Donald Baechler’s Moment; the (Not) Never-Ending Beard Show

Of all of the 80’s art stars, Donald Baechler has had the quietest career. While his good friends Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and Philip Taaffe were seeing their work on the walls of major museums and appearing in movies, Mr. Baechler was pursuing a painting career in a steady, workmanlike way that has won the admiration and loyalty of his peers, the right collectors and museum curators.

Lately, things have begun to change for him. Last summer, Mr. Baechler sent six monumental paintings to the prestigious Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland, for his first solo museum exhibition. On Feb. 23, Donald Baechler: Crowds , an exhibition of eight paintings, opened at the Cheim & Read Gallery on West 23rd Street, and on March 6, Donald Baechler: Paintings From the Kunsthalle Basel was to open at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo. The Basel paintings are the first paintings by Mr. Baechler to be priced at more than $100,000.

By turns shy and bold, Mr. Baechler even seemed slightly embarrassed by all of the attention as he sat with his circle of friends at a dinner at La Traviata in Chelsea after the Feb. 23 opening. He is even the subject of some downtown art gossip, which he quickly tried to extinguish. He said that he will remain a Shafrazi Gallery artist, quieting speculation that he intended to leave Shafrazi and join upstart Cheim & Read.

“I have always had good relations with Tony and Cheim & Read,” he said.

Like many artists these days, however, Mr. Baechler is in many ways more concerned about the architecture of galleries than the personalities behind them. “The rooms [in each gallery] are so perfect for these paintings that it was a natural fit to show them in two separate places,” he explained.

But nothing about Mr. Baechler seems deliberate. He said that his work is in two galleries in the same month simply because that was how things worked out. “They are both bodies of work that were designed for other circumstances, and it was great that they both came together this year,” he said. “It was sort of coincidental.”

The crowd paintings at Cheim & Read were painted between 1996 and 1999 for a show at the Galleri Lars Bobman in Stockholm, Sweden. The paintings were based on his enormous archive of drawings by children, mentally handicapped people and drunks he has met in bars. “I really studied the way nonartists worked,” he said. “The way they would draw a chin for example.”

The collage paintings at Shafrazi were completed last year specifically for the Kunsthalle, a 19th-century museum with vaulted ceilings. “These paintings are based on a sign that I saw in Morocco advertising a store that sold ice cream and milk, and other signs that I’ve seen in Mexico and India. I’m interested in the economy that they use to get the image up quickly.”

Mr. Shafrazi discovered Mr. Baechler soon after the artist arrived in New York in the late 1970’s from his hometown of Hartford, Conn. In 1986, Andy Warhol painted Mr. Baechler’s portrait in a silver silk screen, in exchange for a Baechler painting. The portrait shows Mr. Baechler picking his nose.

At La Traviata, Mr. Baechler was a congenial host; he hopped from table to table. Near the end of the evening, David McDermott, who is one-half of the artist team McDermott and McGough, climbed up on a table and, inspired by the opera singers, belted out a few arias of his own invention. While Mr. Clemente and a few other artists looked on from the sidelines, critics Rene Ricard and Edit Deak danced a tango. Ms. Deak wore red plastic lips. “It was a nice evening,” Mr. Baechler said, “we couldn’t have done that taking over six tables in a restaurant.”

The Beard Show Finale

Photographer Peter Beard was down in the basement of the Time Is Always Now gallery on Broome Street putting the finishing touches on a collage of photographs of himself re-enacting the death of a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. There were pots of coagulating blood on the floor and a dead rat that Mr. Beard had killed. “That’s not the blood that you smell,” he said. “It’s the rat.”

For almost two years, Mr. Beard, 61, has created an inner sanctum in the rooms of the gallery, where his life’s work has been on view for $5. The sprawling installation, titled Carnets Africains: A Retrospective , features 11-foot-high collages of his photos of himself, elephants, Jacqueline Onassis, Karen Blixen, Verushka, Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. There are none of ex-wife Cheryl Tiegs.

John Tunney, the owner of the Time Is Always Now gallery, gave Mr. Beard the right to use part of the gallery as a studio in 1996, when Mr. Beard returned to New York from Africa after he was trampled by elephants. Then he gave up the whole gallery for Mr. Beard to show his work as well.

Mr. Beard knows that his exhibit will not remain up forever. “Is it going to be shut in April?” he asked the gallery receptionist. Mr. Tunney told a gallery representative that it will remain up at least through 2000.

Schooled at the Buckley School and Yale University, Mr. Beard’s interest in photography led him to Africa, where he has documented the vanishing elephant population.

In his collages, Mr. Beard uses zebra blood, which he imports from Africa, to paint on top of the collages. They are framed in driftwood collected at Mr. Beard’s oceanfront property in Montauk, L.I. Rocks and other driftwood are strewn here and there around the gallery.

With an entourage that included his daughter, Zara, a student at the Nightingale School, Mr. Beard was on his way to lunch downtown that afternoon. For a moment he looked like every other New York photographer.