Banquet Years: Richard Baker Interviewed by Paul Maziar

Painting domestic pleasures.

by Paul Maziar for BOMB magazine

Richard Baker, Table of Contents, 2007, oil on canvas, 34 × 29 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

For more than three decades, Richard Baker has been painting and reimagining the still-life form, lately focusing on books as objects-turned-portraits. Most recently, during the time of the pandemic and in preparation for a group exhibition at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, Baker has painted a series of book covers in gouache as a means to embrace the comfort and pleasure of being at home. Like the poets I’m attuned to, Baker disrupts the familiar and its meaning through juxtaposition, surprising our expectations of image and form. His work evidences the fact that painting begins and ends in imagination. 

Baker’s trompe l’oeil depictions of books in gouache invoke, for me, surprising pleasures that seem elusive during the pandemic. But as it turns out, they’re still close at hand. I talked with Baker about his subjects (the paintings are taken as portraits) and what life has been like while sheltering in place. 

—Paul Maziar

Paul Maziar Let’s talk about sociability and humor in your work. First, are you cooking lately?

Richard Baker Ha! Sociability and humor is a great way to begin this conversation. I trust that the answer to the question will be this, our dialogue. Over a year ago, my partner Victoria and I moved in together. That was pre-pandemic. I had a fallow period of cooking before that. To get my chops back, I created weekly menus where I would revisit old standards and challenge myself with new recipes. In those days I was cooking for Victoria and my frequently visiting daughters. The stove and the grill have seen bunches of culinary experiments. There has been a great deal of seafood: Thai fried squid with basil; calamari fra diavolo; various preparations of swordfish, salmon, arctic char, scallops. Greek-style stuffed peppers, grilled Middle Eastern meatballs, sesame-crusted tofu. Recently, I was able to obtain some skate wing from my local fishmonger. I had never cooked it before. It now rivals my love of scallops!

PM I understand that you completed some baking-related pictures for Art in the Time of Empathy at Arthur Roger Gallery. That title relates nicely to the bread-baking craze of late: We’re in this together, leafing through our books, making sourdough. Have you joined that craze?

RB It’s funny that I didn’t do the baking thing myself during lockdown. Instead, I got into a “how do I make my refrigerator and pantry work for me” craze. I understand the baking appeal, though. Decades ago, I did a lot of baking: tarts, cakes, breads, biscotti, you name it. In a small, hot New York apartment, I once made a double-chocolate frosted wedding cake for one hundred-plus people. In order to deal with the chocolate, I basically had to freeze my apartment using air-conditioners. 

The smells from baking are deeply comforting. For those who aren’t comfortable with following vague recipes or the general unruliness of improvisational kitchen cooking, baking offers up precise instructions and exact measurements. Stick to the science of baking and you’ll mostly be fine. 

Richard Baker, Naked Lunch, 2019, gouache on WC paper, 12 × 10.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PM Speaking of comfort, I find your book paintings to be comforting—especially lately, given my own love for books. Has your relationship with your subjects changed during the pandemic? 

RB Books have always been a central, essential part of my life. The pandemic hasn’t changed how book-centric I am, but it has shifted my focus. Coinciding with my newly domestic life, I became interested in cookbooks and started collecting and painting them. The pandemic deepened my interest in them as I became aware of how people were cooking and baking during lockdown. One of the many tragic results of the pandemic has been the disruption to my supply chain; as you might guess, I’m highly dependent on chance and purposeful finds in used bookstores. Internet hunting is simply not the same as spontaneous encounters while browsing.

PM I learned that when you began doing trompe l’oeil paintings of index cards and lined paper, you saw them as a tabula rasa. I had that term in mind, seeing your book paintings. Constraint gives an artist’s mind a sense of beginning afresh—the viewer too—even with all the references that any cover might bear. 

RB The book paintings do function as a kind of tabula rasa for viewers who flesh out the meaning of the image with their personal experience. The painting also functions like an icon where the viewer knows the “story” behind the image of the depicted cover and then projects that knowledge onto the “symbol,” so to speak. In general, most viewers I have spoken with share their history of a title or of a particular edition.

PM I liked what you said to Jennifer Samet in her “Beer with a Painter” series about being drawn to make paintings that show what “we derive pleasure and beauty from, and which we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about.” It relates to appreciating the everyday. Is that attention even more necessary under current circumstances? Appreciation for home life, for the small or close at hand.

