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A Conversation with John Baeder

By Bascove
New York, NY, USA

John Baeder (credit: Señor McGuire)

When I first met John Baeder he was an advertising wunderkind, known for his intuitive understanding of any campaign thrown at him as well as his intense work ethic. I was expecting some slick "Madmen" kind of guy, instead, I met a warm, funny, sweetheart of a guy, who just wanted to talk about art. In the next few years John walked away from a comfortable life and from his job at McCann Erickson, one of the NYC's most prestigious agencies. The Connecticut home was gone; the NYC pied-a-terre became a painting studio. In a small walk-up apartment – filled to the brim with his impassioned collection of WPA-era photographs, early advertising ephemera, vintage car models and postcard collection of small town Americana architecture – he was starting a career in painting. A lifetime later, with uncountable exhibitions and five books to his name, his work is in major collections throughout the world. Next year Vendome Press will be publishing his biography, including nearly 300 full color illustrations, John Baeder's Road Well Taken, written by Jay Williams.


BASCOVE: You studied art at Auburn University in Alabama. How did you end up in the advertising world of New York City?

JOHN BAEDER: At the end of the summer of 1960 I had been studying art at Auburn, they had a sleeper art department and I was doing very well yet feeling unsettled. I had gotten a call from a former classmate, who told me there was an opening for an art director's position at Atlanta's most creative ad agency. It was a branch of their New York office. After four years, I was bored with school, growing out of it. I knew making a living being a painter wasn't the efficient route to take. I had also studied advertising design, which I could have taught, it was so natural for me. I was hired on the spot. I was twenty-one.

Jimmy's Diner (2011)

After four years, I had an offer from another leading southeastern agency with a bigger job responsibility and more money. I had just returned from photographing a huge photo job for Coca-Cola's Tab roll out. The photographer and I connected immediately and became fast friends, saying I was a "typical New York art director." I thanked him for the compliment and mentioned half-heartedly I'd be in New York in six months. The Atlanta office wanted to keep me. I told them the only way they could do that was to send me to the New York office. I was on the 38th floor of the Time-Life building in five months.


BASCOVE: You were quite successful. You must have enjoyed what you were doing.

JOHN BAEDER: I did. Everyday was different and a surprise. But, advertising got old after a while, it's all a collaborative effort, working in sync with so many involved with one project was a rarity. Fortunately I had that on many occasions. The "enjoyment" fulfillment quotient was weak, therefore, creatively I had to find another outlet, which was photography.

In the city. On the road to anywhere. A continuance of my anonymous hand-lettered signage research, which started in Atlanta in the early 60's, the myriad storefronts, abstractions, and diners…they were unique. Temples from a lost civilization was my vision, at the time.


Sabrett's (2011)

BASCOVE: In the 1960's you started collecting the photographs of Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, and other photographers of that era. Why did that subject matter attract you?

JOHN BAEDER: I related to them, their vision, their visual confrontation, their soul. I didn't know when I was shooting images in Atlanta in the early 60s, I was doing the same, with the same eye. It was the directness, the honesty, the purity of imagery. When I became aware of them, it made no difference, not even in substantiating or confirming. There was no influence. I kept shooting the same as before I was conscious of any of the WPA or FSA contributors.


BASCOVE: Who was Ivan Karp? How did you meet?

JOHN BAEDER: Ivan Karp was director of the Leo Castelli Gallery. There, he discovered Warhol, Lichtenstein, Twombly, Bontecou, and a host of others too numerous to mention. We met, along with his wife Marilynn Gelfman Karp, through a mutual friend in 1968. They came to my apartment to see my collection of anonymous hand-lettered signage photographs. Then on Sunday, February 13, 1972, Ivan saw four raw postcard image paintings, and awarded me an exhibition to open at his annex gallery, Hundred Acres, that September 16th. I quit my job as a senior art director at McCann-Erickson, and began painting full time April 1st.


