Jennifer Bartlett, whose experiments in subjecting painting to prescribed systems of rules had earned her a devoted following, died on July 25 at the age of 81 in Amagansett, New York. A representative from the Paula Cooper Gallery, which offered Bartlett some of her earliest exhibitions, confirmed the death.
Bartlett’s paintings are quite unlike almost any other created by artists of her generation and for this reason they have always made her a special artist in the eyes of many. She found unique ways to adapt abstraction to an age of minimalism without fully immersing herself in conceptual art. At the same time, she also managed the tricky balancing act of working semi-abstractly without abandoning figuration entirely.
Their subjects were very different. She created abstractions arranged in vast, epic grids that span huge walls, as well as more painterly images that are much smaller. She painted everyday-looking images of hospital hallways and dazzling landscapes composed of rasterized dabs of color. She even produced one of the few 9/11 images that explicitly depicts the events of the day.
“One of the best-known painters of her generation, Bartlett seamlessly combined the refined aesthetic of minimalism with expressive and emotive painting, leaving behind a vast and diverse oeuvre,” her two New York representatives, Paula Cooper Gallery and Marianne Boesky Gallery, said in a joint statement .
Many critics have considered Bartlett’s breakthrough rhapsody (1975–76), a gridded arrangement of paintings that spans more than 150 feet of space when fully installed. Some images combine into simple natural elements like a mountain or an ocean, others conjure up pretty juxtapositions between intricate lines. Taken as a whole, the piece represents “everything,” as Bartlett once said.
The work is emblematic of Bartlett’s unusual painterly process. She eschewed canvas for baked steel sheets, all 12 inches square, and oil paint for enamels, which is more commonly associated with hobbies than fine art. The pieces were produced individually at Bartlett’s studios in Long Island and Manhattan, and she would decide whether she liked them or not within a day of making them. Although her imagery often seems mundane, she would spend hours in libraries researching the nature she depicted.
Almost immediately after his exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, rhapsody was perceived as a major work. New York Times Critic John Russell called the piece “the most ambitious single work of new art I have encountered since living in New York”.
When it was exhibited in 1976, Sidney Singer, a Westchester collector who had not yet built up a large collection, bought the work whole for $45,000, a sum that 1985 brought in New Yorker Profile described as “astronomical” by Bartlett. (She didn’t want the plant to be broken up and “never really thought it could be sold intact.”)
Singer later sold the painting and it was purchased in the ’90s for more than $1 million to Edward R. Broida, a real estate developer who later turned to collecting art. She kept a portion of this relatively large sum, which came in at a time when she had no formal gallery representation. Before his death in 2006, Broida gave almost 200 works, including Rhapsody, to the New York Museum of Modern Art, which gave him a place of honor in an airy atrium when the collection was re-hung in 2019.
Jennifer Bartlett was born in Long Beach, California in 1941 to a construction company owner and a mother to a fashion illustrator. Her parents had a specific vision for her: “I think my mother would have liked it if I got a job at Hallmark Cards, painted on the side, got married happily, had kids, and lived in Long Beach,” she says persons. But Bartlett’s goal was to move far away, to New York, and become an artist there.
After effectively nurturing her own interest in painting and depicting Cinderella hundreds of times as a child, she studied art at Mills College in Oakland as an undergraduate. She then went to Yale University for an MFA and met medical student Edward Bartlett, whom she married. Their marriage eventually fell apart as Jennifer tried to break into the New York scene while Edward focused on his career in Connecticut.
In Manhattan, Bartlett maintained a studio in SoHo and befriended artists such as Elizabeth Murray, Jonathan Borofsky and Barry LeVa. In 1970 she had her New York debut in the apartment of the then well-known artist Alan Saret. She exhibited some of her early work in which certain colors were specifically avoided—”I didn’t feel any need for orange or violence at all, but I needed green,” she once told Calvin Tomkins—and combined and recombined those hues with systems of her own invention.
“What she did sound like conceptual art: she used mathematical systems to determine the placement of her dots,” wrote Tomkins. “But the results — all these bright, astringently colored dots bouncing around and forming into clusters on the grid — never looked conceptual.”
Bartlett himself put it even more bluntly in a 2013 interview with the New York Times: “The grid is really not aesthetic. It’s an organizational method. I like organizing things. Anything.”
Comparisons between Bartlett’s 1970s art and other art forms are common. The critic Hal Foster has pointed out similarities between these paintings and the music; others have seen parallels between Bartlett’s writings – she wrote a 1985 memoir with the title The history of the universe– and her pictures. But Bartlett himself shrugged off each of those comparisons.
In the 1970s and 1980s Bartlett achieved a fame then rare for female painters in the United States, with the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 1985 she had a retrospective which began at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and traveled across the country. Paula Cooper, one of New York’s finest dealers, gave Bartlett numerous shows, as did Philadelphia’s Locks Gallery, which began in the ’90s.
Her work was increasingly concerned with nature. Her 1980-83 series In the Garden was the result of an attempt to depict a garden in a villa in Nice, France, some 200 times, each rendering from a different perspective. She also began working on large commissions, including Pacific Ocean (1984), a 30-foot painting of waves crashing against a shore, painted for AT&T and executed in a photorealistic style that sometimes makes it appear like an image captured on camera.
The ocean and beaches became recurring themes in her work, most notably reappearing in a 2007 series Amagansett, which features views of this Long Island city overlaid with grids that appear to wobble.
The passage of time was another interest often evident in Bartlett’s art. Her 1991-92 series AIR: 24 Hours is a cycle of images that attempts to trace a day in and around Bartlett’s Manhattan studio. Dancers meander through the street at 5am; at 11 a.m. a box is unpacked; Koi fish spinning under lily pads at 5:00pm.
Along the way, she didn’t deviate from the formula that made her famous, and featured a 158-foot piece similar rhapsody at Pace Gallery in 2011. Titled recitativeit was praised by Jeff Frederick as “a deeper meditation on the digital age than any number of so-called digital works of art”. art in america. A retrospective of similar work appeared two years later at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the Parrish Art Museum.
Despite all the haughty concepts art historians have attached to Bartlett’s paintings, she always described her process as somewhat intuitive.
“I’ve spent 30 years convincing people and myself that I’m smart, that I’m a good painter, that I’m this or that,” she told painter Elizabeth Murray during an interview BOMB Interview in 2005. “It’s not going to happen. The only person it should happen to is me. That’s what I was supposed to do.”