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Realist master takes flight

Renowned artist John Baeder debuts new series at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


When it comes to contemporary art, realism sometimes doesn’t get the full attention it deserves. It’s not that realism isn’t appreciated or admired or collected — it’s all those things, especially the last one. It’s more that in praising the detail or precision in a work of realism, people overlook other qualities. “In a realist picture, it just doesn’t mean that nothing is going on just because it’s a depiction of something in real life,” says Charles Shepard, director of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. “In other words, it doesn’t mean that there’s no intellectual energy there. There’s more happening compositionally, aesthetically than you realize.”

Shepard is actually passing on something he was taught by Ivan Karp, famed art dealer and owner of the OK Harris gallery in New York. It was Karp who first introduced Shepard to the work of John Baeder, one of the 20th century’s greatest painters of realism.

A show of new work by John Baeder — John Baeder Takes Wing on a Higher Road — is currently running at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art through January.

Shepard is, of course, excited about featuring an artist of Baeder’s stature at the FWMoA, but there’s something else there, too. To hear Shepard tell it, it was through Baeder’s work that Shepard gained an appreciation for realism. As a graduate student, Shepard was an associate curator at the Williams college museum; his assignment was to look for the “up-and-coming” new trends, so he used to visit the art galleries in New York.

One of them was Ivan Karp’s gallery OK Harris. Karp specialized in realism, and was known for his integrity, honesty, and good taste. Still… “I have to confess, at that time I wouldn’t have told you that realism was my thing,” Shepard recalls. “Ivan picked up right away that I may be leaning towards abstraction and conceptualism and this kind of thing, and he thought it was his duty to teach me about contemporary realism. And it worked. I immediately trusted the guy. He said ‘I know how you’re thinking. Most of you young guys think that way, but there’s other kinds of art to think about’.”

One of Karp’s artists was John Baeder, whose work was already garnering attention. “The work I first saw of his, and which he became most famous for, was a long-running series of the old-style American diners in various different states,” says Shepard. “What drove Baeder was that at the time, these diners were going away. He was quick to recognize that these places were disappearing, and was trying to capture these distinctive styles and ‘personalities’ before they were gone.”

Baeder’s popular paintings ended up not just preserving the memory of those old-style diners; they helped launch a national effort in the late 70s and early 80s to save the structures themselves.

After his introduction to Baeder’s work, Shepard says he made it a point to get something by Baeder everywhere he worked. But he never actually met Baeder until a couple years ago. Ivan Karp, Baeder’s friend and long-time mentor, had died, and Baeder was working on new subject matter — historical military aircraft. Shepard was very interested, and discovered something he didn’t know about the artists when they finally talked. “Baeder said, ‘Fort Wayne? Yeah, I know it. Baer Field. I grew up in South Bend’,” Shepard laughs. “I could have sworn the guy was a life-long New Yorker.”

The show at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art features nearly 40 large-scale paintings of historical military aircraft, created with Baeder’s distinctive style and attention to detail. In his professional career, Baeder was an agency art director, and Shepard thinks that training and background — in the days before computer-based graphic design — helped develop the precision in his images.

But with Baeder’s work, it’s more than just craft. “There are a lot of realist painters that stun you with their level of detail, but they’re cool to the heart,” Shepard says. “But in John Baeder’s work, there’s this passion and emotion that he’s able to communicate. He imbues each piece with it, and people can feel that.”

Indeed, while Baeder’s detail is incredible, there’s something dynamic about the aircraft paintings that really grabs the viewer. You can practically smell the grease and gasoline and hear the buzz of the engines. You get the impression that if you looked a fraction of a second earlier, you could have seen the planes moving. In a statement accompanying the show, Baeder explains that the work is a return to the images that lit up his imagination in his youth. "When I was a kid, I loved old military aircraft,” he says. “I still do.” They perfectly capture a child’s “gee-whiz” fascination with military aircraft.

As we said above, Shepard is very excited to debut this new series by Baeder. “Baeder’s place in American art history is secured,” Shepard says. “He’s still creating work in his 70s, which is only going to increase is stature. At this point, he could have kept doing diners, and he’d be fine. But I think they’re going to treat him even better going forward for being brave enough to change subject matter, and for doing it so well.”

John Baeder Takes Wing on a Higher Road
Fort Wayne Museum of Art
On display through January 22, 2017.
To accompany the exhibition, FWMoA is pleased to offer for sale a full color, 80-page catalogue featuring essays by Jay Williams, John Baeder, and Charles Shepard. The catalogue will be for sale at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and Amazon.

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.