BASCOVE: Your first exhibition at Hundred Acres Gallery was wonderfully received and you became a staple of the gallery, a gallery known for photorealism. How did your work fit into Karp's gallery? It never had that sharp-edged coolness I associate with someone like Richard Estes, and other photorealists, who seemed more attuned to variations in surface rather than subject matter.

Angelo's Diner (2008)

JOHN BAEDER: I believe my images fit in because of Ivan's extraordinary consciousness. To see beyond the obvious. I was dealing with the American character and material culture which he was close to, more so than any art dealer in the U.S. He defied tradition. He took risks to show unknown artists who had consequential concepts, and not just surface ideas, or executions. He shunned slick, an area where many photorealists go and participate. Ivan dealt with sincere genuineness, because he was.


BASCOVE: At first you were making silver prints from vintage photographs, why did you begin painting instead?

JOHN BAEDER: Basically, it was the first step, an unconscious one. At the time I was printing my own photography. After my move to New York, I used black and white labs for prints. The painter in me was lying dormant. I'd go to galleries and museums, read books, and there was a gnawing awakening that always surfaced when in the company of paintings, no matter what period, or genre. I felt a sense of belonging. I knew deep down that was my calling. It was all a matter of time before the call, "called." The beginning roadside postcard collection was a catalyst, I didn't know it at the time.


BASCOVE: The first paintings were inspired by your postcard collection of diners, motels and gas stations. What encouraged you to start photographing your own pictures for painting research? That was a huge change. Your personal vision was moved to the forefront.

JOHN BAEDER: I was always photographing, not knowing I may be painting images from any of them. The diners started to add up. After many images of small town scenes, black and white and sepia, monochrome watercolors of White Towers, I painted a black and white image of a diner. After its completion, the realization of painting from my own photographs seemed a logical and natural next step. I wasn't too affected or inspired by any specific photorealist artist. I was more immersed in the Ashcan School, and still am. The social realists were always near and dear to my heart since I was a kid. It was their sense of the human spirit that drew me in, yet I didn't know how to process that feeling then.


BASCOVE: Growing up in Philly and Jersey, diners were part of our everyday lives, the place for birthday ice cream sundaes and give-mom-a-break Sunday morning breakfasts. The waitresses were neighborhood women, who knew you and ordered your "usual" as soon as you sat down. It was the least expensive and least complicated food to be found. So how did a guy from the South become so obsessed with these diners? 

JOHN BAEDER: I like basics. Food. Clothing. Shelter. All the cultures and sub-cultures within their confines. I believe the unconscious plays a large role in one's later development, especially in the myriad of creative fields. Painting is on top. I had the fortune of experiencing the dining car on train trips to see my mom's family in South Bend, Indiana. It left an indelible impression in my psyche, along with sitting at a counter of a faux diner when I was about five-years-old. I was enthralled and entertained by the counterman's "dance," the visual cacophony before me, a magical mystery of preparing a simple hamburger before me. These events arise later and become one's art: paintings, writings, songs, plays, movies; the list is limitless.


John's Diner (2007)

BASCOVE:  Is there a psychology of diners?

JOHN BAEDER: If one is a follower of Jungian psychology, yes. The diners represent my feminine unconscious. The anima. It took a while for me to discover astounding conformations, learning about my personal totality. As a man, as an artist. Awareness, much reading and study, and realizations that clarified that my path was the correct one (so many artist's are "blind"). On a psychological level, diners represent the hearth, the nurturing soul, the mother, the feminine, down to their horizontal shape, as opposed to a vertical, which is masculine.


BASCOVE: Your work is highly respected by Robert Venturi, and other historians of American architecture. You seem to know a lot about the history of diners and roadside culture in general. 

