New York

Jake Berthot

OK Harris

Normally “derivative” is a pejorative word, but derivation is the substance of tradition. Jake Berthot’s art is related to the work of painters as distinct as Johns, Motherwell, and Twombly, but it is not merely eclectic. His paintings at O.K. Harris suggest other artists simply because of mutual concerns. When his compositions suggest Motherwell it is because Berthot is also interested in the subdivision of a loosely painted canvas by a simple linear form—in Scrupf (1972), for instance, by an inner rectangle sharing the top edge of the vertical painting with the concrete edge of the canvas, as in Motherwell’s The August Sun and Shadow (1972). Berthot’s muted tonality, his affection for claylike grays and “dead” greens, suggests the mute, zinclike type of Johns, while his flat but painterly numbness even resembles Johns’ encaustics. The works that evoke Twombly are those having impulsive, scribbled lines on a blackboard ground (one work from 1971 is called Slate).

But Berthot doesn’t paint “versions,” and his works are not “imitations,” not even in the literary sense. He seems to be after a kind of pure painting that is fresher for him than new. He works with several different formats that supply loose, integral armatures for a refined, unostentatious play of painterly activity from which color is not allowed to detract.

There is a very large, dark, horizontal painting with narrow rectangular protrusions at the sides and bottom, these protruding sections being defined on the unbroken surface by understated lines. The bottom line starts black at the left and changes at an almost imperceptible point into red: the dense massiveness of the dark canvas deliberately swamps this detail, as if preferring purely tonal effects to the easy excitements of color. Some of the painting’s surface seems matte black and some appears glossy, a purely visual differentiation not at all dependent upon color, although it does have mutedly tonal ramifications. There are also some reserved, articulate, beautiful small canvases and a few charming, if somewhat academic, drawings.

Joseph Masheck