New York

Jake Berthot

David McKee Gallery

One thing you can say for sure about Jake Berthot: he’s up on his contemporaries’ painting—Johns, Motherwell, Marden, Twombly, and so forth. The sources seem to be right out there in the open. Berthot was on solid ground in 1974 with paintings that established a clearly articulated space, with proportioned, sectioned canvases, and forthright yet subtle color. His paintings after that became dark and moody; color was sacrificed for surface density, for continual scraping and repainting. Line which had functioned as shape was reintroduced inside the frame as scratching and as a desire to return to the bare surface which had been lost in the layers of brown, olive and gray Berthot’s new paintings are no return to certainty; they look like a series of indecisions.

Most of them add a long, thin rectangle or two, symmetrically placed, on a field of scraped/painted color. The rectangles almost always are painted in a more “direct” manner than the backgrounds. The upper portions are generally a red or orange of fairly discernible character—hot and dry against the indeterminate haze of murky gray/green. The “major” work is identified by its murallike size. In each of its three panels, the rectangles have gravitated toward the edge so that they touch each other on the boundary between panels. Again, the color is gray/green except for hints of freely painted violet and blue around the top edge; the pigment tends to thin out all around the canvas and thus the center looks dense and impacted.

Two resemblances come to mind: the look of a large, muddy, late Monet with rectangles added, and an overblown Wolf Kahn. The obvious question raised by these correspondences is why Berthot’s work seems to resist rather than confront the problem of landscape (or, at least, why he cannot avoid the association even with those rectangles. I realize that the Hofmannesque additions should keep the enterprise abstract, but even Hofmann admitted that his art derived from the living form and the landscape). Berthot is so determined to keep the color low-key and the handling mock-careless that the surfaces never come alive. All the colors are sucked into blandness in order to muffle tonal value and preserve a continuous field, and the rectangles just don’t give the paintings that push-pull assertiveness.

To speak positively, I often find Berthot’s drawing on paper to be his most inventive work. Ironically, it is when Berthot tries to do “bad” drawing (if he’s right-handed, it looks as if he uses his left hand) that he looks most elegant—Twombly proved that ugly drawing is impossible. There is such a thing as classic scribble. Berthot, in one small drawing, makes a main line that drags around on a surface of scratches, wanders back to where it started and suddenly jerks up and around. The style is nice, aside from the fact that the line has described a coat hanger. Chalk up another Johns reference.

Jeff Perrone