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Donald Baechler, Maker of Pared-Down Paintings That Brought Him Fame in ’80s New York, Dies at 65

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Donald Baechler, a New York artist whose painted collages received significant attention starting in the 1980s, has died at 65. A representative for his longtime New York gallery, Cheim & Read, said that Baechler died of a heart attack on Monday in Manhattan.

A representative for the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture said that Baechler had attended a benefit dinner for the school last night.

“He remained a supporter and friend to Skowhegan for more than three decades and will be sorely missed by this community,” said Sarah Workneh and Katie Sonnenborn, the school’s co-directors, in a statement to ARTnews.

Baechler’s deliberately naive-looking paintings, sculptures, and collages enlist easily recognizable symbols that are then pared down to their most basic forms. In his works, people appear flattened, smushed ice cream cones seem to ooze, and bouquets of flowers are depicted as slender black objects with just a few spiky petals.

Baechler emerged during the ’80s as part of the Downtown New York scene, which also included the likes of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who similarly worked in a manner that evoked children’s drawings.

Tony Shafrazi Gallery, a Downtown space credited with helping launch the careers of Haring and Basquiat, offered Baechler some of his earliest solo shows. In 2017, the Museum of Modern Art in New York featured Baechler’s art in a show dedicated to Club 57, an East Village hub that helped spur on the growth of the Downtown scene.

But Baechler eschewed a formal relationship with the artists with whom he’s frequently compared, saying in a 2000 Bomb interview, “I wasn’t part of this downtown club scene, and I had nothing to do with so-called graffiti art.”

Critics were often split on the merits of Baechler’s work, with some praising it for its simplicity and others disparaging it for a perceived vacuousness.

Robert Pincus-Witten once wrote that it was important to see a kind of humor in Baechler’s work, saying, “While maintaining his attraction to the scale of Abstract Expressionist painting, Baechler yielded to the appeal of children’s drawings and the range of imagery associated with American folk art. Yet there is nothing of the ‘outsider’ in his work, even if the edgy recognition of the faux-naïf is ever present in our minds—a kind of warning signal never to take his works too seriously, however serious their execution may be.”

Others found nothing quite so stimulating in Baechler’s art. Of a 1999 show of monumental paintings held at Shafrazi, New York Times critic Grace Glueck wrote, “Banal in their associations, with loud echoes of Rauschenberg, Warhol, Lichtenstein and other old masters, these paintings bully the viewer by their size. Reduced, they would look quite ordinary.”

Sculpture of a flattened female figure.

Donald Baechler, Walking Figure, 2008.

Even some people outside the art world found a bone to pick with Baechler’s wrote. When the artist’s 30-foot-tall sculpture Walking Figure (2008), which depicts a woman who appears to have been flattened, went on view in an airport in Westhampton Beach, New York, the town’s mayor reported that people had been asking why the piece could be considered art. The Huffington Post devoted an entire story to the reactions of “upset” residents.

Of the local brouhaha, a seemingly unfazed Baechler told Art in America, “I think it will be liked when people get used to it—and when it’s in context with the landscaping around it.”

Donald Baechler was born in 1956 in Hartford, Connecticut. He received an art education at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Cooper Union in New York.

Where he differed from many of his New York–based colleagues was that was in his early embrace of German contemporary art. Before figures like Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz were well-known in the U.S., Baechler made a point of keeping a close watch on what was going in Germany. Intrigued by what German exchange students at Cooper Union had told him, he went on to study in Frankfurt at the esteemed Städelschule.

He imported German artists’ interest in a newly recurrent kind of semi-figuration, one which distilled the human form to something basic, brushy, and unprofessional-looking. Baechler’s major addition to that formula was to introduce collaged materials, among them cartoons, pictures cut out of print media, and swatches of patterned fabric. These elements often act as a background to his painted imagery.

Baechler’s work is currently held by an array of institutions, among them MoMA, the Whitney Museum in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. His art figured in the 1989 Whitney Biennial and the 1987 Bienal de São Paulo. Important private collectors, including Eli Broad and Peter Brant, are known to have bought Baechler’s work.

Unlike some artists, who map out their canvases before they begin, Baechler did not always know where his paintings would lead him during their production. He embraced this kind of unknowability.

“One reason I build my surfaces up is because I don’t really want to know what the line is going to do,” he said in his Bomb interview. “I want this built-in fracture; when I drag the brush along the canvas I don’t want it to be a smooth, easy voyage—I want some problems along the way.”

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