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First national tour of Hannelore Baron artwork visits Cantor

Hannelore Baron's art is authentic by the usual test: It was created to transcend personal suffering. "If the work is shown and accepted, it is a wonder and a coincidence to me," she said once.

Hannelore Baron: Works from 1969 to 1987, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is on view at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts through Sept. 1.

It is the first national tour of the German-born artist's work and features close to 40 collages and several box assemblages, as well as the last thing she ever made: a pencil-on-paper drawing, sketched from her hospital bed shortly before her death from cancer, that is terrifying and glorious. It's as though the muted despair stirring in her previous work had finally found a voice -- and, what's more, it was an exalted and gladdening sound. The profile of an extraterrestrial-like head, mouth open in a happy shout and arms raised, is pictured below the abstract form of a body. Scrawled in the corner are the words "Der Tod kommt" ("Death is coming").

Artists share a penchant for bleak world views, but Baron seems to have suffered more than the average for her lot. Born Hannelore Alexander in 1926, she was 12 when she lived through the barbaric Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass"). Homes and shops were destroyed, and mobs murdered close to 100 Jews. She witnessed her father being beaten with a hammer. A short while later the family was arrested by Nazis. When Baron later returned to the house (escorted by an S.S. officer), she found the furniture destroyed and her father's bloody handprints on the wall. It was, she recalled later, a more traumatic experience than the actual events.

The family managed to get out of Europe alive and settled in the Bronx in 1941. Baron attended the Straubenmuller Textile High School in Manhattan, where she studied costume design. Soon after graduating, she began to experience symptoms of claustrophobia, anxiety and depression, from which she would suffer periodically for the rest of her life. She had the first of three nervous breakdowns not long after her 20th birthday.

Her mental afflictions kept her largely confined to her home in the Bronx, but she remained intellectually curious about the world and was something of an armchair traveler, according to artist Michael Pauker, studio manager at the Cantor Arts Center, who has given two gallery lectures on Baron's work since the exhibition went up in May. Baron was intrigued by Italian culture and taught herself to speak the language fluently, and her art was heavily influenced by books on anthropology and archaeology and National Geographic magazine, Pauker said. The illuminated pages of the Koran, existentialism, and American Indian, African and Tantric art also influenced her work.

The paucity of exhibitions by Baron before the 1970s owes something to her belief that the abstract-expressionist style in which she worked would be out of favor in the pop-art scene of the 1960s, Pauker said. That her work at last was shown more extensively is due largely to the efforts of her son, Mark Baron, who saw in it a broader appeal.

Much has been made recently of the alleged link between mental illness and creativity -- there was even a Continuing Studies course on the subject last quarter -- and, whether or not one buys into the theory, it's hard not to see the depressive's eye in the unburnished reality of the ephemera, wood, twine and cloth that compose many of the collages and box assemblages in the exhibition. It has always been the prerogative of the artist to find aesthetic pleasure in a scarred world, and here one finds both in spades.

Ochre hues and burlap textures suffuse the artwork; strong colors seem to have been banished from her palette, and when they do appear it is probably a sign of her depression. Baron once confided that when she was depressed, she used more color, Pauker noted.

Vaguely human forms and abstract birds that, side by side, appear as though they could evolve into one another form an occasional iconography that doesn't disturb the integrated wholeness of the dense, surprisingly small pieces (few measure more than 1 foot square).

A rectangular geometry dominates the designs, but the arrangement of fabric scraps and a cryptic scrawl create a tension between order and chaos; in one wonderful series of collages, square pieces of cloth are set on point like diamonds, throwing the highly geometric composition into a fugitive pose.

Baron spoke often of "the message" in her art -- a phrase that may strike one as somewhat trite and reductive. She opposed the Vietnam War, environmental pollution and human rights violations, and her work obviously is touched by an acute social conscience. One of the few titled works in the exhibition, "War Letter" (1976), is a camouflage patchwork of lonely displacement.

The problem with the word "message" is that it connotes a shallow, moral clarity, whereas it's not easy to touch bottom while swimming through Baron's mixed-media constructions.

One box assemblage looks like the age-encrusted cover of a pre-Gutenberg Bible, except that it is messily bound with twine and cloth. Its contents, if anything, may never be known.

The handsome exhibition catalog, which earned honorable mention in the American Association of Museums 2002 Museum Publications Design Competition, is on sale at the Stanford Bookstore and in the Cantor Center Bookshop for $20.


By John Sanford

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