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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

Amazon | Indiebound

“Baeder was concerned with “the humanistic implications of roadside architecture.” – art historian and author, Jay Williams.

Look at the picture on the cover of this book. 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. Baeder’s paintings are nothing short of incredible and this book is filled with them. This is a biography of John Baeder’s passion, and his respect, for the values of roadside culture. Both come through loud and clear.

“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.”  – Williams

Every page of John Baeder’s Road Well Taken is filled with Baeder’s images coupled with his own words. It takes the reader on a journey through Baeder’s artistic career and roadside America. Williams’ text is conversational and heartfelt, making it a pleasure to read.

The largest section of the book is, of course, devoted to the diners. John Baeder started the diner preservation movement 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.

When I bought this book in 2016, I was not aware of John Baeder. I’m ashamed to admit that. I was aware of the “diner consciousness” movement his paintings provoked, but knew nothing about the man and his art. Reading this fixes that. In addition to the diner paintings, he’s also given us his own powerful documentary-style photography, inspired by the FSA photographers, and a collection of photographs he’s taken of hand-lettered signs displayed by a variety of businesses he found along the road. He’s painted many, many scenes from small-towns and cities throughout the country. With this book,  the books he himself has written,  his website and his Instagram feeds (@johnbaeder and @gmmebbq) it’s safe to say John Baeder is a steward of roadside culture.

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

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.

This is a book I’ll hold on to and read often.

Books by John Baeder:

Diners (1978)
Gas Food and Lodging (1982)
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


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