DONALD BAECHLER – Paint Traveller


Don’t talk to strangers until you’ re sure you’ve become one yourself.

Collage, for Donald Baechler, is a kind of travel, and travel is collage. Collage, seemingly without effort, abbreviates distances with no after-effect of jet-lag. Someone should offer a college course in gluing. Glue is at the basis of Moderismus. And who can forget the Frenchman who managed to squeeze a great book out of one small room in Voyage autour de ma chambre: “A journey around my chamber”. Hotels still provide guests with writing paper and envelopes, even though no one writes letters anymore.  Donald Baechler, in Lisbon, once did a series of works, which later were published as a book,  while holed up in a hotel room. It is called “The York House Suite.”  The drawings were made with standard washable blue ink on the hotel writing paper.  About ten years later, in 1998, he repeated the ritual in Budapest, and the outcome this time was “The Gellert Suite,” which was unveiled at Studio Raffaelli at Trento. The condition of travel as an abstract state of mind comes to serve as a working method, assisting the artist to arrive at what the critic Robert Pincus-Witten called Baechler’s “increments of inaccessibility.” The hotel room state of mind is to the painter or the poet what the oasis is to the Bedouin.

Hotel rooms, with their temporal measurement of our existence by the day or by the week, lend an immediate nomadic glamour to life. Looking at a sensual canvas of violin-case, high windows, girl in chair, we participate in the chaste clandestine joy which Henri Matisse once grasped in a few fleeting afternoons. Paul Cézanne tramping across Provence, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner lurking in public gardens. Artists in Hotel la Lunetta. All too often we forget that when the great utopian Paul Gauguin came down the gangplank in Tahiti into paradise he was wearing a cowboy sombrero and carrying a fully-loaded Winchester semi-automatic.

Travel, as everyone will agree, is not what it used to be. The hotel rooms are –apparently– no longer bugged by the secret police. Somehow, with images mummified and perpetually recycled  by electronic media, nostalgia itself becomes nothing more than an instant replay flashed ad nauseam on a screen of our info-flooded perceptions. Travel has had many names: the four-year grand Continental Tour to improve the mind and groom the sensibility, the charter bus express “Europe in one week” Copenhagen-Madrid-Munich-Paris-Rome, satisfaction garanteed.

Who doesn’t finish reading the adventures of Robinson Crusoe without dreaming of spending the rest of his life on his own personal desert island. Marxist materialism was a truly life-engulfing endeavour which touched the creative process of the new painters of New York under the Bresznev era, in the United States of America, only through the most overt of agitprop KGB propaganda. Far too often we forget that the 1970’s in New York were a lowkey battle-field of halfhearted combat between the two sides of the Cold War. Basquiat did his best, and never lived to see the Berlin Wall go down. Neither did Beuys. “Culture” went on, conducted as it had been for over fiftfy years: a gentleman’s game, called the Cold War.

What can these dreadful things possibly have to do with art? In the brown night when the train stopped on the way to West Berlin they had those dogs sniffing under the trains… Donald Baechler always seems to be travelling, –and good for him– even when standing apparently motionless in his studio during that small eternity of any weekday afternoon when the business of painting is being conducted without anyone hardly even noticing it. And why should they? Try to think of the actor who played Orphée, in the film by Jean Cocteau, walking while standing still, or maybe it would be good to remember the list of the metaphysical cities of Giorgio de Chirico, Ferrara Torino Rome Florence Paris Venice: you don’t even need to travel there, but you somehow understand what the shadows mean. Or what about the greatest of New York Surrealist artists, Joseph Cornell, who never left his home on Utopia Parkway to visit Europe but, like Edgar Allan Poe, knew every twist and turn of Paris alleyways.

A new genre could be identified which may be termed faux voyage  or fake travel. It may be based on the sad realisation that displacement brings no replacement of what we think we leave behind in the basement when we try to go away, a new display, or maybe play, and start a brand new day, in a different way, a new way to stay. Have a nice day.

