Saturday, January 3, 2015

Studio Romance: Jake Berthot's Paintings 1969 ­- 1988

By Carl Belz

(Author's note: I had the privilege of doing an exhibition with Jake Berthot at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, in the spring of 1988. It included 41 pictures documenting 20 years of work, and it was all about painting, which is what Jake was all about and what he lived for and was in turn abundantly evident and moving in the way he talked about it. The character of his dedication, via his pictures and his words, provided the basis for the catalog essay that accompanied the exhibition and is here reprinted.)

"I really love the romance of the studio — the oil, the turpentine, the smell of the varnish, the touch and feel of painting, the feeling of the brush as much as seeing what the brush puts down."

Jake Berthot, Lovella's Thing, 1969.
"People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art." (1) Jake Berthot made this statement in 1970, about the time he painted Lovella's Thing, the first painting that he considers his own and one to which he understandably remains deeply attached. Much is revealed in the statement concerning his vision of art, about attitudes that continue to sustain him in the present moment. By 1970 he had of course seen, as we had all seen, abundant examples of art going to people, theatrical art, its spread ranging from Pop's embrace of media cliches and icons to Minimalism's undermining of the distinction between the art object and the environment in which it is perceived. But Berthot's roots were situated elsewhere, within the generation of artists we call Abstract Expressionists and within the tradition of modernism embodying "investigation, belief, transcendence, everything painting ought to be about" (2) -- painting, in other words, that makes you come to it. The modernist impulse here subscribed to is embedded in value and, as such, constitutes an imperative entailing acknowledgement of the near or more distant past -- Rothko, say, or Cezanne, though the past increasingly is the artist's own -- but whose ongoing aim is to locate the present and know the present self. In the process, additional challenges arise. As Berthot says, "Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you're involved in and go where that investigation takes you." (3). In the end, as in the beginning, you go to art to find your own voice.

The decade preceding Lovella's Thing included intermittent studies at the New School for Social Research and Pratt Institute as well as the testing of various kinds of pictorial expression, most of them abstract. "Starting around 1962-63 my work was strongly influenced by Milton Resnick. In fact, the paintings were like Resnick clones, but after a few years I felt I hit a dead end; there just wasn't any place I could go. I could keep making Resnicks, but there wasn’t any place for my voice to come into them, so at that point I made a complete turn around. I did some figurative things, some hard- edge paintings, and some modular pieces that I showed downtown with the Park Place group, but it was very unsatisfying -- the central involvement with paint was gone, so I just stopped painting for a year, maybe even two years."

Berthot was drawing constantly at this time, filling pages of graph paper notebooks with geometric analyses, projects for shaped canvases that seem in many ways more sculptural than pictorial in feeling and that were in any case only occasionally realized. This was due to practical considerations as well as esthetic uncertainty. "Everything was done on graph paper and then it became a matter of carpentry, building the forms and finishing them in as cool a way as possible. There was no real personal involvement in the making of the thing -- it was more like executing than making, it had more to do with idea than product. Then what happened was that I got thrown out of my studio, and I moved into a small apartment on Sixth Avenue and Spring Street, and I really didn't have enough space to work. Sometimes somebody would go away for a few weeks and I would use their studio to make one of the things, but it wasn't really necessary. I could just draw them out on graph paper, it didn't really make any sense to produce them. What I was really missing was the involvement with paint, putting paint down and seeing what paint could do."

Securing his own studio forced Berthot to deal with issues such as personal and impersonal, product and idea, painting and object, issues that, as his comments attest,were in conflict for him in the late sixties, even blocking him temporarily from painting altogether. The way out came not through a priori choice, selecting one option rather than another, but through synthesis, resolution, and work; characteristically, it was arrived at via a process of investigation. The results were Lovella's Thing and the other notched paintings of the early 1970s, Nympha Red, Three Columns in Memory of Gertrude Stein, and Green 2 Green. "I had a studio and I wondered what the hell I was going to do. In working with the graph paper books I started to think that if I notched the forms the focal points in the painting would begin to shift; there would be more than one focal point, more than the single corner-to-corner relationships you have in a conventional rectangle. I wanted the literal shape to be geometrically concrete and dictate the scale of the void in the middle. With Lovella's Thing I originally thought of painting the middle a flat, blank color, but when I got into it, putting down a lot of acrylic washes, I just started to paint it in a more felt way. So it became a kind of dialect between something very concrete and something very felt. I liked the blunt presence the shape had on the wall and then penetrating the surface in the middle in what I suppose could be called a Rothkoesque kind of way."