JOHN BAEDER: I met Robert Venturi and his wife and partner Denise Scott-Brown, through their friends and major collectors at the time, Sidney and Francis Lewis, who had just purchased two of my paintings. They came to my studio and were enamored with my roadside postcard collection, especially early Miami Beach hotels, and old Las Vegas postcards. Both subjects near and dear to their hearts and consciousness, especially Las Vegas. I told them I was embarking on a series of paintings of Las Vegas. At that time, no artist had tackled the imagery. I found it, (then) as iconic as diners were. Their legendary book, Learning From Las Vegas, is a compulsory read for all architect students.

Skee's (2005)

I was also painting watercolors in black and white of vintage White Towers. Their partner at the time was Steven Izenour who had published a book of vintage White Tower and White Castle's photographs. We were all in sync with one another all thinking alike with our vision and similar sensibilities.


BASCOVE: Besides the photographs you take for your diner research, what other subjects do you love to delve into?

JOHN BAEDER: Since I was a kid, I always loved aircraft. Like so many kids today who love dinosaurs, or monsters, I liked airplanes. Again the unconscious took over. I was attracted to the shapes, the sculptural aspects, the hidden language of various markings, the need for an idol. Again, I didn't process all these observations. That came later on when more interest peaked when I was around twelve and began to manically collect photographs all the same size. I'd compulsively placed them with corners on 4 x 6 cards, and typed the various designations, then placed them in two boxes, the manufacturer's broken down alphabetically.


BASCOVE: Could you tell me more about painting from this collection?

JOHN BAEDER: In May 2014, I began a new series of paintings using the collection as a base for subject, coming full circle, using only black and white and sepia.


Rosebud Diner (2004)

BASCOVE: Did you enjoy the process of looking through decades of work to decide what was most important to include in your biography, John Baeder's Road Well Taken? Choosing a biographer is a real decision of trust. What made you chose Jay Williams?

JOHN BAEDER: I stay in the present. Looking back is difficult, bringing up so many lives, loves, pain, gain. Assembling is part of the process, another reality to deal with. Going through so many paintings that are important on multiple personal levels, and knowing some may not be used, is akin to throwing pieces of your life away. The editing process is excruciating, the "less is more" cliché does not ring true. As a collector, I subscribe to "more is more."

Jay Williams was curator of my four museums retrospective. He also wrote the essay for the accompanying book. When we met there was an instant connection, not only because he was an admirer who had done his homework, he was also a Jungian. As with his wife, a Jungian therapist (as was her father) cutting to the chase was far swifter. Jay was also an advocate of material culture. As an art historian, he was well tuned and ready to meet me head on. It's a thrill and a rare joy to be in total sync with one who is stepping into your psyche and rewards it with keen observation, gleeful brilliance, and fruitful ideas for the reader to delve into.


BASCOVE: Diners, your first book, was published in 1978. Highly lauded, it brought a "diner consciousness" to the country, even adding some diners into the historical register. You've since painted hundreds of canvas and watercolors of roadside eateries from diners, to lunch wagons, to taco trucks. You've also complied books which cover a breadth of subjects of folk heritage, including hand-painted signage and folk art. Your archives are promised to the Smithsonian. What is their place in American culture?

Market Diner (2003)

JOHN BAEDER: Collecting vintage roadside image postcards started a visual journey I had never traveled. Those minuscule visual adventures were transformed into paintings, a pang that had been with me for many years. Akin to a metamorphosis, I came to the realization, my quest was the act of preservation, the act of painting was secondary activity. They inspired me to go forward on my own to seek out new territory that would enhance my personal world, allow future ideas and paintings of iconic images bringing a heightened sense of self, and through them, others.

The human condition plays a major role. Our society and culture is vastly changing. Large corporations have destroyed our sacred values. Mom and pop enterprises have become nearly extinct. I sincerely hope my paintings and photography have touched and enlightened future generations, allowing them to see what was a genuine American voice.



John Baeder



Bascove is an artist and author. Her works of the bridges of New York City have been the subject of solo and group shows for over thirty years and are in numerous public and private collections.

All opinions expressed by Bascove are solely her own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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