Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett established her reputation with her 1975–76 work Rhapsody. The painting consists of a grid of 987 square panels offering a compendium of artistic genres and motifs—geometric structuralism, representation, abstraction, the monochromatic, hatch marks, brushstrokes, pencil lines, and on and on. The piece fit perfectly with the nascent postmodern, pre-“Pictures” moment, a time when young artists were beginning to appropriate freely from and play with myriad historical styles in art, B movies, and other image banks in culture. Rhapsody also set the terms for the rest of Bartlett’s work, as she has consistently, self-consciously utilized divergent aspects of a painterly repertoire to create something new. She has also returned to the grid, using it to anchor her more gestural abstractions—while playing on its structure almost sculpturally, making every canvas into a kind of three-dimensional container.

Providing that structural foundation seemed to be the grid’s role in her most recent exhibition. Bartlett undermined structural symmetry by rarely using rectangular or square canvases, preferring irregular polygons and often joining these shapes together in quirky diptychs and triptychs. Within these unpredictable borders, allover grids acted in concert with hundreds of dots of color, one per square, that loosely emulated the logic of Pointillism: applying innumerable patches of pigment to achieve maximum intensity of color. Bartlett inflated the scale of Seurat’s dabs to create circles of buoyant violets and darker purples, blues, and also muted tans and grays. Some were painted with black centers, like eyeballs, and elsewhere they looked like ripe oranges and cherries. Held with varying force between grid lines (often visible below the paint and sometimes implied by black dots placed where the corners would meet), these hundreds of circles piled up to form vaguely figural or narrative scenes like a figure standing on a balcony and the view below, or a view of two hands making a drawing.

The sense of simple narratives beneath complicated, pulsating surfaces was suggested mostly by Bartlett’s titles, but even in works as abstract as Balcony or Surgery (both 2000–2002), at least an impression of the activity is discernible either through ghostly forms or through color (Wedding, 2000–2002, is dominated by jubilant yellow tones). The accumulated round forms also functioned to “hide” whatever scenes were there, even seeming to hover above the paintings’ surfaces on occasion like Op-art patterns. In this regard, looking at the work became something of a game of focusing and searching. But there is more to Bartlett’s approach than just perceptual effects: You got the sense here that she wished to submerge legibility a little deeper, to push the paintings farther into the realm of association—like a composition instead of a picture—achieving greater formal plenitude along the way. In fact, right before the works went to the gallery, she changed some of the colors and added more layers of dots in all the paintings, considerably altering their compositions. To look at the paintings as they were photographed for the small catalogue—which was printed before the opening, and before she again put brush to canvas—is to see different paintings. Bartlett realized how far she could go with these canvases and didn’t hesitate—it was the right instinct.

Meghan Dailey