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Kenneth Baker, longtime Chronicle arts critic, dies at 75

Kenneth Baker, The Chronicle’s visual arts critic from 1985 to 2015, died unexpectedly on Friday, Oct. 8. Photo: Russell Yip / The Chronicle 1998

Art reviews don’t often stir up many readers of a daily newspaper. But when Kenneth Baker pilloried the ubiquitous glass sculpture pioneer Dale Chihuly in The Chronicle in 2008, a flood of reaction poured in. People were outraged and personally offended. Others cheered the skewering of a widely beloved artist.

For those familiar with Baker’s visual arts criticism, his review of the de Young Museum show 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 received opinion. Criticism mattered deeply, he believed, as a measure of truth, integrity, enduring value and morality in a world awash in disposable consumerism and cynical calculation.

“Perhaps in today’s arts funding environment, every museum must work a potboiler or two into its exhibition calendar,” Baker wrote in his controversial review. “But Chihuly has come to personify everything meretricious in contemporary art.” A viewer gets “the queasy sense,” he went on, “that here the gift shop inevitably barnacled to 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, Oct. 8. He died of congestive heart failure at the San Francisco home that he shared with his wife of 46 years, Tonia. He was 75.

“We were most fortunate for his opinions and insights focused upon standards of excellence,” the esteemed painter Wayne Thiebaud said in a statement. “I will personally miss his challenging expectations.”

In addition to his three decades as a Chronicle critic, he wrote for a host of national art magazines, wrote 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 upheld the great tradition in this country of important art criticism published in 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.”

While at times challenging for an average reader to unpack, Baker’s prose was often marked by lyrical and evocative concision. Of the Bay Area figurative painter David Park, Baker wrote in 2003, “He came under abstraction’s spell for a while but, like a bad candidate for hypnosis, never succumbed to it comfortably.” Alexander Calder mobiles “always dangle into the present moment of our seeing them in person, their slight shifts and reconfigurations evoking the very breezes of time’s passage,” the critic noted in a March 2021 piece for the Art Newspaper.

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

Baker covered his beat on foot and by public transportation. His sensibility was strongly rooted in aikido, the Japanese martial art 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, quoting her late husband, to counteract “the somatic numbness of daily life.”

Kenneth Baker (second from left)  in an aikido class in 1997. He studied and taught the discipline for years. Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle 1997

Baker was born on May 3, 1946, and raised as a Christian Scientist in Needham, Mass. He attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy and art history. After freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, he served as art critic of the Boston Phoenix for 13 years before joining The Chronicle in 1985.

Leba Hertz, the 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 came to art, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as passionate as Kenneth,” she said. “His knowledge and perception of art was amazing. Once while viewing the Yoko Ono exhibit at SFMOMA, he turned to the curator and told him the work was hanging upside down. Kenneth was right!”

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

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

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

Kenneth Baker, longtime Chronicle arts critic, dies at 75