NEW YORK — Alice Baber (1928-1982) is said to have had a hunger for color. She was one of the most important woman Abstract Expressionist artists working at a time when the field was dominated by men such as Rothko, de Kooning and Pollock. Her biomorphic color-stained canvases, featuring hazy spheres of pure hues, are renowned for their lyrical qualities.
Born in central Illinois, Baber often suffered from bronchitis as a child so her family wintered in Miami, Florida to escape the harsh Midwest winters. She died early, from cancer, at age 54, but she began her art career when she was elementary-school age. She started studying drawing at age eight and was 12 when she took her first college-level painting class, taught by Paul Turner Sargent.
Baber lived in New York City in the early 1950s and was featured in the Stable Gallery’s sixth annual exhibition of New York artists when she turned 30. Her paintings, which feature monochromatic explorations of a single color or various colors, immediately charmed scores of viewers.
“Baber approached her canvas in the late 1950’s and 1960’s with a very controlled technique which allowed her to create more lively and dynamic compositions,” said Jenny Wilson, fine arts director at John Moran Auctioneers, Inc., based in Monrovia, California.
“To attain the captivating luminosity in her artworks, she employed a technique of layering transparent, thinned oil or acrylic paint onto her prepared canvases. Baber preferred using linen rags wrapped around her hand or finger as her tools of choice for achieving the precise color intensity she desired. On occasion, she would employ a turpentine-soaked rag to selectively ‘lift’ sections of color, thereby altering the opacity and shape of her composition.”
Her paintings are coveted by private buyers, appear in the holdings of many notable museums, and continue to attract collectors and bring strong prices. Moran’s in particular has achieved robust results for works by Baber, including holding the top five world auction records. “The market as of now for Baber’s works is accelerating. If you look at Baber’s market in December 2021, her auction record was $10,000. In just two years, we’re seeing works achieve 2,750% more,” said Wilson. “I don’t see this acceleration slowing down any time soon. Every sale brings new collectors in the know that have become interested in what’s going on with Baber’s market. Her work was shown this year at the Armory Fair in New York and was given a ‘best in show’ shoutout from the New York Times. Town and Country also reported that a work by Baber sold for $200,000 at the fair. With momentum like this coming from both the primary and secondary market, I don’t see market interest in Baber’s work being a flash in the pan moment.”
Her 1960s-70s paintings are especially desirable, as evidenced by the sale of Axe in the Grove, a 1966 oil on canvas that attained $275,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2023 and set a new world auction record for the artist at Moran’s. The painting was originally acquired from a collector who bought it at A.M. Sachs Gallery in New York during Baber’s second exhibition there in the fall of 1966. Years later, the collector downsized to a smaller home and gave the painting to another party.
In a New York Times review of that exhibition, writer Grace Glueck specifically mentions Axe in the Grove, saying “Disks and puffs of pure bright color drift lyrically over a white field toward a gentle vortex, bumping one another like colored balloons at a children’s party. Miss Baber’s most successful work is large in scale, as ‘Axe in the Groove’ [sic], where the white in the canvas is almost completely suppressed.” The painting is believed to reference the Florida area where Baber lived.
Another fine painting that deftly balances multiple colors, from rich blues to the palest yellows, is the 1976 acrylic Swirl of Sounds – The Ghost in the Banyan Tree, which achieved $187,500 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Moran’s.
Baber’s work takes an interesting turn in a 1970-71 watercolor painting, Olympus, featuring an X-like pattern of color stains. It sold for $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Hindman. In its catalog essay, Hindman writes that Baber, who was well-traveled and spent much time in India and France, was “enamored with cultural uses of color and spiritual mysticism, developing an impressive personal collection throughout her travels. Color was everything for Baber.” In this painting, however, she leaves much of the white background exposed; all the better to accentuate the contrast of the vivid colors against the white canvas.
The 1970s were a key period for the artist and marked a change in her oeuvre, in which her works were beginning to become more minimal yet bolder, bigger and more confident. “I personally gravitate to her work in the 1970’s, when she created massive canvases with pigments that dance across the canvas and envelope the viewer.” Wilson said. “I think that when she divorced Paul Jenkins, she had a real sense of self, and you could really see her ambitions with the canvases she used in the 1970s.”
A notable work from this period is a 1976 oil on canvas, The Sound of the Summer Hermit and The Key of Sound and Light, which made $150,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Moran’s in June 2023.
In many of her paintings, warm, sunny colors associated with Florida’s landscape are seen, such as in Storm of the Rainbow, a 1977 work that earned $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023 at Abell Auction. This painting in particular shows the artist’s deft use of negative space in her compositions, with ample white space amplifying the separation of the colors. Orange and yellow hues cluster together, divided by swaths of white background, barely bumping into the pastel blue or green clusters.
Baber’s later works are even more on reductive works such as those in her Sacred Space series. A 1981 watercolor on paper that was part of that series performed well, winning $14,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers. Unlike many of her earlier works, this painting mostly features bold, primary colors and her affection for spherical blots of color is replaced with rectangular forms.
Baber was in rare form when rendering a 1977 oil on canvas, The Blue Drum Path to the Open Coast, which realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Stair. As noted earlier, this painting actually set an auction record for the artist at the time. In it, she fulfills her mission of finding ways to get light moving across the entirety of her paintings. Light streams down Blue Drum Path as if literal sunbeams were radiating down from the sky.
“When the AbEx and Color Field painters were mostly dominated by men in the market, Baber was seen as Paul Jenkins’ ex-wife,” said Wilson. “Today, Baber’s records are double her ex-husband’s at auction. Baber is no longer someone’s ex-wife, she’s an important artist in her own right.”