Icons of Roadside Culture 

New coffee-table book offers a retrospective of John Baeder’s dream diners

Over the past 35 years, Baeder has created and sold scores of paintings of the humble eateries that dotted the American landscape before the age of corporate fast food.
Matisse once said, “I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” Substitute “diner” for table, and you’ll begin to understand the art of John Baeder, as well as its enduring popularity. Over the past 35 years, Baeder has created and sold scores of paintings of the humble eateries that dotted the American landscape before the age of corporate fast food. Pleasant Journeys and Good Eats Along the Way is a retrospective of Baeder’s diner oeuvre, with full-color reproductions of more than 100 of his works. Baeder has lived in Nashville since 1981, and several Nashville landmarks, including the venerable Elliston Place Soda Shop, appear in Pleasant Journeys. The book is designed as a companion to a touring exhibit of the same name, due to open at the Tennessee State Museum in December.

Baeder was born in 1938, so his early years intersected with the heyday of diners. In an artist’s statement that opens the book, Baeder describes how his obsession began during diner visits with his family, when the “choreography of the counterman preparing food so swiftly on the grill” provided “visual joy for the little boy and his beginning sensibilities.” Clearly, his attachment to the memory is widely shared. His greasy-spoon portraits have been hot sellers from the moment they appeared in the early 1970s, and they have been reproduced on calendars, postcards and ceramic collectibles. His work gets part of the credit—or perhaps it should be the blame—for the glitzy faux diners such as Johnny Rockets and Ed Debevic’s that began dotting tourist strips and shopping malls in the 1980s.

For all their popular appeal, however, a close look at Baeder’s paintings reveals a sophisticated sensibility at work. Baeder is no Thomas Kinkade, wallowing in sanitized nostalgia, nor is he especially concerned with documenting reality. He works from photographs of real diners, but he sometimes fictionalizes names and other elements. Though he is passionate about the diner as a “disappearing icon of American roadside culture” and advocates saving the few that survive, his images lack any suggestion of preservationist puffery. In fact, most of the pleasurable associations people have with diners—the smell and taste of food, the bright interiors, the cheerful noise and conviviality of a public eatery—are not referenced in the paintings at all. There is no food in a Baeder diner and, stranger still, there are no people. There is only the exterior structure, always in daylight, its name and idiosyncratic signage (“Cooked in sight—It must be right”) carefully depicted.

For Baeder, the diners themselves are characters worth examining. He assumes—correctly—that our own remembered associations will combine with the personality of each structure to create all the narrative energy the paintings need. In a critical essay included in the book, art historian Donald Kuspit compares Baeder to a portraitist “in search of the inner truth of character,” and indeed the diners are like exquisitely wrought portraits of aging people—some still beautiful and lively, others studies in decay, but each unique and engaging in its own way. Baeder sees with a child’s vivid and unrestricted eye, which gives his paintings the power to touch a deep chord of memory. With these seemingly literal images, Baeder captures a bit of the magic all children feel when they first wander into the world and realize there are wonderful places to see and good things to eat out there.

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