handsaw. It became a kind of proto digital language, a binary form that Baum used to summon a seemingly endless array of associations ranging from mathematical precision (seen in geometrical lines) to swarms of migrating birds to radiant hothouse flowers to mandala-like shapes of the sort found in Tibetan Thangka paintings. Baum, by his own estimation, was a mystic, and his primary urge, both in life and in painting, was to find unity in all things. With the element, a modular and infinitely extensible visual icon, he developed a rule-based method for doing just that — extending Mondrian’s and Kandinsky’s explorations and presaging the now-fashionable urge to unify art and science. As the artist stated in 1982: “Now, with the help of high technology, we are exploring outer space and all the universe. We are all the more aware of its vastness, its endlessness and its greatness. Our sense of awe is reawakened and our spiritual life rekindled. This form of human spirituality is worthy of being subject matter in painting”
One of the more fascinating shows to touch down in the Bay Area this season is a retrospective of the visionary work of the Polish-American painter Mark Baum (1903-1997.) He immigrated to New York when he was 16, and was largely self-taught, a fact that led some observers to tag him as a primitive. He wasn't but it's easy to see he was identified as one. His landscapes and cityscapes employed flattened perspectives and juxtapositions of elements that placed him at odds with then-popular styles of American representational painting and European abstraction.
Still Life with Lamp and Fruit (1948), for example, shows tenements, factory smokestacks and fruit on a windowsill, looking as if Cézanne had Edward Hopper had conspired to mess with the predominate look of urban representation. This and other works from the same period show Baum to be estimable colorist, as well, injecting a wide tonal palette into scenes that, in real life, were most likely dominated by a single color: brick red.That proclivity would again surface more significantly in later works, where color, as much as abstract form, would signify content. Though these early paintings brought him success – Alfred Steiglitz acquired one and the Whitney Studio Gallery and various other prominent institutions exhibited his work — Baum, by the end of the 1940s, had become disillusioned. Not by the challenge posed by Abstract Expressionism, which he had no qualms with, but by the sheer number of artists who he thought had taken it up opportunistically.
Baum, for his part, would soon arrive at his own brand of nonobjective art. Which is where this show, Elements of the Spirit, takes flight. Stairs and Garden (1949), a pivotal work, bridges the gap between his earlier representational work and what, over the next decade, would become pure abstraction. It shows a staircase split in two surrounded by shrubs, and topped by an ominous cloud-shaped hedge that may put you in mind of Odilon Redon. By the mid-1950s this breaking apart of otherwise conjoined objects and forms took on an even more distinct symbolist/surrealist tinge. Three Paths, Paths in Yellow Landscape and Levels (all 1956) point directly to Baum’s increasing devotion to spiritual matters, signaled by beams of light emanating from trees, stoplights, stars and elevated platforms. These, too, proved to be transitional, albeit memorable for having expressed cosmic ideas parallel to those Gordon Onslow Ford was working with at around the same time.
By the end of the 1950s Baum achieved the breakthrough that would define his art for the remainder of his career. He called it “the element,” a shape that, roughly speaking, resembles a lopsided sail wedded to a
While Baum’s mature work was eclipsed at its inception by Pop and Minimalism, it now aligns closely with a variety of trends that define the current historical moment.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Mark Baum: “Elements of the Spirit” @ Krowswork through March 11, 2016.