; and the many picturesque, little-traveled byways waiting to be discovered on journeys through the countryside, particularly of Italy.
From the motivational side, at their core, culture-based art movements such as Pop Art and Post War realism could well be viewed as the latest offspring of these early, innovative avenues of artistic expression. To this art historian, however, the quintessential 20th century heir of the 18th century phenomenon of the ‘grand tour’ and the veduta is John Baeder, both for his romance with the American roadside and diners, and for the special manner in which his paintings speak of locale and of personal taste in the broadest sense of the term.
The congruence with the beginnings of Romanticism is not off the mark, particularly in the case of an artist like Baeder, fueled by inspired imagination [l’alta fantasia]. From the outset, Baeder has been acutely aware that diners are being quickly upstaged by fast food restaurants. Indeed, his encounters with the many abandoned diners along remote back roads once thoroughfares, or those now encased and overwhelmed by urban fabrics dense with tall buildings and glass, have prompted him to view these precious artifacts as precisely the modern ‘Romantic’ equivalent of exotic remnants of ‘lost’ civilizations. It is this personal realization that triggered in him an urgency to record the special flavor and charm which these delightful establishments once brought to their environments. Baeder has also understood that diners tell even a richer story about human endeavor. The diner is, without question, a modern day locus of the ‘hearth’; by Jungian standards, an archetype of basic needs – food and place to rest in the course of a busy day – a delightful, universal symbol of nurturing. From the beginning of time, the fires at the center of caves, camps, teepees, the great hearths of castles and palaces, of pot belly stoves and kitchens everywhere, have brought together clansmen, servants and sires, and families to share warmth, food and conversation. As society has become more and more mobile, and cars more affordable, inns have given way to lunch wagons and diners. Art with the vitality of Baeder’s can only claim the appeal it does if it is underpinned by concepts rich with such universal relevance; and it is these rich concepts, above all, that drive such vision.
Diner after diner dominates Baeder’s paintings; the well-spring is rich and ever-so-versatile. Baeder savors his special capacity to capture the unique persona of every diner he has painted, and his ability to find the means to imbue each – as the centerpiece of his paintings – with singular purpose, whether to enliven a landscape or someone’s day; to be the foil for nature’s moods or the seasons; or to underscore regionalism. Though their basic form is given by the early Pullman railroad dining car, the distinctive character of each and every diner he has chosen to represent is what impresses. The ‘look’, the décor, the menu, the signage, as captured by the artist, all pay homage to the creativity of the individual – often naive and spontaneous – of those who own and run them. Colorful paint schemes, shiny chrome, flags and quippy advertising fill the scenes and the senses with always pleasant, and often witty, simplicities. Far from the world of cryptic emblems of morality and memento mori that fill the popular 17th century still life paintings of tables over-spilling with delectables, these 20th century images of popular eateries offer hospitality, warmth and enjoyment. The dress code is always come-as-you-are; the architectural order is freedom of expression.
We should not be fooled by the certain lack of formality we might sense in Baeder’s diner paintings. Each is a superbly crafted image where composition, color, form, and technique join at the highest level in order not to compete with but to enhance the imagery. As part of his special craft, Baeder has even found the means to bestow his diner paintings with voice, through the graphic component, the signage, that lends both visual (calligraphic) interest and verbal appeal. Rarely are these realms so successfully combined.
As we study Baeder’s images collectively, we become aware that the diner paintings are, above all, a precious social record of a fast-disappearing American subculture. The paintings stand as noble documents of regional tastes and mores; of the richness and variety of our expansive culture and society; of our mobility; and of the extraordinary personal freedoms that draw so many to our shores. From this standpoint alone, Baeder has taken his place in the tradition of 19th & 20th century realist and regionalist painters, and photo-journalists who explored with contagious humanity the character of ordinary Americans as they imprinted themselves upon the American landscape. And, as America homogenizes under the sign of the ‘golden arches’ and the like, Baeder’s diner paintings along with the impact of his presence on Post War material culture are the potent reminder of the fast-disappearing character and diversity of an expansive American pioneering spirit.
© by Virginia Anne Bonito, Ph.D., January 2013
Virginia Anne Bonito, “John Baeder,” Get Real: Contemporary American Realism from the Seavest Collection, Duke University Museum of Art, 1998, pp 10-15; excerpted reprint by permission of the author. For more information, please contact Virginia at email@example.com