Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on John Baeder’s Diner Paintings

John Baeder, Cuchi's Sweetie Dogs, 2011, oil on canvas, 30 x 48

John Baeder
Bernaducci Gallery, New York, NY

By DONALD KUSPIT November, 2018

            No matter where you’re going, where you find yourself, whether you’re on the road well-traveled or less traveled, in the big city or small town, at a truck-stop or a mall, you never have to feel hungry, for there’s always some place to eat, always some diner nearby, that’s John Baeder’s message.  Baeder’s paintings of diners, meticulously executed as though they were shrines, are all about gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, and an all-American one, as the epidemic of obesity that plagues America suggests.  “Bigger is better” is the American motto—bigger cars, bigger houses, and now hugely overweight, grotesquely inflated American bodies—bigger not necessarily better.  It is as though if Americans didn’t stuff themselves with food they wouldn’t feel they exist.  Americans have big mouths—look at the country’s current president—and they like stuffing them, suggesting that they remain bogged down at the oral stage of development, where intake matters more than output, as Freud argued.  It is the most primitive stage of development, suggesting that over-fed Americans are emotionally primitive, not to say underdeveloped—hungry babies to the bitter end of the road.  Freud spoke of the “imperial infant,” with what Winnicott called its “omnipotence,” suggesting that overfed, fat Americans cannot give up their infantile delusion of grandeur, confirmed by American imperialism.  There are those tempting diet plans, but there are even more tempting diners:  the temptation of food is greater than the temptation of sex, which is why saints tend to be ascetics, mortifying the flesh, however much they may dream of female flesh, as Saint Anthony did.  The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan argued that human beings want satisfaction and security before anything else:  the diner, a sort of oasis in the brutal capitalist desert of America--a paradise of plenty in spiritually empty and bankrupt America--offers both.  America is the epitome of the consumer society, and the diner is a place one can consume food to one’s heart’s content, satisfy one’s appetite until one’s stomach is full to bursting, and with that feel that life is good however bad it may be. 

John Baeder, The Embassy, 2011, oil on canvas, 24 x 36

            I am arguing that Baeder’s paintings are brilliant examples of cynical realism—social realism that privileges the masses rather than the aristocrats, more pointedly matter over mind.  Diners aren’t courts and their customers wouldn’t feel at home in Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-1511.  It’s not a comfortable place and the talk is too high-minded to be gossip.  Diners promise material well-being rather than intellectual stimulation; the food they serve is not food for thought.  Baeder’s wonderful paintings do diners--among the wonders of America, the cultural treasures of a democratic society, for everyone (the “demos” or people) is welcome in them—aesthetic justice however unwittingly satirical they may be, subliminally critical of their often overweight, hungry customers.  They are implicitly present in the scene, hidden behind the Potemkin Village façade of the diner—it does promise the quasi-coziness of a village in the big indifferent world--making an entrance onto the stage-set like scene when they exit the diner.    

John Baeder, The Salem Diner, 2012, oil on canvas, 24 x 36

John Baeder, Chadwick Square Diner 

Diners are classless places, open to Everyman and Everywoman, however classy some of them pretend to be:  there is no need for a reservation to get into a diner, no reserved seats in them, no privileged booths like those set aside for sports cognoscenti in sports stadiums, another symptom of America’s delusion of grandeur, its taste for bigness rather than intimacy, however intimate the diners may be, despite their usually standardized interiors.  But their exteriors are infinitely varied:  they’re often decorated with signs advertising their names, giving them a pseudo-personality.  There’s something perverse, or at least ironical about the sexy Miss America, 2018 in Jersey City, NJ, offering the “Purest and Best Food in Town,” while others, such as the unassuming Charlotte’s Diner, 2012 in Ellenville, NY, offer less of a thrill.  But however hard they try to be different and unique they all remain solemnly banal, Star Diner, 2012 conspicuously.  It is “Dedicated to the Memory of Ivan C. Karp,” who recognized the “cultural consequence” and “visual power”—Karp’s words—of Baeder’s paintings in 1972, when he was living in a small tenement walk-up apartment on Third Avenue in New York. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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