Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager
Sometimes all we need are the basics; nothing busy, nothing flashy, the bare bones suffice. We find the sentiment of “less is more” embodied in Edward (Ed) Baynard’s 1980 woodcut, The Tulip Pitcher. A single, tulip-adorned pitcher placed in the center of a shelf against a stark backdrop appears simple; but, as we look closer, we’ll see that sometimes it’s the simplest of works that are the most poignant.
Born in Washington D.C., Baynard had a less than straightforward path to producing fine art. After graduating high school in the 1960s, he moved to Europe and bounced back and forth between London and Paris. He made a name for himself designing costumes for Jimi Hendrix, and worked in turn for The Beatles, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton! By the time 1971 rolled around, however, he was ready to devote himself entirely to art.
He was in demand as an artist quickly following his first exhibition at the Willard Gallery in New York in 1971. Speaking of his artistic turn, Baynard once said, “I have always drawn and painted. Making pictures is no different than breathing. My work is identity accepted; but not understood by me, or others. Without trying, I seem to be looking for a new way to present the classical.” We can see Baynard’s affinity for classical elements in his simple imagery. Still life are one of the oldest compositions in art history, as they are easily accessible. While not everyone has the money to pay models or the ability to travel to far off places to capture exotic landscapes, anyone can assemble a display of fruit, vegetables, dishes, and/or vases. By working in still life, Baynard is presenting a work of art that is comfortable and familiar. We can immediately identify the subjects. We don’t need to exert any energy into trying to figure out what we’re looking at. As a result, Baynard is able to infuse a sense of calm, accessible elegance into his work.
The calming nature of The Tulip Pitcher comes from Baynard’s ingenious use of minimalism and soft, pastel hues. This was a conscious effort to set his work apart from the hyperrealist and dynamic, geometric modernism that were popular at the time. Rather than boisterously demanding your attention, as the aforementioned styles do, Baynard extends a soft, thoughtful invitation. His shapes and colors are gentle on the eye, and he was meticulous in crafting his simple composition. While there is only a single form, which would typically result in a boring, stagnant composition, The Tulip Pitcher is far from this. The eye is first drawn to the open flower in the upper left hand of the vessel, which then carries you to the leaf that serves as the spout. You’re next led to the larger leaf which envelopes the tulip’s stem, down to the base of the pitcher, before then being brought back to the top following along the graceful curves of the closed tulip who’s stem brings you full circle, almost in a figure eight pattern which encourages continual evaluation.
In further encouragement to simply focus on the pitcher, there is an exceptionally short depth of field – the pitcher is pushed into the foreground, and there is no perceptible background. This calls to mind traditional Japanese woodblock prints, which have a shallow visual depth. The combination of Baynard’s shallow depth and cool minimalism results in a work of art that is harmonious and calm – another attribute of Japanese woodblock prints. You aren’t tempted by background elements to stray from the central elements, but are able to focus on exactly what Baynard presents: our vessel, and its elegant flowers, standing sentient and tranquil for viewers.
The fact that the flowers are the only element in color is yet another aspect borrowed from Japanese imagery. In Japanese printmaking, flowers and nature are a crucial component, evoking a connection to nature and referencing religious aspects of Shinto and Buddhism. While Baynard’s artwork itself isn’t meant to be religious, he often celebrated the beauty in the ephemeral, instilling harmony and a meditative calm throughout his career. We see this in The Tulip Pitcher as the flowers sinuously bend and curve around the textured grays and whites of the form, trapping the eye in a repetitive, yet peaceful, loop of graceful motion. This infinite loop allows the thinking mind to relax, encouraging an inner state of meditation.
The Tulip Pitcher is luminous, possessing zen-like simplicity and grace; a simple print of a single pitcher on a shelf that seamlessly melds stark minimalism with the classic characteristics of Japanese woodblock.