Concrete yet felt, blunt but open, a kind of dialect. The interplay is constant in the paintings of the late sixties and early seventies. Constant, too, is their handling, which is seamless and almost undifferentiated in the voids while becoming typically looser and thinner around the edges and on the bars that frame them; drips, splatters, and discrete markings here provide evidence of the painting process and the urge to feeling. The dialect, as the artist calls it, operates on several levels: the literal shape of the pictures is generally rectangular, but each rectangle is rendered odd because of its notches; each can be quickly grasped as a known geometric unit, but each consciously delays our grasp of that unit, however briefly, and forces us to register its idiosyncrasies, it's departure from the norm; likewise, each picture offers factual data about the process of its becoming and then yields, in the void, to a more abstract kind of information. Establishing the dialect, in other words , not only entails time but insists on it as an aspect of pictorial content. He paintings establish their own pace, starting quickly with their concrete, tactile, and instantly perceived rectangular gestalts but then slowly, distending  perception through more elusive and purely optical, experiential phenomena. Color -- earthy, closely valued and restrained, and consisting of greens and browns sprinkled with underpainting of reds and ochers -- reinforces the concern for a quiet, slowly yielding but nonetheless expansive vision of being. The color recedes, drawing us to its depths, to the void. Clearly, Berthot's concerns here are more closely aligned with Abstract Expressionism than Minimalism, more with Rothko than Marden. His pictures can be said to look in both directions, but his meaning is bound to the transcendence of reality, not its literalness or objecthood.

The locus of Berthot's commitment became increasingly clear to him through paintings worked between 1972 and 1975, a period of transition and uncertainty during which he abandoned the notched format that had enabled his first mature statements. "The dialect started to break down; I became less interested in the idea and more involved with the feeling. Also, I was getting tired of all the carpentry. I wanted to get something that was more immediate, and I wanted to get back to the rectangle. I did some panel paintings, trying to establish the physicality of the support; I wanted them to be really heavy on the wall, to have a really physical presence. Then one day I was out for a walk, and I saw these guys working in the street. They'd laid down a steel plate so that cars could drive over it, and as I walked over it I thought, that's what I want, I want the painting to be as heavy as that. But when I got across I realized, there's something wrong with this; if I want them to be that heavy on the wall I should just get a piece of steel and hang it up; why am I painting it? It seemed that what I was involved with had more to do with sculpture than painting, and that seemed like a dead end."

The restlessness pervading these remarks is centered on physicality and the need to distinguish between pictorial and sculptural experience. The determination to commit to the painting enterprise is clear, but there is nonetheless uncertainty about what that enterprise might consist of vis-a-vis physicality, which is recognized as cutting two ways. It can establish presence, a shape stamped on the wall like an obdurate thing, but it can in its obdurateness undermine pictorial effect and result in compromised identity. The influence of Minimalism persists in the desire to have the work of art be in and of the world, an object commanding the same kind of attention as other objects in the world, but it tugs against Berthot's urge to impart spiritual status to art objects, not least of all to those of his own manufacture -- art objects he means specifically to call paintings. Rothko's ineffability  thus remained in force; the risk presented by Minimalism lay in formalizing it, pursuing the idea at the expense of the feeling.
Jake Berthot, Untitled, 1977, oil and pencil on canvas, 40 x 24 inches.
The majestic Walken's Ridge established the course for Berthot's resolution of the uncertainties that infused his thinking at this time. The painting sprawls laterally and landscape-like to a width of 14 feet and is anchored at its center by the vertical line literally marking the juncture of its two 7- foot horizontal sections and by a pair of ample,vertically oriented rectangles aligned with one another top,to bottom and left to right. The central focus is clearly conscious and imposing, and it just as clearly distinguishes the painting -- and its staccato, Impressionist working -- from likenesses that can be drawn to the late Monet, the Water Lilies in particular, with which Walken's Ridge otherwise has strong affinities. "I was concerned about getting to the middle of the canvas. That seemed to be the biggest problem in painting at the time, including my painting. I started thinking about it and decided to try putting some kind of form in the middle -- to just do the same things I'd been doing but reverse it. Rather than having the bars on the outside, I would create an internal situation; rather than having the void in the middle, I would move it out to the sides."

