Cut From a Different Cloth: Duty and Fulfillment in the Art of Robert Baras
Throughout his life Robert Baras (1930-2016) developed a painterly vo-cabulary of luminescent wraiths, nebulous forms, and abstracted linear systems, drawn from the elemental enigma of the natural world. The story behind Baras’ artistic accomplishments is a synonymous and vivid aspect of his creative evolution, and provides the underpinnings of his oeuvre.
Baras’ parents came to the United States as Romanian, Jewish immi-grants in 1925, compelled by rising anti-semitism during the interwar period. That the discrimination reached its zenith through the Iron Guard, Romania’s alliance with Nazi Germany in World War II, and its ethnic-cleansing pogroms against its own Jewish communities, shows the prescience of the Baras’ decision. The threat of such social, and po-litical destruction, along with the prospect of a more equitable, prosper-ous life in America, formed the backdrop to Robert Baras’ origins.
Solomon and Esther Baras settled in the Bronx, where Robert was born. The Baras’ first business was a candy store, and later, in the In-wood section of Manhattan, they opened a luncheonette. The business-es became successful through grueling seven day work weeks and a dog-ged commitment to their customers. When Robert was fourteen years old, a devastating event altered the trajectory of the Baras family, and caused a pivotal change in Robert’s circumstances. His elder brother, Irwin, was drafted to Europe during the Second World War, and killed in Naples—after hostilities had ended—by retreating German soldiers. Irwin had been considered the more practical sibling, who it was be-lieved would elevate the family through his future professional accom-plishments. With his death, Robert, the dreamer, was thrust into the role of family protector, first comforting his distraught mother through the trauma of losing her son, and later taking responsibility for the fami-ly’s economic wellbeing.
In 1943 (against the wishes of his wife) while still running the luncheon-ette, the elder Baras bought four knitting machines with a view to en-tering the textile industry, then dominated by large Southern mills. From small beginnings the business grew into a profitable contract knit-ting supplier to larger textile companies. Robert was by then enrolled at City College studying liberal arts, where he met, and became friends with, musicians and artists involved in the bohemian culture of the West Village. Robert was aware of the scene, and had long harbored artistic leanings, but based at the northern tip of Manhattan with a grieving family to look after, he remained on the city’s creative periphery. He switched his studies from City College, to night school so that he could work alongside his father in the factory of their Inwood Knitting Mills business, during the day,
A moment of lore occurred at an important moment for the family, and for Baras’ future career as a painter. For about a year—around 1950—he would spend time alone in the textile workshops, reflecting quietly, and contemplating the fabrics, the textures, and the colors, down to their fibers and structure. Baras’ father became concerned at his son’s seeming distraction, but Robert was resolving a philosophical approach to the business, that would come to influence his art. Baras’ sensitivity for the materials of his profession, and his abilities and ambition were a potent combination. Baras’ intuition for the textiles they produced, and for hues and patterns, became a great asset. He developed a color wheel that became highly sought after, and the materials that he produced helped the company expand through the years, first moving to larger premises on 10th Avenue and 13th Street, in the mid-fifties, and later relocating across the river to Clifton, New Jersey. By the time Baras sold the business in 1969, it had become a multi-million dollar enterprise. He gave half of the proceeds to his parents, fulfilling his deceased brother’s legacy, and setting the scene for the next part of his journey.
Baras was finally free to pursue his artistic instincts and commit himself to painting, which he did for the next four decades. Baras’ maturity—he was in his early forties—is an important feature of his practice. While a late beginning is often considered detrimental to an artist, in Baras case it lent his work a depth, pace and confidence, as well as a detach-ment from trends or scenes, that honed a rare pictorial individuality. Moreover, his business success permitted him liberty from the competi-tive necessities most artists have to engage with. He decided against showing, or even selling his work, which preserved Baras’ deep sense of responsibility to the privacy, and self-reflection that he believed were necessary for an artist.
From the early Seventies, Baras, with his wife Francine, continued to live in New York City, where he kept a studio on West 20th Street be-tween 5th and 6th avenues. But it was on the East End of Long Island that Baras would find artistic solace, going on to have studios in Qui-ogue, Quogue, and Watermill, during the next two decades. He became a staple of the creative community there, and was close with many art-ists who defined American art in the mid-twentieth century, including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Alfred Gottlieb, and Jackson Pol-lock. Jack and Dorothy Lichtenstein; and Diane Waldman (the Gug-genheim’s deputy director and senior curator,) and her husband, Paul Waldman, a well known painter, were also confidants.
Having studied at the Art Students League, Baras then applied to the School of Visual Arts—on the encouragement of Mr Waldman—completing his BFA (with honors) there in 1978. Robert Baras went on to develop his hard-earned visual language, becoming one of the last surviving members of the East End’s storied scene. From the mid-nineties and for the last twenty years of his life he spent his time be-tween Connecticut, and the South of France, where he worked among the landscapes, and legacies of his artistic forebears, pursuing new for-mulations and expanding his legacy, until his death in 2016. Today his work speaks anew from the roots of its formation. His experience as the son of immigrants, and the prejudice and otherness pressed upon his family through their Jewish heritage, are resonant with today’s fraught and divisive legislative rhetoric.
Baras’ tumultuous family arc; his humility and patience; his long-gestating creative compulsion; and his vantage point at the heart of metropolitan discourse; provided him with a unique profile in his gener-ation’s creative accomplishments. He is at once within, yet apart; known and unknown; his practice relative to his peers, but also distinct from theirs; his imagery recognizable, while refreshing. Robert Baras’ work offers the excitement of discoverability, within the pedigree of his era’s aesthetic mien; and it contributes to current artistic conversation, through the cyclical nature of social and political trauma. These are the delicate balance of qualities that have earned his work its place within the firmament of American artistic invention.