Pulsating color brightens Baer’s “Palisades” series of oil paintings.
Baer's “Line Theory,” as interpreted in fused glass by artisans at the Bisanzio Glass factory in Murano, Italy.
Framed by his bold paintings, Baer sits in the open living room of his DC home. Photo: Bob Narod
The brilliant colors of spring, and summer too, appear year-round in Baer’s Washington, DC, studio. On one canvas, a blaze of yellow is tempered by earthy undertones; on another, hot pink dominates, while flecks of aqua, blue and purple crisscross, orange notes rise and a single red streak descends. “The idea,” says the painter, “is to create a set of dynamics that keeps the viewer’s eye engaged. A piece of art should hold your attention for longer than just a glance. It should pull you in again and again.”
Other paintings produced over the past two decades have taken a similar approach: Blocks of blue may interact with areas of black or white; horizontal lines pulsate; or snowy tones blanket the canvas, sculpting the surface with paint. “I don’t have a formula in my mind as I work,” Baer reveals. “Some pieces are more about the texture of paint, rather than the color. There’s a back-and-forth thought process going on until the composition is resolved.”
Born in DC and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Baer discovered painting in his formative years. After family visits to Cape Cod, his parents returned with works from a studio started by artist Edwin Reeves Euler, a relative, in Provincetown; they served as early inspirations. “Being creative and using painting as an outlet never felt like a choice; it’s a thread that has run throughout my life,” says Baer. As a high school student at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes in Alexandria, he dedicated all spare time to sharpening his art skills and even sacrificed playing sports—against the urging of friends and the coach.
Baer’s achievement in art was recognized with a Virginia Governor’s School scholarship for an intensive summer program at University of Richmond. Later, he went on to study at Rhode Island School of Design, receiving a bachelor’s degree in industrial design in 1995.
That training has helped him simplify complex ideas in his work. Displayed in his home’s living area, an early still life and landscape illustrate the artist’s drift toward abstraction. While the subjects are easy to recognize, their forms are pared down to two-dimensional planes of color. Baer compares the flattened color fields to “looking at the world through a broader aperture,” as in aerial views. In fact, the artist keeps on hand a digital archive of photos he has taken on airplanes. Images of structured farmland and rugged mountain ranges seen from above, he says, “have had a big impact on me.”
Also informing his work are paintings by post-World War II abstract expressionists, especially Richard Diebenkorn, whose “Ocean Park” series lyrically explored the landscape and changing atmospheric effects around his Santa Monica, California, studio. “I love the rigor with which he kept going further and further in a series—negotiating between the illusion of depth and flatness on the picture plane at the advent of modern painting,” notes Baer. “He really captured my imagination, especially when I was younger and found that dynamic between the depth and flatness on the picture plane was possible.”
Baer’s tribute to “Ocean Park” came with “Palisades,” his first series also named for the place where he lives and works. These large canvases extend almost five-feet square. Built up in multiple layers using broad strokes, they evoke a sense of spaciousness along with what the artist calls “artifacts,” as lower layers poke through.
Starting out, Baer sets down big color tones with a large palette knife in free, sweeping gestures. He prefers oil paint for its translucence and depth, often mixing the paint with a cold-wax medium to make it lighter and more flexible, “like cake icing,” he says. He then overlays up to six layers of paint in large swaths. “It’s really so satisfying,” says the artist, describing his process. “I try to think of it holistically, working on all parts at once in a continuous dialogue between points of interest and rest for the eye.”
The ongoing “Palisades” series, started in 2004, was followed by three others—“White on White,” which explored gradations in a single tone; and “Line Theory,” composed of stacked, linear rows, often in throbbing colors that fill the entire canvas or board. Baer’s most recent series, “Shining Invitation,” places a single or group of circles on the painting’s surface.
Considering one example, in which a circular outline is inscribed equally over powder-blue and white panels, Baer explains, “I started to think about how good and evil, black and white are wrapped up in one thing. There’s a unity represented in these works; we’re all connected and part of a whole,” he reflects. “It’s the simplest representation of how I understand the universe, the choices we make.”
It’s also a painting that viewers may choose to return to for further contemplation.