I see in the two rectangles of Walken's Ridge -- though I don't claim they were intended as such -- images of the steel slab the artist encountered on the street in the epiphanous moment when he recognized his work was on the wrong track. As if in acknowledgement of that experience, the rectangles share a common sculptural edge, the vertical where the two halves of the painting meet, but they are otherwise rendered entirely pictorial, easing into their respective spaces through optical as opposed to tactile means. They are identical in size, but color and handling allow the one on the left greater transparency and openness while it's counterpart feels more opaque and confrontational. In either case, however, the shapes are continuous with the fields they occupy, floating authoritatively within them while establishing for each it's grand scale and expansive feeling. The color is earthy, the paint breathes with atmosphere, and these qualities reinforce the landscape impression signaled initially by the picture's literal spread, strengthened by its horizontal articulations of pigment, and finally specified by the title attached to it upon its completion. The pastoral space rises before us and rolls to the distance as if it were physically approaching a ridge, but it also glides left and right of the two rectangles as if they form a ridge we optically float above. The raw canvas showing along the upper and lower edges of the painting is important here, for it suggests natural atmosphere while at the same time establishing the pictorial limits within which the experience of that atmosphere is grasped and stated. The lesson of the steel plate was thus absorbed, but Walken's Ridge had for Berthot additional significance as metaphor -- metaphor partly in relation to an understanding of the distance he had come as a painter. "When I did the painting I thought it was very obviously a landscape  -- I couldn't deny that like I would have denied that some of the earlier paintings, like Nympha Red, were landscapes. I looked at it and it seemed like a particular kind of landscape, like the landscape I grew up in, the Allegheny Mountains. It seemed to have that kind of feel and atmosphere to it, but it also seemed to cover a lot of country; it could be Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, any place. It also felt like a ridge, like standing on the edge of something. For me that meant moving our of an idea-oriented kind of painting into something more internal, more pictorial by its very nature. It meant making a break, stepping from one thing to another, coming to an edge, to a ridge."
Jake Berthot, Double Bar White, 1977-78, oil on canvas, 74 x 52 inches.
The issues articulated in Walken's Ridge were explored fully through the paintings of the later seventies, beginning with Untitled (To A.G.) and Tumbler, and extending through Double Bar White, Double Bar Orange, Utah, Red Over Gray, and Tables Measure. All of the pictures are frontal, symmetrical, and centrally focused on one or two vertical rectangular units and can be said to deal with these constants not as serial norms, an ostensible guide, but as subjects engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the artist and with one another. Significantly, none of the paintings are large, none approaching the Abstract  Expressionist-inspired size of the notched paintings or Walken's Ridge. A certain reserve is present in the withdrawal from size as associated with impact, and this can also be seen as a withdrawal from Minimalism and it's sculptural or architectural aspirations. But reserve, arresting and admirable as it is in these works, doesn't motivate them as much as the desire to consolidate and essentialize what had been learned from the past, including the artist's own past. The latter especially begins to assume increasing importance in Berthot's thinking around this time. "A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history -- as an embrace, rejection, or reaction -- then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he's trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that." (4)
Jake Berthot, Angel, 1982-1983, oil on canvas, 73 ½ x 49 inches.
All of the paintings in question are quietly assertive and all evolve through what the artist described in relation to the notched pictures as a dialectical situation. The locus of the dialectic, however, has shifted from an outside-to-inside correspondence -- literal shape in tension with the void -- to an exchange that is entirely internal and pictorial, focusing on the rectangular unit and its relationship to the field in which it is situated. The challenge to bond figure and ground in sustained discourse while maintaining the wholeness of the painted surface -- the integrity of the painting as a painting -- runs through the modern tradition, and Berthot here engages it head-on. His approach is elemental, radical in the willingness to pin so much on so little, to extract meaning from some paint and one or two "geometric" units suspended in a square or rectangular field. Such an inventory allows the impression that Minimalism persists, but its effects are in fact nugatory, swept aside by the pictures' throbbing surfaces, their spatial ambiguities, and the abundance of light and air that fill them. The rectangles -- to call them geometric is to trivialize their character -- hover and pulse within the worlds they occupy, bodying forth then pausing and receding, constantly in tension with their worlds yet one with them, ready to invite the dialogue and extend it. The void, so instrumental in the notched paintings and pushed to the sides in Walken's Ridge, is still embraced as a seminal concern, but is brought within more realistic confines. All of the pictures of the later seventies strike a balance between figure and ground, measuring the size and scale of each in direct relation to the other. Whether presented as single units or in pairs, the rectangles are centered top to bottom and left to right, their positions determined at the outset of the painting process and thereafter altered optically but not in terms of placement. This results in a distinct and welcome objectivity; the pictures are serene and confident on this level, classicizing in the way they summon forth the vision of ideal worlds knowable in their stability. In keeping with the terms of modern experience, however -- and it is here that their realism is explicit -- they are also restless, acknowledging doubt and uncertainty in the perceptual shifting of space and form, in physical handling that causes both to seem in the process of becoming, as if knowledge is possible only in moments of presentness and cannot be recovered intact from the past any more than it an be projected whole into the future.