RB People have had no choice but to consider their relationship to the close at hand, the domestic, small pleasures, simple beauties. It’s been a wonderful liberation from the tyranny of the workplace and daily grind. Many see the home in a renewed way, delighting in its slower rhythms. Time has been slowed down, and it is easier to observe and pay attention to the way a bathroom window glows with a radiant pink caused by light reflecting off a neighbor’s house; or how July birds sing into the dark hours after midnight; or being able to really scrutinize art on the walls which had virtually become wallpaper in former times. For some, the enforced dominance of the domestic has been a form of torturous captivity. In both cases, we are forced to face our own natures in relationship to our concepts of time and space, beauty and comfort, selfhood and worldliness. Like many artists accustomed to working alone for enormous numbers of hours, constraints have not been a burden. In fact, they confirm the importance of forming a life where tending to the “small things” is at the heart of many good things. 

Richard Baker, Fresh Fish and Seafood Bag, 2020, gouache on WC paper, 14 × 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PM Looking into your work—and although yours contains zero of their chilly detachment and all their cool—I’ve returned to Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze (1960), certain works by Marcel Duchamp, and Ed Ruscha. Despite your paintings being somewhat faithful to what the eye sees, do you see them as abstract?

RB I love all three of those artists! No matter how much my oil paintings look like realist observational paintings, they always begin as pure abstractions. A great deal of time is spent creating painterly surfaces which I then “read,” discerning various suggestive forms that then anchor the subjects and spaces in the emerging image. I love toying with the conventions of representation structured within abstract formal fields. The gouache book portraits are a slightly different matter. When I first thought of rendering books, I wanted to emphasize the conceptual element of the project. I wanted each painting to be about the selected choice, title, and edition. I consciously jettisoned all of the “art” elements such as composition, texture, etc. Like in many Richard Avedon or Irving Penn portraits, the subject is placed before a vacant, blank backdrop. This insures that the viewer is face to face with each character. I wanted each book’s blemishes, warts, wrinkles—its character—to exist in advance of artistic inventiveness. With the book gouaches, each title is chosen not only for its own intrinsic qualities but how it relates to a larger grouping of conceptually related works. 

PM Do some of the books ever take on exaggerated qualities as you paint them? A couple of the compositions I’ve seen, namely Naked Lunch (2019), seem comically rendered as far as their dimensions go.

RB When exaggerated or distorted elements occur, that has to do with a slippage between what the book actually looks like and the limits of what gouache and my hand are capable of. I’ve often pointed out the difference between the paintings of two nineteenth-century American trompe l’oeil painters, William Harnett and John Frederick Peto. Harnett suppressed painterly qualities in favor of actually trying to deceive the eye. Peto, despite working within the conventions of trompe l’oeil, was so in love with the act of painting itself that signs of his hand remain in his finished works. This accounts for the “distortions” visible in his work as compared to Harnett’s. I prefer Peto because of that. I’d like to think that whatever “exaggerations” there may be in my gouaches, they are the result of a similar love of materiality, rather than a conscious deliberate decision. 

Richard Baker, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, 2019, gouache on WC paper, 14 × 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

PM It would be fun to see the Richard Baker version of Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years—how apropos.

RB I love that book! Sadly, it was part of the sixty-carton batch of books I had to part with when I moved from New York City. (I managed to bring sixty very large cartons with me, though!). The edition I had was a mass-market paperback with blue illustrations of the principle characters. I clearly remember discovering that book. I devoured it. Though it would be difficult to paint, I think it’s a terrific cover. It was a standout design in its day, if I recall correctly. Singular. My mind jumps off that book onto Calvin Tomkins’s Living Well Is the Best Revenge. Have you ever read it? It shares a similar immersive quality. Both books can, and should be, read multiple times.

PMI haven’t, but Tomkins’s Duchamp was the only book that satisfied, having finished Shattuck’s Banquet Years. I’ll have to place an order!

Richard Baker’s work can be seen in the group exhibition Art in the Time of Empathy at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans until December 19. 

Paul Maziar writes about art and books for various publications such as the Brooklyn RailLos Angeles Review of BooksOregon ArtsWatchL.A. Weekly, and RREALISM. A book of his art writings, ONE FOOT IN THE OTHER WORLD, is forthcoming from AC Books, and his monograph text, Roger Kukes: Thirty Years, was published in 2019. TO THE AIR, his poetry book in collaboration with artist Cynthia Lahti, was published by the Cooley Gallery at Reed College in 2020. He is a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art.