Book Reviews, Essays

Book Review – John Baeder’s Road Well Taken

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken
by Jay Williams
Copyright 2015, Vendome Press New York
272 pages

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken on:
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Look at the picture on the cover of this book. It precisely illustrates the vanishing roadside culture us roadside junkies would prefer to be in, right? Now look again. The old cars, the signs, the building? Not a photograph. It’s a painting. One that comes from the thoughtful mind and astounding talent of master photorealist painter, John Baeder. If you have never seen John Baeder’s work I assume you’re as surprised as I was when I first saw this book in the bookstore. Even now, my heart speeds up when I see it. Baeder’s paintings are nothing short of magical and this book is filled with them.

Yes, I am a big fan.

“Baeder is at heart a communicator who is amazingly effective when he has an opportunity to present his art in conjunction with essay and anecdote. His interest in national identity could be expressed only in personal, mythic terms.”  – art historian and author, Jay Williams

This is exactly what we get with this book. Thank goodness.

I bought this 10 x 10 inch book back in April of 2016,  and it’s been following me from room to room ever since. Every page is filled with Baeder’s incredible images coupled with his own words as well as Williams’ heartfelt, conversational text. It never fails to cheer me up and make me smile. I love this book. John Baeder’s Road Well Taken provides an escape into the place where that roadside culture and sense of community converge. I love spending time there. This book is the story behind these paintings that Baeder has graciously given us over the past 40 years.

When I bought this book I was not aware of John Baeder. That’s a shame and I’m ashamed to admit it.  I was aware of the “diner consciousness” movement his paintings provoked, but knew little about the man and his art. Before the diner paintings he might be most known for,  Baeder gave us powerful documentary-style photography inspired by the FSA photographers, he collected and continues to share his photographs and images of the vanishing hand-lettered signs he has found in his travels and he has always been a steward of the American roadside culture I am so consumed by. He has painted many, many scenes from small-towns and cities throughout the country and I feel right at home in every one of them. Needless to say, today, I am VERY aware of and VERY grateful for John Baeder. With this book,  the books he himself has written,  his website and his Instagram feeds (@johnbaeder and @gmmebbq) John Baeder has become a pretty big deal around here. I wouldn’t hesitate to call him an inspiration.

This book is a biography of John Baeder’s passion. He communicates his respect for the values of  roadside culture with every incredible painting. The still-lifes inspired by 17th, 18th and 19th century European still-life artists using north light and the vintage 1930s and WWII military airplanes that came later offer that same respect and admiration of subjects from the painter. Anyone that has even a remote interest in roadside culture, art, and/or painting would find great value here. I learned a lot in these pages about history, painting, John Baeder, even about myself. Jay Williams is an excellent writer, and I’m grateful he included so many quotes from Baeder himself. It’s enlightening to see how Baeder was affected by these places and the photographs and postcards from them and how they came to fruition later in his painting. It’s not a chronological book, but it is logical and covers the 40+ years of his artistic career from Atlanta to New York to Nashville.  It begins just before Baeder decided to become a full-time painter. At the time, he was the Art Director at New York City’s largest advertising agency, McCann-Erickson. As a former employee of a Chicago ad agency, I felt an instant connection to Baeder when I read that. I wasn’t an art director, but because of that experience, I know that the art director position he held was a very big deal and probably paid very well. To leave it behind and pursue a passion like painting is just one way Mr. Baeder inspires me.

I also felt a connection when I read about his postcard collection and his love of photography. I love these things too, and we have a similar (i.e., the same) interest in subjects. As I read through the book, more than once I said to anyone who was listening, “Me too! I do that too! How in the world did I not know of him before?!” Like I said, it’s a shame I didn’t.

The chapters of this book take the reader on an authentic roadside journey through the midcentury America that existed before the interstates. All of it through Baeder’s unique eye – his thoughtful, creative, unique eye – and his mega-talented ability to preserve these moments of our history. Photography and photographers, especially of the documentary genre, along with color-saturated linen postcards inspired Mr. Baeder, but his “respect for the culture of the common folk” is, in my opinion, what elevates his paintings in the hearts and minds of viewers.

“Baeder was concerned with “the humanistic implications of roadside architecture.”

It’s a simple explanation, but true. When I see the paintings I feel this. It’s exactly what makes them so special and what makes me feel so attached to them.

The largest section of the book is of course devoted to the diners. John Baeder started the diner preservation trend in the late 70’s when he drew attention to diner history with his paintings. He became an expert in diner culture when he crossed the country on “diner hunts” that were meant to inspire his art. He “created paintings that enshrined diner values,” says Williams. “He was very interested in their place in American culture.” There are well over a hundred of Baeder’s diner paintings in this book. Every time I stop and look at one I see something I didn’t see before. The detail, lighting, sharpness in each image amazes me.

After relating the “Final Diner Series” in Baeder’s career, Williams touches on what has come after. I’ve come to thinking of them as “bonus chapters” because they’re filled with subjects I didn’t expect when I first picked this book up. “The Still Lifes: An Inner Road Trip” is the chapter filled with the story behind the images of vintage cars, books, fruits and other objects Baeder has done since the diner days. The next chapter, “Taking Wing on a Higher Road” is filled with the monochromatic military airplane paintings he’s done recently.

The book is printed on sturdy paper with a design that does the images justice. Well, as much justice as a small reprint of an original painting of a 60″ x 72″ canvas can do.  It’s beautiful. I love getting lost in it. Author Jay Williams has written several essays on art and has developed and managed dozens of exhibitions for art museums and universities during his career as a curator. Williams curated the four-museum retrospective of Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along The Way: The paintings of John Baeder while he was curator at the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia.  John Baeder is a “captivating, complex, multifaceted” man and Jay Williams has done a great job of telling the reader why he feels like that. I appreciate that, but it’s John Baeder himself that makes this a book to hold on to and read often. He loves his subjects as much as we do.

Further reading:

After reading John Baeder’s Road Well Taken, I found Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950, by Jay Meilke, copyright 2016 from the University of Texas Press. It’s an excellent book about Curt Teich Chicago and the linen postcards that inspired Mr. Baeder. It references him several times which lends it a lot of credibility considering the size of Baeder’s collection of these cards.

“He found enchantment, awe and important artifacts of American culture in the creative tension between the postcards photographic realism and their surreal treatments,” says Williams.

JohnBaeder.com

Books by John Baeder:

Diners (1978)
Gas Food and Lodging (1982)
Diners Revised and Updated (1995)
Sign Language (1996)
Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way: The Paintings of John Baeder (2007)

John Baeder’s Road Well Taken
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads