by John McMurtrie
I’ve lost a dear friend. His name was Kenneth. He died last Friday in the arms of his beloved wife, Tonia. Kenneth’s passing was a shock; he had congestive heart failure, and his death came suddenly. He was 75.
Kenneth Baker was an art critic, a craftsman of his trade who wrote pieces that made you pay attention, that opened your eyes to new ways of looking at the world, that elevated the form. In his 30 years as art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, from which he retired in 2015, Kenneth wrote thousands of astute pieces: reviews of shows in galleries and museums in the Bay Area, across the country and overseas, as well as profiles of artists in all sorts of genres. He was also the author of two books: Minimalism: Art of Circumstance (1988) and The Lightning Field, a lovely and personal work published by Yale University Press that explores Walter De Maria’s grand sculptural artwork of the same name that sits in the New Mexico desert. Kenneth’s dedication to writing didn’t end with his retirement: he was a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper.
Kenneth was a colleague of mine at the Chronicle, where I was the books editor, but I was also fortunate to get to know him outside of work. For the past several years, until the pandemic kept us all at home, Kenneth and I would meet for long lunches, twice a year, at Sam’s Grill. It’s a warm, wood-lined San Francisco restaurant, free of pretense, that dates to 1867. Kenneth’s favorite dish—and mine—was the petrale sole, which I’ve made many times at home, often thinking about him as I prepare it. Kenneth had instituted the tradition of our biannual lunches, and I cherished them. He was a consummate raconteur, and he’d tell stories that went back to his early days as the art critic of the now-defunct Boston Phoenix. He also recounted how, before becoming a journalist, he chose to go to Canada rather than fight in the Vietnam War, which he strongly opposed. His pacifism extended into this century: In 2003, I saw Kenneth march down San Francisco’s Market Street amid a throng of thousands, protesting the impending invasion of Iraq by the United States. Kenneth loved to travel, and he spoke with great enthusiasm about trips he’d taken to Japan. Being in Tokyo, he said, gave him hope for humanity; more than 13 million people live in the city, and he was amazed at how orderly and clean and safe it is—an example, to his mind, of the good that can come of citizens being invested in a communal sense of shared space. Kenneth also told me about how he once went to Connecticut to interview Jasper Johns. Kenneth had come down with a bug that, on the way home, turned out to be more serious than he realized—he became violently ill. Oh, shit, he recalled with a laugh. What if he had just passed on the same virus to Jasper Johns, then an octogenarian? Was he going to be responsible for killing this revered artist? (Happily, Mr. Johns remains among us, at age 91.)
A supreme ironist with an infectious laugh, Kenneth was amused by much of what he saw around him, a lot of it absurd. He viewed the world lightly, despite everything that was wrong in it, recalling words that a film director once shared with me, as taught to him by a Zen monk: “If you’re not laughing, you’re not getting it.” Kenneth was also inquisitive and kind. He’d always ask me questions about my life. What was I working on? Did I have any travel plans? And, most touchingly: How was my wife doing after her cancer diagnosis?
Kenneth and I were friends—I’ve named this file as I’ve been writing it “KB,” after my nickname for him—but I also thought of him as a fatherly figure. He didn’t have children, and my father has been dead for three decades. Kenneth was generous with me in a way a father would be. He treated me to all our lunches. Years ago, he gave me the gift of a subscription to the London Review of Books, his favorite journal. I still get it delivered to my home, and a stack is by my side, an ever-present reminder of my friend. And there was his most generous act: During one of our last get-togethers, Kenneth told me that he was working on his will and, assuming I had no objection, he wanted to leave me his library of books, which was substantial. I was flabbergasted. I was so touched by his magnanimity, knowing how much books meant to him. I also thought Kenneth had no reason to be making such arrangements—he was healthy, slim, and spry, and I believed he had many years ahead of him.
Kenneth was one of the most well-read people I knew. Books, I’m sure, helped fuel his wide-reaching interests, and I admired how, as the son of a blue-collar pressman who worked at the Christian Science Monitor (and died young), Kenneth became a cultured and broad-minded person whose passions transcended borders. His appetites went far beyond art criticism, and he had an insatiable curiosity, keeping up with new works. Among his favorite authors were John Berger and Roberto Calasso. He admired the experimental novels of Ben Lerner, and he raved about Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman’s one-sentence novel that runs to more than 1,000 pages. Kenneth’s curiosity extended to stories he’d seek out; as a journalist, he constantly challenged himself, writing about subjects outside his field. In 2013, he told me that he was going to be in St. Louis. Would I like him to interview William H. Gass for the Books section while he was there? In his resulting piece, Kenneth wrote, “Gass, 88, kindly let me visit him at home in St. Louis. We chatted in a small den, seated in cushy chairs enfolded by crammed, floor-to-ceiling bookcases. A doorless closet was also entirely book-lined. The setting merely suggested the wealth of books that Gass described, shelved and stacked elsewhere in the house. “‘I always wanted to live in a library,’ he said, ‘and now I do.’”
Kenneth was as much of a bibliophile. His boundless thirst for knowledge and understanding was reflected in the books he collected, the books he reviewed, and the authors he profiled. He interviewed, among others, W.G. Sebald and Yoko Ono and Slavoj Žižek. In a conversation with neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey, author of Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Kenneth wrote a sentence that got me thinking a lot about evolution: “Humphrey’s answer to the Darwinian question sounds almost too sensible to be true: Natural selection evolved the vividness of consciousness to make us glad to be alive.” Kenneth reviewed novels by Padgett Powell and Paul Kingsnorth, C.G. Jung’s private journal, The Red Book, essays on art by Julian Barnes and Robert Hughes, and a book on ancient trees by the photographer Beth Moon. Once I found out that Kenneth was an ardent fight fan, I assigned him a review of a Library of America collection, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing. About that anthology, Kenneth wrote, “Professional boxing has an indelible black eye owing to its associations with gambling and organized crime, with coded racism and the occasional crippling, or even lethal, outcome. But at its heart is conflict, and as At the Fights reminds us again and again, conflict has fueled good stories since people began writing them down.”
It might surprise some that Kenneth was a fan of boxing, but there was a lot that people might not have known about him. Not many were aware, I’m certain, that he was a third-degree black belt and instructor in the Japanese martial art of aikido. He wrote this about it: “Not long after beginning to practice, I heard aikido described in terms that chimed with what I had initially been looking for—‘exercise with meaning.’ That meaning has been unfolding in my experience on and off the mat ever since.” Aikido must have served him well in his career: I worked with Kenneth for 15 years, and I never once saw him lose his cool—something that happens all too often in newsrooms. And Kenneth was cool: his neatly trimmed white beard matched his white hair and was complemented by his head-to-toe almost-all-black attire (and black sunglasses if he was outside). When he walked, he bounced ever so slightly, giving the impression of a cat who could pounce on you at any moment.
But Kenneth was never going to pounce on anyone. He was reserved at work, yet his reserve was sometimes misread as coldness. Once you got to know him, you understood that he was droll and thoughtful. And a sweetheart. He told me about how he would read in bed at night to Tonia, his wife. Kenneth is gone, but Tonia says she will always hear his voice. As will I.
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About the author:
John McMurtrie is an editor and writer in the Bay Area. He is the former books editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.