THE recent sale of a painting – for $US93 million – by Jean-Michel Basquiat of a disgusting-looking skull titled "In This Case", is only the latest example of the madness that is the art world in this third decade of the 21st century.
It went at a New York auction peopled by billionaires and their trophy wives in a flagrant display of the obscene inequality that infects American society today. And not just America – it’s a worldwide trend and we’re by no means immune from its nastier consequences.
But I was particularly struck by the horrible skull – and the even more horrible price – through a close involvement with the work of an artist whom I grew very close to in the 15 years before his death in 2018. His name is Bob Baker and his work, which covers an extraordinary range of subjects, is really quite wonderful.
Bob was born in England and aside from a couple of years of mandatory military service, he had always been an artist. Indeed, he won his first art prize at only 10 years of age. He married his sweetheart Pat and they set out on his motorbike around Scandinavia and Europe, painting along the way till they came to that part of rural France where Vincent Van Gogh spent his most productive years. And there Bob fell totally under his spell.
"In the end I just had to leave," he told me. "I had to get as far away as possible, otherwise I’d have been there forever."
Australia filled the bill. He and Pat settled in the Camden area where Bob established and managed an art society, taught a small group and painted himself, becoming well known among the Sydney cognoscenti, hung in the Wynne and Sulman competitions and selling his own works in the $4000-$6000 bracket.
But then in the late 1980s he suffered a heart attack because of the pollution drifting in from Sydney. A major heart operation followed and they escaped to Bodalla on the south coast. I was arts editor of the daily paper then and, from our Tuross bolthole, I got to know Bob and Pat. For months he couldn’t stretch his arms wide so turned his hand to miniatures. His small paintings of magpies overlooking coastal communities verged on genius.
When he recovered, he discovered a new fascination – the world of physics – and in time he was able to render such concepts as E= mc2 and Schrodinger’s Cat into the most graceful and charming paintings. He became so engrossed that he abandoned the art market almost entirely. And when I organised an exhibition at the CSIRO’s Discovery Centre he refused all offers to buy individual works.
By the time he died, the art world had moved on. When Pat authorised me to sell the remaining works – a treasure trove of almost 100 paintings – neither agents nor galleries, national, state and regional – had either the funds, the space, or the interest, to take them.
Just weeks ago, Pat followed Bob to the grave with the studio/garage still packed with paintings. And last week a small group of us – Pat’s wonderful carer-soon-to-be-administrator of the estate, a local gallery owner and a brilliant former curator who has done a stunning job of cataloguing – gathered to try and decide what next.
Our ideas ranged from offering to donate a group to the Camden Art Society to splitting them up somehow… all very tentative until the formalities can be completed. That’s when I decided to make one last effort – via my friendly "Gadfly" column – to see if there was a reader out there who cares to preserve genuine artistic quality.
For I promise, there’s not a single disgusting skull amongst them.
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Ian Meikle, editor