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Art historian, critic brings to light work of artists in shadows

George Baker at the Richard Hawkins exhibit at the Hammer Museum.
UCLA art historian and Professor George Baker often examines the work of marginalized artists. This year, the art critic's essays are featured parts of four different museum exhibits. Above, Baker at the Richard Hawkins exhibit at the Hammer Museum. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
Fresh from his bachelor’s in art history from Yale, George Baker moved home to New York with a college essay he was proud of writing about the well-known painter Leon Golub – and sent it to the man himself.

To Baker’s surprise, Golub responded with a phone call and an invitation to visit.

“It blew my mind,” Baker recalled. “Now he wasn’t just an artist, he was real.” The phone call led to a friendship, and Baker often visited Golub in his studio, conversing about art criticism and eating dinner with Golub and his wife, the well-known feminist artist Nancy Spero. It was the first of many friendships with artists that shaped Baker as an art critic. Before becoming a New York- and Paris-based critic for the prestigious Artforum magazine and getting his Ph.D. from Columbia University, he spent his early 20s living what sounds like a young art critic’s dream: working in a Manhattan art gallery and hanging out with artists at their shows and in their studios.

Baker, now an associate professor of art history at UCLA and an editor of the art journal October, is witnessing an overlap between his professional interests and the Los Angeles zeitgeist. Four independent museum exhibits, each about different but similarly marginalized 20th-century artists — “artists’ artists,” as Baker describes them — are coming to Los Angeles this year or soon after, and the curators chose him to write the definitive essays for each exhibits’ catalogue.

“It’s the first time that’s happened to me,” Baker said.

A leading scholar of his generation

His colleagues aren’t surprised. Steven Nelson, a UCLA associate professor of African and African-American art history, calls Baker “an artist’s art historian” because Baker works so closely with them.

“He is one of the leading scholars in modern and contemporary art of his generation,” Nelson said. “He’s considered both an art historian and an art critic, and that is fairly rare. It gives him extraordinary breadth, and he’s a very popular teacher.”

So popular, in fact, that students made a Facebook fan page called George Baker Worship, where discussion topics admire his vocabulary, describe favorite lectures and even ask about changes to his lengthening hairstyle.

Part of what makes his lectures powerful is his range as an art historian, said Baker’s friend and colleague, fellow UCLA Art History Professor Miwon Kwon. “His breadth of knowledge is very rare. Usually modernists don’t also engage with contemporary art, but he’s able to cover both,” said Kwon, who was part of the search committee who hired him in  2003. “I worked hard to bring him here. He’s at the top of his field.”

Seeking out the artist’s artist

Museum curators seem drawn to Baker’s work in part because of his book, “The Artwork Caught by the Tail,” about Dadaism and the artist Francis Picabia, whom Baker describes as another “artist’s artist” whose vital role in Dadaism was ignored by art historians.

“His work was hard to digest,” Baker explained. “He was hard to categorize, he was unpredictable, trying to do all sorts of forbidden things. But artists today looking for new ideas look at Picabia and see entirely new potential.”

Like Picabia, the four artists at the center of Baker’s upcoming exhibits never really got their due, Baker said. Those are precisely the kinds of artists he is most attuned to. Two of the shows, on Richard Hawkins and Paul Thek, will be at the Hammer Museum, a third will feature sculptor Alexander Calder at the Orange County Museum of Art, and the fourth examines the work of Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.

Hawkins' piece,
Hawkins' piece, "The Last House," now on view at the Hammer. Photo by Ivan Moskowitz, Chicago, Illinois; courtesy of the Hammer Museum.
The first Hammer exhibit, open now, is the first American retrospective of Richard Hawkins, an important Los Angeles artist, Baker explained. “He’s kind of a cult figure, and hugely inspiring to artists,” he said. Everything about writing the essay for the exhibit appealed to him.

“I’d seen some of his exhibitions, and I was sort of at a loss. It was amazing,” Baker said. “As an art critic, that’s how you know there’s something interesting there, because you don’t know what to say. It throws you.”

Hawkins’ work sought to rethink collage, mixing together fragments of disparate images and realities, Baker explained. “It’s scissors and glue, scotch-tape and post-its — it’s very tactile. It had the physicality that a lot of other work didn’t, especially the slick, media-centered art associated with postmodernism. That physicality allowed his art to speak compellingly about beauty and desire and sex,” he said.

Naturally, Baker sought Hawkins out. He talked with Hawkins about his projects, started an intense exchange of letters, and managed to visit Hawkins’ studio, which provided a new window into the artist’s mind. While most L.A. artists work in lofts on the eastside, Hawkins worked out of a former horse stable behind rows of suburban houses in the San Fernando Valley.

“That was interesting to me because he’s from rural Texas, and he’s got a whole theme in his work about hillbillies and clichés about the rural underclass. And here’s his studio in suburban Los Angeles but in a rural, almost ramshackle structure.”

On May 22, the day the Hawkins exhibit closes, the Hammer will open its exhibit on Paul Thek, another first American retrospective. Thek, who died of AIDS in 1988, was friends with and was as famous as Andy Warhol for a time, Baker said. But Thek was difficult to work with, and his work defied easy classification, so Thek never really received credit for his influence on American art, Baker added.

Other artists never let the rest of the world forget about Thek, Baker said. “Artists like Thek and Hawkins were artists that people wanted to hear more about, and wanted to give their due, and so several curators turned to me, perhaps because of my book on Picabia,” Baker said. “Despite emerging at different historical moments, there are connections in their way of working and their manner of relating to the world, the art world and the world at large. These artists all shared more in common than their marginalization by art history.”

The power of L.A.

Baker DJing. Photo by Michelle Ton.
Baker DJing. Photo by Michelle Ton.
There’s also something about the Los Angeles art milieu, Baker continued. “It’s outside of accepted canons and art centers like New York and Europe, and that’s what my work is becoming keyed into — looking at artists who never got their due.”

Kwon believes the city’s hold on Baker pushed him to new heights. When he arrived for his job interview at UCLA, he was sunburned from three days of experiencing everything Los Angeles had to offer. Kwon saw it as a clear sign of his passion for all kinds of sensory experiences – not just art – which Kwon felt was lacking in other job candidates.  Baker has gone on to become a major foodie in Los Angeles and even guest-DJs at the Mandrake, a bar on La Cienega near art galleries.

“If he’d stayed in New York, his work would have been less adventurous,” Kwon said. “His work has benefitted from being here – and the city’s better for having George.”