12.2.16 / From Roadside to Cloud Banks
John Baeder, the great American photorealist painter with a focus on roadside America (notably diners), has gone from having his feet firmly planted on the ground to soaring high in the heavens. In recent years he put aside the documentary art of vernacular eateries for the runways and hangars of World War II. His latest oil paintings are of vintage aircraft that recall his “aircraft mania” as a child. I talked with Baeder about the new book John Baeder Takes Wing on a Higher Road by Jay Williams, which doubles as the catalog for an exhibit of the same name at Fort Wayne Museum of Art (Nov. 12–Jan. 29) featuring glorious evocations of these sculptural machines.
What transformed your work from roadside to airborne culture?
I painted black and white and sepia postcards to give the exhibit more scope and depth, enjoying the idea of one color and white, plus they were more realistic, thus the beginning of painting “photorealism.” About a year and a half into full-time painting, my art dealer, Ivan Karp [OK Harris], asked me to paint an aircraft for a specific exhibition of only aircraft. I saw the request as an opportunity to fulfill the earlier ideas and [utilize] my boxed collection. I chose a WWII torpedo bomber (the SB2C-4 Helldiver)—the shape, predatory stance, graphics, black and white was appealing. For an unknown reason the painting was returned. A good omen, through the years always haunting me. Later, it became a muse of sorts sitting above my computer—always looking at it, and the painting looking at me.
You reproduce a photograph of the boxes filled with airplane reference. Where did these come from?
Then another appeared, and another photo service. I’d purchase several, then more and more. The collection, all same size and negative format, grew and grew. Elixirs for my spirit. I needed another “temporary” box to replace the official wooden treasure chest. They stayed with me through many lives and many moves for a reason. My interest didn’t wane, there was a sudden abundance of more magazines and publications. I’d purchase many, still to this day. I was always curious and fascinated with the esoteric graphic language of not just U.S., but also foreign WWII aircraft. It’s huge and mesmerizing. A separate study within itself. Now many books deal with this subject matter. [It’s] an arena addressed by very serious aircraft aficionados, including many historians, scale model builders, and above all, the plethora of brilliant vintage aviation artists who I dearly admire and respect, yet I am way removed from their sensibilities.
Your art is admired greatly for its precision and exactitude. I’m sorry to be so pedestrian with this question, but how long does it take to complete an image?
There are many kinds of World War II–era planes. Some are familiar to me, others have the experimental, aerodynamic Modern Mechanix magazine cover quality. What were the reasons for doing any particular one?
When ordering the small photos, I always favored side views, similar in feeling to my many “frontal” diners. Some aircraft appear more handsome and appealing in flight; a good example is the P-38 Lightning. Oddball, experimental designs have another quirky look; many of these aircraft never made production. I’ve only chosen a few, mostly because of their design and how their shapes change so drastically. It’s truly astonishing what can happen design-wise with a long cylinder, the fuselage, and how it’s combined with a wing, tails, and engine components joined together in a cohesive shape. Even biplanes (though to the layman they all look alike) have their own design features that are not only alluring, but mysterious at the same time.
Much has to do with light and shadow. I create various cloud formations that are reminiscent of English, Italian or Dutch master landscape paintings. Their mixture adds another component to the image to assist the transcendence of not just an aircraft per se.
Have you ever flown in any of these?
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is the co-founder and the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and the Graphic Content blog for T-Style. He is the author, coauthor, and/or editor of more than 120 books on design and popular culture, including the recent book Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig (Chronicle).