Once it is before your eyes the reality of tourist travel fills us with disgust. Improbability of travel has a way of looking inevitable. Why did I come here in the first place? It is perhaps this particular sense of nausea for which travellers yearn, to taste the very dregs of wasted kilometers. The transcendental puritan American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared “travel is a fool’s paradise”, but after his first visit to the Louvre Museum his guide, a very young Henry James, found himself in the urgent obligation of guiding the elder legendary compatriot toward the comfort of a nearby tea-room in the rue du Rivoli.

It has been said elsewhere that there are many ways to misunderstand a Donald Baechler painting. Never explain, never complain. Traveller that he is, he covers his tracks with a nonchalant stealth which has become second nature, a sort of spirit of a ready-made disappearing act. Donald Baechler never has felt the urge to explain. Or rather, he has resisted it right from the beginning with an extraordinary strength. What he is doing is his own business,  And in this way he leaves to us all the fun of figuring out exactly what he’s up to. As on any journey, getting there is half the fun.

The writer Evelyn Waugh once found London monthly rents so high that it was more economical, as well as more pleasurable, to book a cabin on a voyage around the world. As literary history demonstrates Waugh managed happily to  circumnavigate the globe many times around. In this manner he wrote several novels but rarely went ashore.

Donald Baechler loves to travel and hates to travel. It’s like the reluctance the old-time Minimalist painters felt when it came to color. Yet color is there, and sooner or later no matter how Minimalist you were, you had to come to grips with it, and so it was for the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Brice Marden, who almost begrudgingly (since none of them were blind) made their separate peace with the chromatic rainbow. Thank God Oliver Cromwell lived in too early an age to gain acquaintance with Marx or Engels. The grim passageways of Modernism–as they bent into the sociological agora of Cold War atonement breastbeating and science-fictional aesthetic hystericism–brought us out into a wasteland of the imagination. A sort of bankrupt agenda of ideology. And ever since then, artists haven’t figured out what the hell to do. What can we tell them? Go back to Marxism?

Go back to Nizza? Go back to Weimar? Or maybe stay where you are.

The proud protagonists who came before the generation of Donald Baechler –Carl André Richard Serra Robert Smithson Joseph Kosuth Lawrence Weiner Dennis Oppenheim Dan Flavin, and far too many more–had laboured onto an illusion. Dan Graham expressed it best when, returning from Germany in 1976, he said East Berlin was the greatest place on earth. Without history there is no travel, and without travel there is no history. This is the dilemma that Donald Baechler as an artist seeks to circumvent and to cause to implode and explode through the sly filters of his implacable impartiality. Expect only the rarest of smiles. Nowhere since Charles Baudelaire have we experienced this ever so slightly lower than body temperature stance of aesthetic refusal on the very edge of social revolt. But always the disgust for anything near the anti-human vulgarity of the shabby department store basement which Soviet Marxist culture represented to its dying day: the lesson of which is,

Never reject Mallarmé.

There is a small editorial house in New York City called the Ajax Press. For many years they have dedicated slim volumes of Donald Baechler’s visual-literary travel diaries. They have become collector’s items without ever seeking to do so. Readers of these logbooks on several continents upon meeting each other may chuckle knowingly in response to the question “How much for a houseplant?”. One memorable moment bears the title “Wasted Time and Money”. These travel memoires in brochure form provide a way to begin understanding Donald Baechler’s restlessness and stoic seacalm tranquillity. Nihil, as Horace said, mirare. Let nothing you dismay.

This is an artist who has in a strange way manouvred the cold indifference of Minimalism into what we once thought to be the doubtful waters of Expressionism while remaining in complete loyalty to both flags: Baechler like all the best of his generation can in all honesty salute both banners, although there may be many incapable of following this essential aesthetic exchange, and if this is so it is all due to the central impulse of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and their persistent followers: that impulse is envy. Envy carried on the waves of war ruined the lives of millions of people in recent memory. It will only be in many years to come that we will have washed ourselves clean, either in the former Communist East or in the ever Democratic West, from the pernicious nihilism of sad Marxist errors which caused the misery and death of millions.

