For much of his career, artist Donald Baechler, who died of a heart attack at the age of 65, was the victim of mistaken identity. Having grown up in Manhattan, New York, in the 1980s alongside painters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and represented by the same dealer, Tony Shafrazi, and because his work, like theirs, looked streetwise, Baechler has been broadly categorized as a graffiti artist. He was not.
The mistake occurred when he asked a friend to introduce him to Shafrazi, ex-gallerist of his former art school hero, conceptualist Joseph Kosuth. To his great surprise, the dealer – who had by then gone from conceptualism to graffiti – offered him an exhibition. The fame that Shafrazi brought him was to prove something of a poisoned gift. He must, he said, always “feel like a fish out of water” at the gallery.
Baechler’s work would never fit into any obvious category. In truth, his art was an intentionally eclectic mix of many movements and schools, united by his cerebral interest in them.
Being promoted by Shafrazi in the mid-1980s meant institutional recognition soon followed. Baechler’s work was included in the São Paulo Biennial in 1987 and the Whitney Biennial in 1989, and was soon shown at such top venues as Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris and the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg.
In 1998 he had his first personal exhibition abroad, at the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland. The six monumental paintings it contains were the first of his canvases to sell for over $100,000 each.
Baechler’s work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; and the Center Pompidou in Paris.
His style consisted of cheerful, childlike paintings, often of flowers or faces, made with gesso or a peach-skinned vinyl gouache called flash set on a collage background. A canvas like Memory & Illusion (Globe) (1998) seemed to call for reading. Baechler, however, insisted that his paintings were entirely abstract, their forms appearing by chance as he worked on them. “For me it’s always been more about the line, the shape, the balance,” he said. “All those silly formalistic concerns.”
So, too, with his titles. Donald Donald (Study for Victims of Emigrants) (1984) takes its name from a random piece of graffiti Baechler had seen on a wall in the Bowery: he was annoyed to learn, later, that the wall had been that of the Emigrant Savings Bank, targeted by the graffiti. “The work is not about the banks,” said a miffed Baechler, adding, helpfully, “There are ducks in it too.”
Titles were just one of the things he picked up as he went along. Baechler’s sprawling studio on Crosby Street in Lower Manhattan contained a huge archive of scraps – scraps of paper, discarded toys, scraps of fabric – set aside to be pasted, Schwitters-style, onto his canvases. That habit had formed when he spent a teenage summer working as a janitor at the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut. There he had learned to love painting, and to love the archives at the same time. The two will remain linked in his practice.
His job looked simple; it was anything but. Baechler had a profound knowledge of art history which, like his snippets, could be found in his work. Asked to name his two favorite painters, he chose Cy Twombly and Giotto. Paint by chance was also not the easy process it sounded. “Is the edge of this line painted correctly?” he wondered aloud. “Should these drops be here or not?” I change these things a hundred times before I do them right.
This game of simplicity and complexity in his art perhaps comes from his Quaker childhood. The second of four children of Henry, a state accountant, and Marjorie (née Dolliver), a Glastonbury Citizen journalist, Baechler spent Sundays with family split between the Wadsworth Atheneum and the local Friends’ Meeting House.
It is in the first that he remembers, at 13, having seen his first Andy Warhol, a painting of soup cans. Later, in the 1980s, Warhol would produce a series of Polaroid portraits of the rising young artist, including one, of Baechler absently picking his nose, which he later screen-printed in silver.
Baechler attended the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1974 to 1977, then went to Cooper Union in New York. He met a pair of German exchange students. “I found the whole scene at the white school boring,” Baechler recalled. What the Germans told him about art back home piqued his interest. In 1979 he was at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Frankfurt, where he spent a year. It was a revelation.
“Most of us knew Joseph Beuys,” Baechler said, “but hardly any Americans had heard of Polke, Richter, or Baselitz.” Despite its apparently local appearance, it is to these Germans rather than to Basquiat that his work owes its style.
Not everyone saw the depth below the shallow surface of Baechler’s art. A New York Times reviewer found his paintings “unremarkable in their associations, intimidating the viewer with their size”.
Citizens of Westhampton, Long Island have expressed their aversion to Baechler’s 30-foot-tall sculpture, Walking Figure (2008), installed outside their local airport. Reactions on the city’s Facebook page ranged from “NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!” to “I thought a junkyard truck threw up!”
To these bricklayers, Baechler replied with the usual gentleness: “I think it will be nice when people get used to it”, he said.
Strangely young in his sixties, he had the abstract air of a young philosophy professor. For every doubter of his art, there was a follower, the latter often more sophisticated than the former. Her collectors included designer Kate Spade and Interview magazine editor Peter Brant.
Among his fans was revered critic Robert Pincus-Witten, who compared Baechler to Buster Keaton. His work, Pincus-Witten said, often looked like it was about to slip on a banana peel, yet “unfailingly landed on the side of refinement and tact.”
He is survived by his siblings, Robert and Margaret. Another brother, Bruce, died in 2000.