Alice Baber (1928-1982) was an American abstract expressionist painter, best known for the organic, biomorphic forms she painted using a staining technique which allowed her to explore pure color and elicit a sense of radiant light. Born in Charleston, Illinois, Baber spent her childhood winters in Florida due to poor health. Drawing attracted her from an early age, and by the time she was twelve she already attended college-level classes. Upon graduation from high school, she joined Lindenwood College in Missouri, and soon transferred to the more competitive Indiana University, Bloomington, where she was able to study with the figurative expressionist painter, Alton Pickens. Baber completed her Master of Arts degree in 1951 and travelled to Europe, where she spent a short period studying at the École des Beaux- Arts in Fontainebleau, France, before settling in New York City. During the second half of the 1950s Baber supported herself by writing for McCall’s magazine, where she then became the arts editor. She also joined the March Gallery roster, which was one of the Tenth Street artists’ co-ops.
1958 proved a crucial year in Baber’s career. She had her first solo exhibition at the March gallery and was invited to her first residency at the Yaddo colony, in Saratoga Springs, New York. She also began work on a painting titled Battle of the Oranges, which emerged from a series of still-life paintings filled with circular shapes of fruit. It was at this point, according to writer and historian Sylvia Moore, that Baber “first perceived that the circle possessed an infinite range of possibilities for exploration of color and light” and began to form her unique artistic style. Before the end of the year Baber travelled again to France, deciding to live in Paris for six months of every year. At the time, Paris was home for a group of North American painters, including Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, Shirley Jaffe and others, that became known to some as the École du Pacifique, although their association was primarily social rather than stylistic. In 1959, Baber was chosen, along with Helen Frankenthaler, to participate in the first edition of the Jeune Biennale by Darthea Speyer, the director of the American Cultural Centre in Paris. Over the next few years her work was seen in several exhibition in Paris, London, Edinburgh, and Hamburg.
In Paris, Baber met the artist Paul Jenkins, another American expatriate, who shared her passion for abstraction and the exploration of colour surfaces in painting. The two also shared an interest in southeast Asian art and collected historical artefacts from the region whenever they could find and afford them (Baber’s fascination for the subject was sparked by a course on Oriental Art that she took during her studies in Indiana). The two married in 1964, and soon after that they set off to Japan on the occasion of a double exhibition they had at the Osaka Pinacotheca Museum. Their marriage however was short lived, and in 1970 they parted ways.
Baber’s stylistic development during the period between 1958 and the mid-1970s is characterized by a series of experiments with color and technique. Having turned to abstraction in 1958, she began exploring a monochromatic approach to painting, primarily using shades of red. By 1960 Baber came to add yellows, greens, and lavender to her work. She gradually incorporated a growing variety of colors into her canvases, a process that reached its hiatus by the mid 1970s when she finally introduced black to her work, achieving a new range of effects and subtleties.
Her evolving approach to painting is also characterized by her choice of materials. In the first half of the 1950s she worked primarily in oil, but soon began to dilute her paint in order to emphasize the different shades of color, eventually expanding her practice to include also acrylic on canvas and watercolors on paper as alternatives to oil. Watercolors in particular lent themselves more easily to her growing interest in transparency and luminosity, as well as her interests in joining light and color in a kinetic fusion. Baber also worked with acrylic. Working in both mediums in parallel led to discoveries that altered the course of Baber’s painting, a method of ‘sinking’ (or ‘staining’) and ‘lifting’ to create abstract, organic forms – a visual style that has since become her signature. Color would remain central to the artist’s practice throughout her career, a theme on which she wrote at length in several publications, and which became the subject of exhibitions the artist curated, including Color Forum, a large-scale group exhibition held at the University of Texas, Austin, 1972.
An active feminist, Baber participated in several exhibitions dedicated to women artists, notably Women Choose Women, held at the New York Cultural Center in 1972, curated by Lucy Lippard. Throughout her career, Baber participated in numerous institutional group shows, including at the Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C. (1972), and Whitechapel Gallery, London (1966). Today, she is represented in over 40 public institutions around the world, with works in major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Albertina Museum, Vienna and the Stedeljik Museum, Amsterdam.