On ViewThe Pace Gallery
January 12 – February 26, 2011
Jennifer Bartlett’s work has a conceptual underpinning, less in terms of the presence of an idea than in the method employed to visualize the idea. What may entice the viewer is not a resounding or systematic philosophy in her work, but the manner in which she paints, draws, selects, builds, and designs sequences of modular forms in relation to a given architecture. From a conceptual point of view, her work depends more or less on a predetermined structure or intention, as in the early language-based wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. From a visual perspective, Bartlett’s formal and chromatic input may range from the all-consuming to the trivial, depending on the complexity of the work and how she manages to pull all the parts into place.
Painted on three sets of repetitive steel quadrants, “Recitative” (2009–10) is a distant cousin to a considerably earlier work, the well-known “Rhapsody” (1976). Both works relate to musical themes and have an extreme horizontal dimension. “Recitative” measures 158 feet, which is 5 feet longer than its predecessor shown 35 years earlier. Some might consider “Recitative” as a kind of revisit to a work that attracted much attention during the anti-formalist pluralism of the late ’70s. During the intervening years, Bartlett has produced a wealth of large-scale paintings, often combining both canvas and steel, in addition to a group of mise-en-scène installations related to secluded landscapes within suburbia. Bartlett has also produced a wide spectrum of large-scale multi-panel paintings, such as “Swimmers at Dawn”, “Noon and Dusk” (1979) at the Walker Art Center and “Shadow” (1985) at the Hirshhorn. In each case, the attention to color and light in these paintings projects a mood neither expressionist nor exactly color field. Whereas “Swimmers” focuses on the overwhelming sense of light in an outdoor pool, the four-panel “Shadow” does much the opposite by indulging in an ominous darkness creeping across cropped hedges. Both paintings have a tendency to swallow the visual field in dense patterns of light.
“Recitative” is mounted on three walls of the Pace Gallery space at 545 West 22nd, where at one time the Arnulf Rainer Museum was temporarily installed. It is interesting to think of these two artists in proximity to one another. They could not be more opposite in their painterly sensibilities: the deeply persecuted and existential Rainer, whose selective retrospective was held at Alte Pinakothek in Munich last summer, has traveled a much difference course. In Bartlett’s “Recitative”, there is a cool distance—a kind of formal inventory of American abstract painting of the past four decades—far removed from Rainer. The distance would be as great as that from Rothko to Kenneth Noland, which is why the former cannot be called a “color field” painter.
The experience of looking at “Recitative”is related more to the cool and distant Noland, despite the complexity of Bartlett’s color within their modular shapes and sequential relationships. Even the black on white topological gesture at the far right carries a definitively cool aspect. It looks conceptual, even though the idea is more embedded as a form of spatial ambiguity than in what it is as a concept from, shall we say, Mesopotamia or ancient Hittite culture. With Bartlett, the syntax of formulation is what lends a certain decorum to the work, which is what makes it interesting. One can see hints of attribution within the painting (or “installation,” as the case may be). In addition to the early wall drawings of LeWitt, there are references to the cross-hatchings of Jasper Johns, the early grids of Ellsworth Kelly, the swirls of Brice Marden, the dots of who—Anuszkiewicz? From the postmodernist point of view, these might be cited as appropriations, and therefore, legitimate vestiges of American pluralism. Yet there is a lingering question, which I first encountered while viewing a black-and-white wall painting by LeWitt at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in SoHo in the mid-’90s. The wavy lines reminded me of a Mackmurdo poster from the era of Art Nouveau. It occurred to me that LeWitt’s early conceptual rigor had managed to segue into a type of decorum, that is, a politeness and restraint, suggesting a new direction in his work.
Here I began to realize that no matter how conceptual a work of art may appear, once it becomes visualized in the formal sense of being placed in a living architectural space, it transforms into decorum. Is this negative? Americans may have thought so in the ’60s, but today the question appears differently as our take on history may have become somewhat more broad. I wonder, beneath the Eros revealed in the murals of Pompeii, how much conceptual thinking may have incited the process of these frescos, or vice versa? There is something within “Recitative” that raises a similar question and places it uniquely within the direction that painting is moving today.