Color shapes the meaning of these pictures in decisive ways and for the artist begins to open avenues of expression that had not been available to him in his earlier achievements. Bright orange, white, yellow, and red appear for the first time in dominant rather than secondary roles, surging forth like bursts of emotion. Their high key risks disruption, tempting us to focus on them exclusively, but Berthot thwarts this urge by positioning each within a field whose chromatic value is fully supportive and reinforcing. Each intense color is thus provided a context and so makes sense within a range of feeling. The bursts of emotion are accounted for, though in the artist's mind this was not an isolated concern. "I started to think about how color has time associated with it, how one kind of situation can present itself as having a constant present to it and how another can be more reverential, function more as coming into being. In Red Over Gray, for instance, I thought about the red consistently presenting itself, moving from the present into the future, while the gray didn't move as fast, and the ground seemed to function more as a kind of past. It showed more of the history of the making of the painting, more echoes of the past."

If the paintings of the later seventies are in their way classical, the ones that follow are by contrast disruptive, volatile, resistant to rightness of proportion and balance of scale, baroque in their way. That Berthot was going through a difficult personal situation at the time -- the dissolution of a marriage, a temporary move to Maine, the loss of several paintings when the truck packed for that move was stolen -- can be cited in partial explanation of their more contentious attitude, but the pictures are entirely comprehensible on their own terms, appealing for understanding to external circumstances no more nor less than any pictures within the artist's body of work. The shifts they represent are shifts of feeling, shifts in art's ability to accommodate changes in the investigation undergoing continuing pursuit. "I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt. Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there's a certain amount of terror in it. That's when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around. The title suggests some of that, like the first verse was done, and it was time to move on to the second verse."

Second Verse presents a darkened vertical rectangle centrally located in an equally darkened field. The format derives from pictures such as Tumbler, Utah, and Untitled (To A.G.), but the feeling is utterly different -- more ominous, more haunting, more terror-ridden, to use the artist's term. The effect is partly due to the dominance of somber color, but it also results from color accents, flashes of green, red, and orange that pierce the surface unexpectedly, like irrational yet real sensations whose sudden appearance signals our inability to control the world, our uncertainty in facing it. The deeply ambiguous handling of the central rectangle reinforces the picture's searching vision and recognition of doubt, for it reads equally as column and vessel, as figure and void, as an acknowledgement of the tension we experience as we give and take, groping for knowledge of our environment and ourselves. (5) Yet, as uncertain as it's search may be, the sheer beauty of Second Verse attests to the rewards it yields in moments of wonder and recognition. If painting became the boss here, Berthot served it well in allowing it to achieve full potential.
Jake Berthot, Meditative, 1984.
Ambiguity pervades all the paintings completed around the turn of the decade, including There, For Jack, Orange Painting, and Eye, Arch And The River. This ambiguity clearly relates to the concern with figure/ground equanimity embodied in the paintings of the later seventies -- and with the balanced objectivity of feeling expressed in those paintings -- and it just as clearly recalls as it's source the dialectical issues of the artist's first mature statements, the notched paintings in which idea is presented in dialogue with emotion. As I have tried to indicate, however, the paintings in question tilt more openly in the direction not only of feeling as opposed to intellect but of feeling more open to chance and the unknown, to the personal and the expressive; from arenas that were thought and felt to be within control -- the classical -- they look to arenas more restive and risky -- the baroque. Ambiguity, in other words, here possesses a broader scope and scale than before, and it enables the expression of a wider range of emotions. Each of these pictures is more willfully individualistic, more resistant to being clustered with pictures seemingly like it. There, for instance, anticipates and shares the concerns of Second Verse -- the single vertical rectangle, the ambiguity concerning column and vessel, the flashing accents of color -- but its mood is dreamy, more a reverie than a terrified vision. Scale and handling bring this about: the rectangle is small, fragile in comparison to its stately counterpart in Second Verse, its base less firm, barely hinted by a single tendril of paint, its presence Ariel-like; the surrounding space is generated throughout by delicate, feathery brushwork and is similarly evanescence, a color mist sweeping across our field of vision, the light behind about to dispel its enchanting but momentary effect.

