Toronto One of Canada’s early Conceptual artists, Iain BAXTER& (Iain Baxter before 2005) briefly garnered international notice in the late 1960s. Indeed, this then-Vancouver-based artist made the cover of Art in America (May-June 1969), participated in the seminal Conceptual art survey “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art (1970), and exhibited in projects initiated by New York critic Lucy Lippard and Conceptual art dealer Seth Siegelaub.
However, BAXTER&’s art production slowed in the late 1970s and his name became obscure. Recently, though, his appropriations, earthworks, environmentally driven conceptualism and satire of corporate culture have undergone reassessment, picking up five decades later on Lippard’s 1968 claim that BAXTER& was “the prototype of the new artist.” This extensive exhibition of over 150 works, “IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958-2011,” spans the artist’s career.
Outstanding are BAXTER&’s early pieces (1965 to 1969), many created in collaborative groups such as IT, comprising himself, his then-wife Ingrid Baxter and an art-school friend, John Friel. IT played off of canonical modern works by Rothko, Flavin, Judd and others. Consider Extended Noland (1966), in which multicolored velvet ribbons form a Kenneth Noland-like chevron that flows beyond the canvas (41½ inches square) in gentle parody of the Color-Field painter’s tight, hard-edge compositions. Such appropriation art predated that of Sherrie Levine and her contemporaries by over a decade.
Displaying similar prescience is Paint Into Earth, S.F.U., Vancouver, B.C. (ca. 1966-68, documentation assembled 1981), which BAXTER& produced in a partnership with Ingrid Baxter called NE Thing Company (NETCO). Active from 1966 until 1978, the prolific duo (this exhibition included over 50 NETCO pieces) presented art through a satirical business model, issuing and disseminating art certificates, telefax exchanges between art galleries, and other “official” documents. Paint Into Earth consists of three matter-of-fact documentary images: a black-and-white photograph captures paint pouring from a can into a cylindrical hole dug into the ground, a color photograph shows light blue paint in the same hole and a map indicates the plugged hole’s location. Although executed in Vancouver, out of the view of the New York-based artists of the Land Art movement, this sculptural action is arguably a proto-earthwork. “Earthwork” did not become a word until fall 1968, when it was the neologistic title of an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in New York.
Many of BAXTER&’s post-NETCO works continued his broad-based exploration of culture’s encroachment on the environment. The 2008 LANDSCAPE WITH SAILBOATS (Digital Code Conversion Series), for instance, is an acrylic painting (48 by 96 inches) superimposing a ghostly digital presence over a seascape: a binary code of zeroes and ones spells out the painting’s eponymous subject. A witty comment on the way digital as well as written language shapes the perception of nature, the piece sacrifices portentousness for consistency of vision, making one much more likely to linger amid the archeology of BAXTER&’s Conceptualism.
Photo: Iain BAXTER&: Paint Into Earth, S.F.U., Vancouver, B.C., ca. 1966-68, documentation assembled 1981, gelatin silver print, chromogenic print and felt pen on map, 60 by 39¾ inches; at the Art Gallery of Ontario.