Wolfgang von Goethe was arrested while on vacation on Lake Garda because he was executing a watercolor sketch. For his artistic intervention into geopolitical convention he risked his life. Travel today through international airports often provides the same sensation in terms of absurdly inquisitional hysterias toward no end. Many who have travelled no longer do so. It is not difficult to understand why. But artists are constantly on the go. Young artists running around provides one of the few spectacles of optimism in this grim epoch. It is far better that a young unknown painter goes from Newark airport to Helsinki for a one man show in a small gallery rather than the great powers of the world pretend to resolve their differences. It would come as no surprise if the young departing painter bound toward Finland Station was not leaving from the studio Donald Baechler.

Many never travel. Why? These poets cannot afford the voyage, but that is only an excuse. Secretly they do not want to ruin the ideal dream which they cherish. William Butler Yeats never set foot in Byzantium, nor did Ezra Pound spend an afternoon in Tokyo at the Umeiwaka Kaikan. The act of painting eliminates distance. Who even needs to go to the airport? Guillaume Apollinaire understood that when he stuck in the name of a town “Galvaston” in one of his poems just like Bertolt Brecht shortly after him evoked “The moon… in Alabama…” 

The little girl in Tokyo told the British school inspector that the moon he had seen in his back yard in London was some different moon, and that the Moon which he had said he admired prior to visiting their school was the Japanese moon. “Je vous écris d’un pays lointain…” The Belgium poet Henri Michaux was a great traveller but not always in terms of actual motion. “I’m in books,” he would answer to strangers on a train who asked him what business he was in. But was he really ever in a far away land? How can we know, and why should we care. He found unknown lakes behind grand Opera houses in his dreams and until the garbage collectors arrived at dawn he did his best not to move in order not to shatter the illusion. Travel takes many forms. Pilgrim! Exchange student! Idle stroller! House detective! Voyeur! Invader! Crusader! Libertine! Fugitive! Pirate! Foreign spy! Fortune-hunter! Colonialist! Brochure tourist! Deep-sea diver! Conventioneer!

After supper, the child goes upstairs and sits under the light of the green-shaded lamp and one by one puts postage stamps in an album: Danzig, Paraguay, Philadelphia, Macao, Isle of Man, Mauritius, Tongo… The child dreams… “Hic sunt leones” says the mapmaker when he finds himself in a fog. More reasons to stay home and laugh. Yet there was recently a heroic generation of travellers. The great Imperatrice, Ileana Sonnabend, was the only protagonist to accutely observe how innovations in airplane travel changed the dynamics of art. Before the Peggy Guggenheims of the world travelled by boat. Jet travel, according to Ileana Sonnabend, modified the mechanism of helping art. John Weber said the same thing: why move the work, just give the artist a ticket on Icelandic Air. That way all the great magical protagonists of the great season of oddly rigorous American art were able to crisscross the Atlantic ocean and present their work in Berlin or Wuppertal or Nice or Amsterdam in a time when they were perhaps less appreciated in their own country, as had been long before them the poet Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman never bent his knee; his displacements were undertaken primarily for the motive of duty and otherwise under the limitations of proximity. Within this sphere, not so much unlike that of William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman embraced the universe with an extraordinary and irreprochable exuberance verging upon the highest summits toward which mortal man may strive. Where did he come from? That is the mystery. He covered his tracks very well. What we have today is his book, and we have had it yesterday, and we will have it tomorrow. His name is Walt Whitman. Somehow the frankness of his bold approach applies to these itinerant country painters who walk from house to house painting horses, dogs, wives, children, and farm buildings for a fee, and upon enthusiastic reccomandation may find themselves after a good thirty mile walk at the doorstep of another colonial patron.

Take Frankfurt am Main for example. Donald Baechler studied there. This was an important step. Here he came in contact with one of the school’s teachers Peter Kubelka, the great German filmmaker. For some funny reason Donald Baechler’s attention was captivated by a Kubelka film called “Meine Afrikareise”. My trip to Africa: It was a busload of clowny tourists poking their heads in smokey village huts, each making their own homevideo without knowing that Herr Kubelka making his own homevideo was actually making a real movie. Here begins the ambiguity: Were the tourists more guilty than Kubelka, or were the African villagers more guilty of collusion, or was the concept of displacement / conquest or gawk-in-the-hut senseless voyeuristic colonialism– too stupid to qualify even as racism– but the miracle of it all remains the purity of Kubelka’s engagement with all its incrimination and ironic distance and self-confessed complicity and ultimate total denial of culpability.