For Jack, Orange Painting, and Eye, Arch And The River likewise assert their individual character within the limits of a shared pictorial structure, which in this case results from expanding the interior to window-like  proportions. The format is in outline reminiscent of the framing bars and central voids that characterize the notched paintings, but the centers here swarm with incident , each presenting a unique world trembling excitedly at the edge of chaos, as if inviting it. "The paintings done in Maine marked a return, a looping back -- like a film loop -- to Lovella's Thing and paintings like that. But things had changed in the loop; I'd changed. I created a kind of picture frame or window and then totally denied it, made it as ambiguous as I could. Maybe it was a psychological thing about the paintings being stolen, or maybe it had something to do with my life at the time, but there was a certain amount of perverse denial in the work." Whatever their inspiration, the significance of these pictures -- and I mean to include There and Second Verse with them -- is abundantly clear:  in releasing himself to his art, something which he became pointedly conscious of in Second Verse but was already nascent in There, Berthot discovered his voice to possess greater breadth and depth than he had heretofore imagined. It is as though he realized anew at this personally difficult time, and yet not as before, that his own past supported him fully and encouraged him to sing with a freedom not previously allowed, as though he gained access to levels of himself not previously explored, as though he learned again but for the first time the value and meaning of going to art.

The small 1980 painting called After Picasso is anomalous in this discussion, a quiet gesture that echoes There in its ephemeral spirit but is at odds with the strident and restive atmosphere of the pictures following it chronologically.  It was done just before the move to Maine but had left the studio and so survived the theft of paintings that then forced the artist to make what amounted to a fresh start. Berthot says he wanted to erase himself from the painting, a surprising remark in light of the work that subsequently emerged, but one that makes sense in front of the object itself. After Picasso is painted on wood and consists of an oval shape floating just above the center in a loosely brushed, largely transparent grisaille field. The oval is articulated by a handful of hatched gray and green strokes -- delicate but deliberate marks that recall the surfaces of High Cubism -- but it is essentially open, merging gently into its surrounding space. More physical is the wood frame, also loosely brushed and actually consisting of a frame within a frame, which was conceived from the outset as an extension of the painting proper, as if to provide body for the picture's otherwise ethereal nature. However modest, even self-effacing, After Picasso is nonetheless significant in Berthot's development:  the frame-within-a-frame format, though offered here as a sculptural statement, provides the compositional foundation for the paintings completed during the following year , while the oval figure assumes the role of subject in the work pursued between 1982 and 1985.
Jake Berthot, Untitled (Orange Painting), 1986, oil on canvas, 18 ¼ x 16 inches.
The paintings with ovals include Pond, Parrot, White Painting, and Green Oval (To Myron Stout). "I wanted to get away from the architectural situation involving figure/frame relationships and a dependency on the proportions of the rectangle. I decided to use an oval because it seemed to be the most neutral form I could think of. A circle would have more of a symbolic meaning, but I'm not interested in searching for form and devolving it through the act of painting. I've always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it -- kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is -- I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see."

