Get up close to a John Baeder painting — really close. But don’t touch it. See the play of light and shadow in the folds of the cheap aluminum siding on the Lan Tin Chinese Kitchen? Now try and find a brushstroke. You can’t. Not really.
That’s it. That level of detail and precision in his sometimes massive paintings is one of the reasons that Baeder is among the best-known of the photorealist masters of the 20th century.
The other reason — apart from his approachable and agreeable personality — is the enduring and endearing subjects he chooses.
He highlights his lifelong obsession in a new retrospective at the Morris Museum: “Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way.” The exhibit showcases 40 paintings on loan from both public and private collections.
Baeder paints what he loves: diners, those icons of the American highway system, urban neighborhoods and rural back roads. Longtime friend Kevin Grogan has tried to stump him, calling him from two-lanes all over the American landscape with a diner dragged from obscurity.
He’s never once succeeded. Baeder seems to know every indie restaurant in America, like Willie’s on Rural Route 22 near Paulding, N.Y. Willie’s is a diner in the most authentic way possible, which is to say that it is not comprised of a converted railroad dining car. That’s a myth of the industry’s origins that doesn’t hold true.
Willie’s is a converted school bus, painted blue and remodeled to include tables, chairs and air conditioning. That’s closer to the real origins of diners, which actually began in 1872 in Providence, R.I., as a simple horse-drawn food wagon. Not to say that some of the railroad industry’s rolling stock wasn’t converted into free-standing restaurants.
Obviously, evidence of that exists at many a rail station crossroad around the country. But the concept was similar to the current taco wagon phenomenon seen in L.A., Miami and parts of Texas: independent entrepreneurs quickly providing hot, fresh, homemade meals at a reasonable price to loyal patrons.
Diners proliferated from the late 1930s through the 1950s, with the rise of car culture and the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system. Many of them stayed open 24 hours for the newly road-weary. Like Baeder’s “home” diner, Atlanta’s famous Majestic on Ponce de Leon Avenue, open consistently and owned by the same family since 1929.
“It was an eatery with a counter, but not a diner in the traditional, pure, bonafide sense. It had short stools and I was enthralled sitting on those stools with all the grown-ups and was more thrilled by observing with complete and clear amazement the choreography of the counter-man preparing food so swiftly on the grill in front of me,” Baeder said. It was like a dance of physical multitasking as the short-order cook — or Shorty, as the cook in such places is often called — flipped burgers, burned toast, poured pancake batter and scrambled eggs after breaking them with just one hand.
Diners are somehow rooted in both traditional American family values, and yet evoke a Bohemian feel drawn directly from Jack Kerouac on the road with his notebook and his dog. Icons of this era and lifestyle are the things Baeder paints: diners and icons of the age, like Shoney’s Big Boy statues. Few artistic endeavors provoke as ready a smile as a painting of a “graveyard” for retired Big Boys (one of which now sits in Baeder’s
backyard, a gift from a friend). And, of course, he has a series that features the individuality of the taco trucks that roam L.A.’s streets, bringing burritos to the masses and gainful employment to a family of recent immigrants.
Baeder’s paintings are popular enough to find success in the reproduction market with prints, postcards and bits of nostalgia-themed household goods. But he’s no Thomas Kinkaide, turning art into something mass-produced with the zeal of a million Happy Meals. Baeder’s work sits in such prestigious holdings as the Whitney Museum in New York, and, of course, the High Museum in his hometown of Atlanta.
But in addition to his righteous place at the forefront of the masters of the photorealism movement, Baeder’s work also attracts such attention because, in many cases, his photographs and paintings of roadside stands are the only remaining records of emblems of American history. They are sought after and protected in much the same way as original paintings of Rosie the Riveter or the first sketches of Mickey Mouse. Their artistic value is driven up by their cultural value. As a result, the Morris Museum chose him as their featured artist for their gala this year.
Baeder says he takes culture from one dimension and contributes back in another. He captures a rapidly disintegrating aspect of the country’s landscape and both glorifies and preserves it. But getting there is half the battle.
“The painting is the mere act of transcendence, an end product that enters space and time,” Baeder said. “The final leg of the quest.”