The innocent bystander. France is a nation which cherishes the Rights of Man. One of these, perhaps not exactly on the books, is the right of indifference. Indifference: it may mean I may know but I may not care to concern myself. In other nations this indifference is considered almost a criminal attitude. “Perhaps Dubrovnik…” someone says in a film by Roman Polanski. In the distance someone is reciting one entire chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses  walking around again and again like the sleepwalking bear on the second floor of Giorgio de Chirico’s gynecologist hotel or roller skating rink, among the shadowless but scarred gladiators captured in half hearted enactment of combat such as Lautréamont juxtapositions of random of unwelcome musical rhythm exactly the sort of short circuit contrast of anticipation which the travel agency of the mind offers exactly at the moment when we fall back upon the wisdom of our forfathers around the world in eighty days as Jules Verne promised us all. Wie froh ich bin, dass ich weg bin, as Goethe promised an entire generation. It may be that today La fanciulla del West of Puccini may stand as equivalent of Les fleurs du Mal of Charles Baudelaire. Will the leading critics of the press plead otherwise? The helicopter excursion has been postponed, and the Voyage to Cythera is overbooked.

The boat left France, and Edgar Degas was on it. He was going to visit his longlost relatives in Louisiana. Now this was a guy who was never a great traveller. He had undertaken a painful trip to Naples, in order to visit other relatives. In any case, his trip to New  Orleans gained him the acqaintance of New York City as well as Savannah, Georgia. Here was the home of true Democracy!  Yet melancholy dwelt beneath the slumber of the shadowed vines…  Degas painted a great painting in New Orleans, the “Echange du Coton” the puff-ball market, which is his one and only painting in the so-called New World.

The artists who had long lived under Communism  twenty years ago found out suddenly that in the “West” the most trendy thing remained among the caviar elite– Karl Marx. That was a strange round-trip voyage of ideology:  the Artist of the old Soviet sphere who must follow Marx, finds himself in Paris or New York and in order to be “trendy” he must be again a Marxist artist puppet.  The fragmentation of a once ignoble ideology under Stalin now reduced to an academic career. Louis Aragon denounced his Surrealist friends in Prague, and they died because of it. The Communist Party of France misinterpreting Godot and waiting for the “fin de parti” that never came,  did everything to get their grips on the grand Samuel Beckett. Never getting even close. The Communists –in Moscow in Warsaw in Prague in Rome or in Paris– understood nothing about Samuel Beckett. They still do not.

Early on I remember vividly that Donald Baechler painted a bunch of Zagreb paintings, in New York. I asked him to tell his impressions of Zagreb. He said that he had never been there; he liked how the name sounded. Around that time he was also listening to the great Egyptian singer Oum Kaltsoum, without understanding a word of Arabic. The geography of the imagination, as Guy Davenport would say, the wish-fulfillment by which all artists operate. If Pablo Picasso wanted to posses a work by Velazquez, he would paint twenty of them for himself. Two writers met on a streetcorner in Paris. “What are your writing?” A guidebook to China. “You’ve never been to China.” Yes but with the money from the book I’ll go there. Looking at a map while sitting in Weimar, Friedrich Nietzsche had a vision of making a fresh start in life– at Oaxaca, Mexico. Cy Twombly always travelled for free, like all great voyagers who never leave their armchair. Donald Baechler’s paintings are fed by kilometers. Now, with Giordano Raffaelli as tour impresario and Ragovan Vulcovic as welcoming host at Pavillion Museum, a long-imagined Zagreb appears before our eyes, a roundtrip ticket of the imagination.

When the Soviet Union closed its doors forever, Occidental culture went into a state of shock from which it still has not recovered. A crisis of identity not seen since ancient Rome at the end of the Second Punic War. But the cultural elite in the West clung to its secondhand Marxist belief system. Therefore, lots of kids from former Communist countries now conform with glee to American anti-establishmentarianism. A strange sort of deja-vu. This rewarmed neo-Marxism is found on the menu now only in Havana, in American university cafeterias, or in the so-called “art world.” These artists from the East should forge iron and shovel coal.

Text: Alan Jones