New York

Jake Berthot

David McKee Gallery

Jake Berthot began exhibiting in 1970, at a time when Minimalist abstraction claimed to have purged the murky metaphysics and personal signs associated with Abstract Expressionism. In place of Abstract Expressionism’s vulnerable heroism (or heroic vulnerability), Minimalism codified asceticism and self-abnegation. Although Berthot was an abstract painter, his relationship to Minimalism and its utopian isolationist stance was tenuous. While his work from the late ’60s—the notched paintings—used a framing device to empty space out, their surfaces and hints of light evoked action painting and the subdued presences of Mark Rothko. Berthot’s connection to Rothko is what Goethe called “an elective affinity.” Both are Modernists who believe that paint is a material capable of being endowed with meaning. Consequently, instead of reifying Minimalism’s encoded paradigms, Berthot has tried to discover the essences of painting. Over the last two decades, the underlying thrust of his development has been focused on discovering and defining these essences, or irreducible elements, that can arise out of a prolonged and highly mediated confrontation with the act of painting. Rather than seek an independent stylistic breakthrough, however, Berthot has absorbed the lessons of Cézanne’s struggle with these issues. The pictures that he paints refine and pay homage to Cézanne, though they are clearly works that reflect the tragic events of the 20th century.

The ten paintings in this recent exhibition ranged in size from just over a foot high to slightly larger than human scale. Present in all of the compositions is a lozenge shape—a sign of the artist’s will to wrest something from painting’s inert matter. The lozenge, which is a descendant of Berthot’s vertical bars of the ’70s and ovals of the early ’80s, is a way of preventing the painting from becoming simply a highly inflected, empty field, which can be read as a sign of Modernism’s collapse in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Although the lozenge appears in all the paintings, thus connecting the recent work to the artist’s earlier accomplishments, this exhibition represented a breakthrough. Whereas in the earlier paintings Berthot employed a restricted palette and flickering gestural marks to evoke a dialogue of hand and eye, the recent paintings are less restrained and less balanced.

In Hegel’s Anvil, 1986–87, a translucent whitish lozenge seems to be floating up from the gray-brushed ground. The reddish ground shows through the lozenge, as it if were a phantom, a dissolved spectral presence. Elsewhere, the ground is scumbled, marked, and accented with blues and blacks. To the left of the lozenge, Berthot has placed three bright red vertical smears; the give-and-take between the lozenge (a form teased into being) and the quick slaps of paint is like a seesaw. Both elements assert their identity by using the weight of the other.

Instead of resolving the standoff between figure and ground, as he did in his earlier paintings, Berthot leaves it undefined in each work. In Webb’s Rock, 1987, a dark violet lozenge is imbedded in the brownish ground, while a rough rectangular form consisting of red and yellow strokes floats blithely beside it. The lozenge is a sign of inwardness and the inability to name anything with certainty, while the strokes are a sign of unselfconscious expressiveness.

These recent paintings are a marriage of various languages and signs immersed in and emerging from a humid, glistening matter (oil paint as primal morass). Here, Berthot has overcome his own tendency toward refinement. The paintings are simultaneously sensual and brutish, with surfaces that seem raw and unfinished, and in which various kinds of namelessness are allowed to emerge and comment on each other.

John Yau