New York

Jennifer Bartlett

The Clocktower

Jennifer Bartlett is known for her painted sequences that are made up of hundreds of square plates. The squares compose a few larger squares, or frames, which in turn compose the sequence as a whole. Each frame is seen simultaneously as distinct and as connected to the whole; distinct inasmuch as one image is rendered there in one style or technique and connected inasmuch as the plates are regular and the one image is repeated. This, at least, is the format of a 1976 work called Rhapsody.

If the title is any clue, Bartlett thinks of her composition in terms of music; and it is true that each frame is somewhat like a musical phrase, or even movement. However, such metaphors or analogues tend to confuse more than clarify. Suffice it to say that the work is at once a composition and a decomposition, a body and an anatomy, a figure.

The images in her work are representational, however reductive they may be. This seems to make Bartlett anxious; thus the grid of plates, the musical composition, the manifold styles, the so-given-as-to-be-abstract images. That is, the imagery as such is deemed suspect; and so it is abstracted, or subjected to more or less transparent operations that will qualify the work as modernist. The grid is the best means; it’s shorthand for objective, analytical, abstract.

Bartlett, it seems, is torn between the contemporary rage for expression and the older rage for order. This must be a very hard condition in which to work: to feel compelled, under the pressure of modernism, to denature the private and representational nature of her painting. It may also be the very condition for good work; and yet, as it is, she seems neither true to modernism nor her own (apparent) propensity.

Painters today seem less sure than ever about the historicist model of art history. Many see the breakdown as a license; 20th-century art becomes a warehouse of styles that will dress up any private production. Some exhibit the styles as new potential, others as clichés. Some are naively exuberant: others seem moribund.

Recently Bartlett was commissioned to do a series of paintings for a federal building in Atlanta. The nine works are made up of equal areas of stretched canvas and square plates and range from 2 by 2 feet to 18 by 18 feet. Swimmers for Atlanta is the rubric, though each work essays the theme in a different way. As her studies show, this is determined by an operation of set terms: each work is keyed to a season and an astrological sign as well as to a condition of light (color) and a state of water (snow, ice, fog, etc.). The swimmer motif and the ratio of canvas to plate remain constant, as does her code for the canvas as “happy calm” and the plates as “sad active.”

This is how the work is generated; which is fine: it provides a given, gets her painting. But she seems to invest more in the system than she gets out. Her terms, codes, or whatever are fairly banal (perhaps if I hadn’t seen them spelled out in the studies, I wouldn’t think so). It’s hard not to decode, and so dissolve, the work, or return it to the status of terms in a notebook.

The swimmer here seems less a repository of art value (the tradition of the bather as reformed in early modern art) than a motif of depletion, even a campy or pop-ish image of banality. And the operations to which it is subjected do not really clarify or complicate it. It is true that what is presented by the canvas is re-presented by the plates; but this is done in a way that neither the nature of the subject nor the nature of the two media warrants fully.

Swimmers for Atlanta, like The Swimmer of Robert Moskowitz, has it both ways: it reads simultaneously as painted field and as water (or ice, etc.); there is a duplicity here as to what is representational and what is abstract that allies the work to new image painting. Many painters today dismiss the representational/abstract dichotomy as a false dichotomy (which is true in one sense) or as a cliché and yet paint and talk of nothing else. They tend to work in ambiguous relation to both kinds of art and to mistake an ironic suspension for a renaissance of potentials.

Hal Foster