TRAFFIC | Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980
Between 1966 and 1978, Iain Baxter was best known as one-half of the artist collaboration and corporation, the N.E. Thing Company Limited. With wife Ingrid Baxter, their work was crucial in the development of Conceptual art. However, both before and after N.E. Thing Co., Iain Baxter maintained an activeand significantsolo practice.
Through the late 1950s, Baxter studied zoology at the University of Idaho, receiving his B.Sc. in 1959 and a M.Ed. in 1962. He went on to receive his MFA in 1964 from Washington State University. For nine months during 1961, the Baxters lived in Japan on a Japanese government fellowship to study art. Their encounter with Zen Buddhism while abroad would find expression in their work in the years that followed. Through the late 1950s and early '60s, Baxter had solo exhibitions at university galleries in Moscow, Idaho (1958); Kyoto, Japan (1961); and Pullman, Washington (1964).
When Baxter arrived in Vancouver in 1964 to teach at the University of British Columbia (UBC), he discovered an art scene "largely unconcerned with traditional modes of painting and sculpture and an intellectual climate at the University receptive to the theories of Marshall McLuhan."1 For the 1965 Festival of the Contemporary Arts at UBC, Baxter presented Beauty through Destruction, Disintegration and Disappearance, a performance in which the artist disappears two tons of ice with flame, rain, and air. It was also around this time that Baxter began making plastic bas-reliefs from detergent, milk, or shampoo bottles (as with Still Life: Two Plastic Bottles, 1965). With these, Baxter draws on both Pop art's playful engagement with packaging, and Giorgio Morandi's carefully composed still lifes. For Baxter, these works in plastic were a conscious reworking of Morandi's early twentieth-century practice; but where the Italian painter had "worked with the wine bottles and containers from the local Italian towns," Baxter noted, "for a person living in North America in 1965 it should be something else . . . plastic bottles are the common pottery of today."2
Subsequently, other objects found their way into the vacuum-formed reliefs, including can openers and paint brushes. This newly-available media saw other Canadian artistsLes Levine and Jack Chambers most prominently among themalso using vacuum-forming during the mid-sixties. But unlike Levine and Chambers, Baxter pushed his exploration of the plastic works to a larger consideration of the commodity form. A major installation for the 1966 Festival of Contemporary Arts called Bagged Place (1966) was arguably the first major "environment" made and exhibited in Canada. The installation consisted of a suite of four rooms furnished and appointed like a typical apartment, right down to a slice of toast in the toaster and feces in the toilet. However Baxter individually bagged each and every item.3 This preoccupation with bagging had found earlier expression in his irreverent Bagged Rothko (1965) and Pneumatic Judd (1965), while also alluding to N.E. Thing Co.'s later practice of declaring works by other artists as ART ("Aesthetically Rejected Things").
Both before and during his time as president of NETCO, Baxter remained an influential teacherfirst at UBC and later at Simon Fraser University. Within expanded notions of communications and personality, from the spring of 1966, Baxter began working under a string of pseudonyms and collaborating with others in the form of various corporate identifications. The moniker IT served for two collaborative exhibitions in 1966. As Iain and Ingrid Baxter later explained,
IT was an attempt at anonymity as artists. We, Iain, Ingrid Baxter and John Friel
(1939-72) set up two exhibitions as IT. We worked jointly on the works and showed only
as IT. One show at Albert White Gallery, Toronto. The other was at Rolf Nelson Gallery,
Los Angeles. We did not let the press know who was behind IT. IT dissolved and N. E.
Thing Co. Ltd. was formed, but not before going through a transition: N. E. Baxter
Thing Co. John Freil phased into continuing his own works.4
Following the dissolution of the Baxters' marriage and N.E. Thing Co., in 1978, Iain Baxter was appointed as a consultant for Labatt Brewing Company, where he provided "non-traditional interpretations of creative culture."5 He went on to work variously in photo-based and sculptural media, using Polaroid photography, drawing, painting, and found objects. An electronic catalogue raisonné, supported by York University and directed by Adam Lauder, is in preparation.
ALSO SEE: N.E. Thing Co. Ltd. (Iain Baxter and Ingrid Baxter)
Baxter, Iain and Ingrid. N.E. Thing Co. Vancouver: self-published, 1978.
Fleming, Marie L. Baxter2: Any Choice Works 1965-70. Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1982.
Lippard, Lucy. "Iain Baxter: New Spaces." artscanada 26, no. 3 (June 1969): 3-7
Osborne, Catherine. Iain Baxter: Vacuum forms, 1965. Vancouver: Catriona Jeffries Gallery,
2000. Edited by James Patten. Passing through: Iain Baxter& photographs, 1958-1983.
Windsor, Ontario: Art Gallery of Windsor, 2006.
1Marie L. Fleming, Baxter2: Any Choice Works 1965-70 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario,
2Baxter quoted in ibid.
4Iain and Ingrid Baxter, N.E. Thing Co. (Vancouver: self-published, 1978), not paged.
5James Patten, ed., Passing through: Iain Baxter& Photographs 1958-1983 (Windsor, Ontario: Art
Gallery of Windsor, 2006), 149.