I was once acquainted with a woman as beautiful as a sunrise and modest as a swan. Everybody adored her unforced grace and unwillingness to exploit her physical charms. She had the reassuring impersonality of a lovely summer’s day. All of this was so comforting that none of us realized we didn’t actually know her. Radiance masked a citadel whose interior contents were secret, even to their owner. Occasionally, there were hints of shoe-leather toughness, an impersonal brilliance as vast and distant as polar ice. When these hints came, they were a bigger surprise to her than to us because she was also an enigma to herself.
Maybe everybody has known somebody like that. If so, they will likely be reminded of her on viewing the art of Jennifer Bartlett in a retrospective survey at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art to March 23. At the age of 45, the artist has been anointed with the praise of prominent critics, canonized by commissions from influential collectors and placed among the elect in important museum collections.
Yet, despite several local exhibitions, our view of Bartlett has remained fragmentary until now. A retrospective organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center provides its usual superior catalogue, a good look at a number of Bartlett’s big suites of paintings, sculpture and drawings, and as much revelation as such a purposefully elusive art can provide.
Elusive and assertive.
This is preppie art. It slouches on stage casually in Bermuda shorts, a pullover with a little alligator and Topsiders. No socks. Some of the most dedicated preppies are not native New Englanders.
Jennifer Bartlett was born Jennifer Losch right here in Long Beach. She abandoned these climes as soon as she could shake the confetti from her high school cheerleader pompons. She went to Oakland’s Mills College, which is sometimes called the Vassar of the West, and then moved on to Yale graduate school, where she married medical student Edward Bartlett and consorted with such classmates as Richard Serra, Rackstraw Downs, Nancy Graves, Chuck Close and Jonathan Borofsky. As soon as possible, she set up a studio in a New York loft. She never considered returning to California, regarding it as an impossible place to make serious art. Somewhere along the way, she divorced Bartlett. These days, she is married to film actor Mathieu Carriere and lives half the year in Paris.
That thumbnail profile is significant to Bartlett’s art on a number of counts. The patently absurd crack about California suggests Barlett’s reputed inclination to wax tough and ironical. This does not show in her work, but a belief in the mystique of the New York art world does. Her nurturing in a fabled Eastern Establishment university along with a group of friends, all of whom became successful, suggests the kind of Old Boy (and Girl) network one associates with stockbrokers, literary Mafias and stories by Mary McCarthy.
It also suggests the absolutely radical shift in the profile of the artist since the days when he was a Pollockesque, hard-drinking, Existential dropout whose wife kept her own considerable light under a bushel and worked as a waitress rather than compromise their shared principles.
Every serious artist is fueled by a desire for recognition, but in the old days there reigned a quasi-mystical belief that success was inseparable from doing good work and was always involved in the-thing-itself. Today, cynical careerism saturates artland so thoroughly that it has become the subject of a hilarious “Doonesbury” comic series.
The most common result of this climate is mountains of weak, raw work being palmed off as great art. Bartlett is living proof that it does not have to be that way. Early on, she vowed that she would quit art if she did not have a show by age 26. Her ambition is proportioned like a Rubens, her sensibility is positioned somewhere between Paul Klee and Emily Dickinson. The combination has made her an artist for her times.
This is yuppie art and so it is quite naturally about pleasure. Initially, the art was so distant some people seriously thought it had been made by a computer. Bartlett, burning with energy and ambition but bereft of ideas, started painting pointillist grids on foot-square tiles of enameled metal, which were hung in serial checkerboards so these compulsive visual-grammar drills could be endlessly expanded into operatic proportions. (Significantly, she also wrote an autobiographical novel compiling all sorts of personal anecdotes and observations into a 1,000-page tome called “The History of the Universe.”)
