Longtime Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker has died aged 75

Kenneth Baker was the Chronicle art critic from 1985 to 2015. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle 1998

Art critics do not often excite many readers of a daily newspaper. But when Kenneth Baker pilloried ubiquitous glass sculpture pioneer Dale Chihuly in The Chronicle in 2008, a flood of reactions poured in. People were outraged and personally offended. Others applauded the skewer of a highly regarded artist.

For those familiar with Baker’s visual arts critique, his review of the de Young museum exhibit confirmed what they already knew. In his rigorously principled and keenly argued work, The Chronicle’s art critic from 1985 to 2015 made no concessions to popular taste or accepted opinion. Criticism mattered deeply, he believed, as a measure of truth, integrity, enduring value, and morality in a world awash in throwaway consumerism and cynical calculations.

“Perhaps in today’s arts funding environment, every museum needs to fit a boiler or two into its exhibition schedule,” Baker wrote in his controversial review. “But Chihuly came to personify all that is meritorious in contemporary art.” A spectator has “the nauseous feeling”, he continued, “that here, the gift shop inevitably reserved for such exhibitions has finally engulfed its host”.

Baker was a force in the local and national art world for decades before his sudden death on Friday, October 8. He died of congestive heart failure at his San Francisco home that he shared with his 46-year-old wife, Tonia. He was 75 years old.

“We were very fortunate for his opinions and ideas focused on standards of excellence,” esteemed painter Wayne Thiebaud said in a statement. “Personally, I will miss his tough expectations.”

In addition to his three decades as a chronicle critic, he has written for a multitude of national art magazines, authored numerous catalog essays and published two books, “Minimalism: Art of Circumstance” (1988) and ” The Lightning Field ”(2008). He received the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Art / World Award for Newspaper Art Criticism in 1986.

“Kenneth has maintained the great tradition in this country of major art reviews published in the local print media,” Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said in a statement. “He was knowledgeable, thoughtful and dedicated to his craft. “

Although at times difficult for the average reader to unpack, Baker’s prose was often marked by lyrical and evocative conciseness. Of Bay Area figurative painter David Park, Baker wrote in 2003, “He fell under the spell of abstraction for a time but, like a bad candidate for hypnosis, never succumbed to it.” comfortably. Alexander Calder’s mobiles “still hang in the present moment we see them in person, their slight changes and reconfigurations reminiscent of the very breezes of the passage of time,” the reviewer noted in a March 2021 article for the Art Newspaper.

“He was a true intellectual, and his critical frame of reference was extremely broad,” Lawrence Rinder, the former and now director emeritus and chief curator of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, said in a statement. “At the same time, he was not too exhilarating and relied as much on his instinctive responses as on his cognitive understanding of a work.”

Baker covered his pace on foot and by public transport. His sensitivity was strongly rooted in Aikido, the Japanese martial art that he studied and taught for years.

“It was as important to him as anything,” Tonia Baker told The Chronicle.

Aikido was “a critical path” for him, she said, citing her late husband, to counter “the somatic numbness of everyday life.”

Kenneth Baker (second from left) attended an aikido class in 1997. Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle 1997

Baker was born May 3, 1946 and grew up as a Christian Scientist in Needham, Massachusetts. He attended Bucknell University, where he studied philosophy and art history. After working as a freelance writer for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, he was an art critic for the Boston Phoenix for 13 years before joining The Chronicle in 1985.

Leba Hertz, former arts and entertainment editor at The Chronicle who worked with Baker for 15 years, described him as a critic with a “very deliberate and controlled personality with a wonderful wry sense of humor.”

“But when it comes to art, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as passionate as Kenneth,” she said. “His knowledge and perception of art was incredible. Once, while watching the Yoko Ono exhibit at SFMOMA, he turned to the curator and told him that the work was hanging upside down. Kenneth was right!

Artist Chester Arnold, who received mixed reviews from Baker and later became a friend, said in a statement that he trusted the reviewer to “give honest and insightful observations” that led “him” to think long and hard about what was written and what I was trying to do.

“He understood authenticity and avoided pretense,” longtime art historian Nancy Boas told The Chronicle. “He lived according to his values. They were close to the surface.

Baker is survived by his wife, Tonia. No funeral or memorial service is planned at this time.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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