Donald Baechler trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art from 1974–77, and Cooper Union from 1977-78. Dissatisfied with New York City, he then proceeded to the Staatliche Hochschule fuer Bildende Künste Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He returned to New York City, however, in 1980, where he was soon a part of a burgeoning Lower Manhattan arts scene, showing in the East Village and exhibition spaces such as Artists Space and the Drawing Center. Baechler struck up a friendship with Tony Shafrazi as the pair shared an interest in artist Joseph Kosuth. Shafrazi was also developing an attraction towards graffiti-oriented works, and went on to found a downtown gallery devoted to that style. He represented Baechler there along with Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and eventually Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Baechler's early work was noted for their childlike imagery and thematics, associations which have recurred throughout his career. "Like Art Brut," wrote Steven Vincent in Art in America, "Donald Baechler's seemingly ingenuous depictions of everyday objects and simple figures succeed in large part by tapping into our nostalgia for childhood, that period of life before the rivening onset of self-consciousness and guilt. It's a myth, of course: children are hardly angelic, and alienation is the state of humanity—while Beachler's art works hard to achieve its trademark appearance of prelapsarian sincerity and artlessness.”