Physically delicate yet sturdy, the drawings, collages, and assemblages Hannelore Baron left behind when she died in New York in 1987 radiate a sense of emotional fragility and struggle. But rather than acting as mere repositories for phobias and obsessions, Baron’s boxes and notations insist that the human spirit can persevere, however damaged. Admired for her elegant way with mark making and constructing as much as for her emotional rawness, there is still a disarming honesty to these objects that aligns the self-taught Baron less with her peers in postwar art than with outsider artists. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Baron did not document historical or even personal events in her work, but states of mind, and states of nature. She invested her work with a sense of genteel decay, taking the Japanese aesthetic of sabe no wabe a step further, so that the poignancy of dog-eared paper or funky little boxes bound with worn cord takes on the sensual irresistibility of much finer materials. The brown tone that predominates throughout Baron’s oeuvre, in the stains on her paper and the rot and rust on the boxes, does not become a self-conscious reference to nature or even to death. To be sure, the inference of both these elemental forces gives the work a tone (however fatalistic) of reassurance; but Baron’s brownness quickly becomes something you can taste, something verging on edibility. One comes away from Baron’s objects feeling not depressed or depleted but nourished.
Baron incorporates the human figure rather sparingly, rendering it as cipher or hieroglyph embedded in a larger, but still obscured and inexplicable, language. There are few other references to things in the “real world,” the compressed fields of vision taken up instead by pasted in squares and squares within squares (as if Baron had compiled so many photo albums and was now recycling their half-ruined contents) and skeins of marks that, remarkably, hover between language-based calligraphy, Rune-like carving, and the scorings found on eroded stones. It is often hard to tell where Baron has left alone the original texture of her recycled substance and where she has intervened with her personal touch. Baron’s art has been compared to Paul Klee’s; but Klee was a passionate colorist and a whimsical master of brevity. The only thing brief or whimsical about Baron’s work is its size. Rather, she can be described as part Cornell, part COBRA, and part early Bruce Conner, adept at unlocking her demons but keeping them in strict formation-and drop-dead elegant in their scruffiness.