All of these paintings were done after Berthot returned to New York and moved into a new studio, and their relatively calm bearing perhaps reflects a certain stability regained in his personal life. Certainly, the paintings radiate a meditative aura, which, despite the artist's intent, is an effect of the oval, head-like shapes featured n each of them. As much as we look at them, they seem to look back at us; if the pictures containing vertical rectangles occasionally suggest encounters with human figures, these appear as face-to-face confrontations. The resulting psychological effect is gripping:  we feel as if we are facing an other, but equally we feel we are facing ourselves; the empty spaces separating us from the paintings become charged, as if palpable, as if the voids that formerly drew away from us and opened beyond the picture surface here project in our direction and envelope us; the paintings' meditations become our own.

Our initial impression may be that these works have pulled back, that they indicate a retrenchment or a conservative instance of the artist looping into his own past, this time to the serene confidence of the paintings of the late seventies. The impression would be accurate, but only partly, for the pictures in question productively absorb as well the lessons painfully wrenched from the work done in Maine. Each is willful and emotive, but each is also firmly disciplined, and this accounts for their special character as a group. The invitation to chaos lurking in the Maine paintings is held in check; while sensed, it poses no immediate threat; it's dimensions confined to a more mature perspective that in turn translates into a heightened  realism. The paintings may have started with an oval, but in each case the oval appears to generate itself, like a natural phenomenon, the nucleus of a cell forming out of pigment -- or an entire world, for their scale suggests both microcosm and macrocosm. Natural, too, are the paintings' internal rhythms as established by color and handling. Intense reds and oranges, iridescent blues, and icy whites are incorporated into their highly physical surfaces, but their occurrence is less eruptive than in the Maine paintings and at the same time more spontaneous than in the paintings of the late seventies -- more ordered yet less ideated, a richer spectrum of feeling on both ends, a more encompassing vision of reality. With calm resolution, the paintings embrace experience with a new fullness; in doing so, their reach becomes more ambitious, approaching metaphysical concerns.

The past three or four years have repealed Berthot in full command of his powers, confident but not immune to doubt, able to tap positively the resources of his history and art's history without exploiting either, willing to grant autonomy to each pictorial statement as it evolves into a distinct and individual event. Not surprisingly, the recent paintings do not easily form groups as their predecessors did. A lozenge shape appears in each, but it serves at most as a starting point rather than a persistent and determining compositional device. Its size, scale, and placement vary from picture to picture; the shape in fact seems to encourage the flexibility with which it is manipulated, for it is less geometric than the vertical rectangle, less planar as a spatial referent, and less allusive than the oval, less suggestive and metaphorical. Facing the astonishing variety of its appearances in the recent work and the breadth of expressions it yields. I want to say it is inherently more pictorial, more accommodating of the paintings' desires. It first occurs as a fiery red vertical in A Turning To, A Turning From, where it floats on the left side of the painting -- floats in front of the painting would more accurately describe its perceptual effect -- in juxtaposition to a pale, brown and gray rectangle. As the title suggests, the picture makes a turning point for the artist. "After dealing with the ovals for a couple of years, I suddenly reintroduced a rectangle and a deep space you can get lost in -- a turning to, an embrace of that, but at the same time a turning from, a saying good-bye to a place that no longer existed for me. It was kind of a sad painting for me to make." The red lozenge, more clearly defined than in any of the recent works, wrenches away from its space, communicating the painting's message with abruptness and poignancy.

In A Turning a To, A Turning From, Berthot paused to reflect on his own past, finding it meaningful but distanced. In Bather he paused on art's past, on Cezanne’s Bather at The Museum of Modern Art in particular, with which it shares not only title and centered format but even specific dimensions. That it constitutes an homage to a masterpiece created exactly a century earlier is clear enough, and while the theme of acknowledgement in Berthot's development comes as no surprise, the specificity of the relationship here invites direct comparison. The silvery, translucent grays and earth tones, the plastic modeling of the lozenge shape, and the anxious concern with contour are all important in establishing the relationship, but grandness of scale finally defines it. Hatched, painterly marks usher Berthot's figure in from the upper right, a series of crepuscular horizontal incisions measure it's entrance from the left; the space on the lower right is released to a void-like openness, its counterpart on the left clouds toward us. The abstract space is warped, pulsing forth and retreating without reference to conventionally perceived reality; and looming within it is the lozenge figure, which seems to expand as we observe it, assuming monumental proportions -- the spirit of Cezanne's painting cast in the language of contemporary experience. In reflecting on art's past, Berthot found it not only to possess meaning but to pose a continuing challenge as well.