Eventually, Bartlett’s tiles combined into a gallery-filling mosaic titled “Rhapsody,” which drew rave reviews. On view at La Jolla, it is perfectly clear it could have been made by any university student with the necessary doggedness. It produces all manner of design-class exercises, from Art-Deco black-and-white geometries to little pointillist landscapes that look like Victorian embroidered samplers. Occasionally one is reminded of Saul Steinberg, but this staggering demonstration never coalesces into his wry wit. “Rhapsody,” in fact, looks like the work of a perfectly ordinary grown-up child who, lacking imagination, is determined to win by doing everything just right and working harder than any kid in the class.
In an epoch that values conformity, knowledgeability and success, a work like the 1975-76 “Rhapsody” is bound to strike a chord but it has almost no emotional vectors other than a kind of purist sweetness. Had Bartlett failed to develop from here, she would have remained a kind of minimalist naif wedged somewhere between Sol Lewitt and Joel Schapiro.
However, in 1979, Bartlett bumbled into a personal epiphany that has become the most oft-repeated story of her career. She swapped her digs in New York with those of a French acquaintance who had a villa in Nice. Only Americans think a villa is something fancier than a house and Bartlett found that hers was on the wrong side of Nice’s tracks in the nastiest season of the year. To make the best of a bad bargain, Bartlett whiled away the time drawing the backyard that contained some ratty cypresses, a dry swimming pool and a kitsch statue of the Mannequin Pee. She drew this scene some 200 times from various angles and in many styles. When shown together, it was widely praised for its virtuosity and breadth of accomplishment. It’s the kind praise that makes one think that art writers never went to art school.
What Bartlett did in Nice is literally a weekend classroom assignment in many schools. Draw a scene in five different styles from academic to modern. Crit Tuesday. Bartlett did a grade-A version of it and carried it to its logical extreme, but it was student-style virtuosity. Her clever-debutante style is probably part of her appeal.
The real significance of the garden series lies in its revelation of an emotional core in Bartlett’s art. Ever since the Middle Ages, when the Virgin in the garden was a standard theme of manuscript illuminators, such places have stood for enwombed contemplation and idyllic privacy.
Bartlett’s choice of the theme identifies her as a poet of of the pleasures of aloneness. The whole persona of this art is a facade protecting a place of serene isolation. It comes across as a long rumination on that moment when the busy, gregarious city dweller finally enters the backyard of the little vacation house and feels himself complete and content for the first time since the last time he entered blissful hermitage.
It seems simple and anecdotal, like a New Yorker magazine short story where both the writing and the tale seem too limpid to have much point unless you realize this is not about a weekend, it’s about one of those personalities that is essentially and finally alone and likes it, somebody nobody gets to.
Occasionally, serenity is disturbed. In paintings derived from the Nice series, the little-boy statue becomes a combination of that eros, lover and child that fulfills life but wrecks privacy. Cypresses rustle uneasily and the derelict pool suddenly fills with water and streaks of blood.
This stumble into Freudian symbolism is soon corrected. In recent works, Bartlett paints parks and the still eddys of mountain streams in a kind of Neo-Impressionist manner that reminds one dimly of unpeopled Alex Katzs or David Hockneys. They incorporate images of little rowboats, docks and tiny houses that have been built into real objects scattered around the gallery, making the paintings part of the real environment and vice-versa.
A tartan-plaid sailboat moves bravely along while little glass motorboats headed for little glass boathouses. A capsized vessel in Yves Klein blue reminds us that the works are art and a wry send-up of minimalism.
Bartlett is not above charming us, sometimes to the point where we mutter, “On Golden Pond--The Art.” Even the melancholy of isolation is part of its appeal. What’s the sense of reverie without a little tear or a sigh for lost childhood? One cannot resist liking this stuff. It starts getting aggravating with its moves, strategies and tactics, but it is finally so soothingly knowledgeable and anxious to please that you kiss and make up.
A hard-working girl from Long Beach made it in the big city by dint of pluck and persistence. She took the limited talents of an art school’s star intimist and made them look important. This is art for the Post-Mod mood--smart, impressive and well-behaved. And to show that it is still human, it smiles wryly and confesses it sometimes gets in a bad mood.