New York

Jennifer Bartlett

No painter more warrants the post-minimalist accolade “eclectic” than Jennifer Bartlett. Her matter-of-fact grids (1-foot-square steel plates arranged mosaically, with silkscreened grids over each plate) were dolled up with enamel color, and reached everybody’s threshold level with Rhapsody, almost 1,000 square feet of these enameled plates upon which were painted a glossary of 20th-century styles. In Rhapsody, it seemed that Bartlett kept starting from square one. In her new “Swimmers” series, however, she proves that she’s on the square—committed to working out the problems of a post-Impressionist type of representation. And she juxtaposes her painted steel squares with canvases to get the contrast of fragmented with continuous image.

“Watering Spots” could be the subtitle of her latest show, all the paintings having intimations of the littoral or the lake. The painting style itself is consonant with post-Impressionism: water by Monet, shrubbery by Matisse, composition by Cézanne. The series works powerfully as an installation: there’s the sense of immersion in these bodies of water.

The painting itself is fairly consistent: for two subjects—At the Lake and Swimmers and Rafts—she has three views each, as if to practice the different vocabulary required for different climatic conditions. One, Swimmers and Rafts, Rain is a simple depiction of rain diagonally across the canvas and steel-plate surface, but I found the representation of rain as diagonal dashes oddly moving—and very direct.

The combination of canvases with the steel-plate mosaics isn’t entirely clear. Partly I think it’s Bartlett’s expansion of the trendy, sectional approach she helped to create. (Who invented it? Ellsworth Kelly? Painters whose canvases were so monumental they had to paint in sections?) Also, now that she has unified her painting style and each steel square isn’t a world unto itself, perhaps she’s making the transition onto the canvas where the separation of the painting surface isn’t necessary. In one painting, Horizon, she echoes the elliptical arrangement of the steel plates in its canvas twin, an edgy Doppelganger that makes one think of Chuck Close’s and Joan Semmel’s recent work, abstractions dissecting the representational works they accompany. For Bartlett, as for Close and Semmel, diplomatically yoking abstraction with figuration is not a way of getting the best of both worlds, but the only way of exploring the boundary of the two most troubled territories in painting. Is this conservative or radical? It seems pragmatic.

Carrie Rickey