Bather and A Turning To, A Turning From initiated a run of paintings that extends into the present moment. Each picture is, as I have indicated, a distinct and individual event, and each follows the last like a crescendo that exceeds expectations we thought had been satisfied. The troweled, truculent whites at the top of Nick's Door giving way to the wispy notations at its base; the green splendor of Anawanda spreading eloquently before us like a magical substance; Mexican Garden's unhinged brushing that threatens to topple the painting into our space; Immigrant's diamond grid struggling to contain its polycrotic surface; the searing intensity of Yellow Painting, its blinding light prompting memories of Van Gogh; the three blood-red vertical strokes coating the surface of Hegel's Anvil like gestures of desperate affirmation. At Noontide's haiku calligraphy, the ultimate risk, all or nothing on a single shot; the frightening abyss of Webb's Rock; the exultant passion of Cherokee Lift -- each painting a singular event, each a monument to painterly ambition, each ineluctably present to us as a celebration of human experience and our own search for individuality. The paintings are dramatically physical, yet metaphysical too in their creation of whole and separate worlds -- and finally moral, as well, in the way they take responsibility for themselves, stating their terms, acknowledging them, and stretching them to unimagined but realistic limits. 
"I find working now, on the one hand, to be incredibly difficult, because I could easily parody them. But you have to keep moving, that seems crucial now -- not in terms of invention or ideas or systems, but in terms of the language of painting. At this point I'm working on a notion of derailment. The painting will start to move in one direction, and I'll derail it and take it in another direction; when it goes in that directional I'll derail it again, and so on, in order to get it to state its own leads, state what it's about. I try to break the code of the painting and let it take on its own life without any code. That's exciting.  I feel I'm painting with an energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old, except I have 25 years of experience. I've got enough of a history to parody myself, but I'm trying to use those 25 years of experience to keep the painting pushed right up against my face -- to discover something instead of accepting something I already know. Making paintings is kind of like being a snake, every once in a while you shed a skin; but the snake remains essentially the same, while the painter doesn't know what shape he is -- one time he's shaped like a dump truck and the next time he's shaped like a butterfly."

Jake Berthot's paintings spread before us, a landscape of feelings and ideas, of powerful assertions and acknowledged doubts. More felt, more felt, more felt, he repeats to us, and we can understand what he means as we address the work. In fact, the survey of paintings here assembled can be said to articulate what he has meant at any moment by his concern to make the paintings more felt. At any moment: For what he meant by it in 1970 is no more like what he meant by it in 1975 than it is like what he meant by it in 1980, or what he means by it now. The self he seeks to discover through feeling, the self at the heart of his investigation, is no more fixed than is his conception of painting's purpose or identity. Each must be consistently discovered and grasped anew in the present. In each moment, however, Berthot has been willing to put it on the line -- it being his own past ambition and achievement and the ambition and achievement of art's past as well. We may wish to call him a romantic, which in his way he is, searching for meaning in the past and present, convinced of its existence in both cases but reluctant to settle on its codification in either. In this we may also regard him as a conservative, wanting to sustain the best the past has to offer. But this he knows, as his recent pictures know, demands a radical approach, a constant plumbing to new depths of reality. This is the highest challenge, but we know he is committed to it for the long haul. Only as much is demanded of us in response.


1. Sharp, Willoughby, "Points of View: A Taped Conversation with Four Painters," Arts Magazine
45, December 1970, p. 41.

2. Wei, Lilly, Ed. "Talking Abstract: Jake Berthot," Art in America 75, July 1987, p. 95. (Hereafter cited as Wei, "Talking Abstract.")

3. Unless otherwise noted, all statements by the artist were made in conversation with the author in November 1987.

4. Wei, "Talking Abstract," p. 95.

5. The column/vessel ambiguity in Second Verse was first noted by Dore Ashton ("Jake Berthot's Order," Arts Magazine 56, March 1982, p. 99). Her many insights into Berthot's work and my debt to them are here acknowledged.

1 comment:

Federico Correa said...

Thank you for a fine article on Jack Berthot. I very much admire his work and his approach to the painting process. His work seemed temporal on first glance, but upon consideration I found it to be quietly spiritual. His search was never-ending.