Jennifer Bartlett has been viewed as a painter, printmaker, and installation artist, but much of her best-known arrangements of 12 x 12” steel plates combine all three media. Bartlett is known for her use of multi-panel grids to create monumental installations. While some of her work uses simplistic images and very minimal techniques, other work uses the repetition of more painterly images to emphasize different perspectives and views of the same subject. Jennifer Bartlett’s successful use of multi-panel grids to create monumental two-dimensional work demonstrates that this approach not only provides flexibility in the installation her work, but also allows a variety of responses to her work, depending on how it is installed. Composing a painting on a series of panels allows the artist to re-work or remove areas of the painting, or to completely recompose the painting using all of the same components. The use of multiple panels as a painting surface enables the artist to show their subject from many different points of view, whether formal and in their entirety, or as an abstraction. Bartlett’s approach to her subjects also demonstrates that an artist can paint even the most simple or mundane subject and make it interesting simply by how they paint it or compose it. While my style of painting is often very different than Bartlett’s, my current work explores many of the same issues such as the use of grids to extend the image over multiple surfaces, consideration of the impact of an individual’s point of view on the subject, and painting mundane or even “ugly” subjects in a way that makes the viewer re-consider their significance. Bartlett has laid a groundwork for the successful use of these methods to portray her subject.
In an interview with Elizabeth Murray for BOMB Magazine, Bartlett recounts the early days of her career living in New York. “I married Ed Bartlett and got a loft in New York, $175 a month for 2,500 square feet. I commuted from New Haven to New York to the University of Connecticut where I taught, slept in my office, then back to New Haven.” In reference to her Greene Street studio in New York Bartlett says, “I was there for thirteen years. Jon Borofsky was across the street. Richard Serra and Nancy Graves were married. Joel was married to Amy Shapiro. Elizabeth Murray and Don Sunseri were married; Chuck and Leslie Close and Joe and Susan Zucker lived around the corner. With Chuck, Joe, and me, there were lots of dots on Greene and Prince streets.” In the midst of an artistically rich environment Bartlett sought to do things that the other artists around her weren’t doing. She felt that art had to be new. Two movements that she talks about taking place at that time were process art, where everything was on the floor, and “pushpin art”, where everything was on graph paper that was put on the wall with push pins. Bartlett’s steel plates were her solution to combining these two approaches to art to create her own niche.
Bartlett found the use of grid paper frustrating since she often ended up with coffee stains and cigarette ashes that she struggled to incorporate into her work. She noticed enameled steel signs that were bolted to the walls throughout the subways in New York and was inspired to have 12 x 12” steel plates coated with a baked white enamel surface manufactured for her. She would then silk screen a pale grid on the plates so she could work and re-work her art without damaging the surface. In addition to the versatility the steel plates offered as a work surface, Bartlett also found that they allowed her to develop a monumentality to her work that she otherwise wouldn’t have had the space to create in her studio. In History of the Universe, Bartlett says, “I needed paper that could be cleaned and reworked. I wanted a unit that could go around corners on the wall and stack easily for shipping. If you made a painting and wanted it to be longer, you could add plates. If you didn’t like the middle you could remove it, clean it, replace it or not.” Yet, for Bartlett at least, the plates encouraged experimentation within their strictly defined structure, and in an article appearing in New Image Painting, she explains how: “If a painting is comprised of units, it is possible to think of it as always being divisible or changeable. The gridded steel plates allow me to approach painting in a very methodical manner, where each thought can be seen as if it were a clause. The white spaces between the plates act as punctuation—they function like the space between words and sentences, dividing one unit from another.”
I find myself facing many of the same challenges that Bartlett faced, especially that of creating large, impactful works while working in a small studio. I have found that painting on a group of small panels allows the opportunity to wrap work around a wall, or walls, and fill a much larger space while at the same time remaining light weight, and much easier to store and move than something created on one large surface. In addition, I love being able to completely re-work a piece by moving some of the components around. The painting evolves into something completely new that you haven’t seen before. Allowing even the artist to re-discover the work after it’s been painted.
Bartlett’s biggest innovation and breakthrough in the art world came in 1976 at the Paul Cooper gallery in New York with “Rhapsody,” an ambitious work that consisted of 987 steel plates. The installation laid out a string of images: house, tree, mountain, ocean, a series of colors, and a series of brush strokes all configured into one enormous work of art that flowed from one focus to another. Some plates are simply covered with colored dots, or a line, while others are intricately painted with images of the subject being depicted. Bartlett sought a subject that could be both abstract and recognized by the general public. One of her favorites to use, both in this work and in many subsequent pieces, was a basic red house with a triangle roof and picket fence that would be a universal symbol identifiable to most Americans. She then added three hills, clouds, and a pond with a duck. She experimented with altering the image one item at a time. She also experimented with different techniques, including combinations of colored dots. She started out very methodical, but often set out to break the very rules she set up for herself. The images would shift from one grouping to another almost rhythmically. The use of the grid allowed Bartlett to work in her small New York studio to create an enormous work of art that she never even saw in it’s entirety until it was installed. “Rhapsody” includes everything from abstractions to painterly figurative work, and engages the viewer as both a two dimensional and three dimensional work. It tells a sort of narrative, and does so from multiple viewpoints at the same time.
In 1979 Bartlett stayed at a friend’s villa in Nice, France through the winter which inspired her to use the grid in yet another way. The home had a small garden with a murky, algae filled pool in the back. Bartlett used the garden to compose a huge series of work portraying the garden. Her work “In the Garden” shown at the Locks Gallery in 1983 consists of 270 drawings and paintings, including two murals. One is displayed conventionally, so the entire image is clearly depicted on the panels. This image is composed of five different views of the same little pool. Each view is taken from a different vantage point and at a different time of day, once again representing time in a linear motif. The second mural is identical to the first, but the panels are separated and randomly displayed in sections.
In 2003 Bartlett used a grid of over 200 panels to create “Atlantic Ocean” which creates a continuous image composed of many smaller ones that wraps around the corner to the adjacent wall. In History of the Universe Bartlett says, “I began thinking about pieces not having edges: how do you know when a painting ends? I thought, what if it doesn’t end?... I was thinking of painting that wouldn’t have edges, that would start and stop, change tenses and gears at will.” Each individual unit can be read as an abstraction. But it could equally depict its own reality as observed at the microscopic level. The expansive ocean view is also composed of multiple units on a larger scale, as if the artist created it from several photographs, each with a different focal point. The clouds sit on multiple horizons, their apparent unity a product of the viewer’s expectations over-riding what he or she actually sees. The precise, white grid of the wall, visible between the gridded squares of steel, demands attention. The grid itself becomes a screen through which we see the ocean. These are the very things I am discovering happen when I compose my work on a group of panels. The eye will automatically draw things together to view the whole image – whether it is in fact one whole image or not, as in Bartlett’s, “Atlantic Ocean;” however, working on multiple panels also prompts the viewer to consider smaller individual areas that they may not have noticed on one large canvas. One begins to contemplate not just the subject, but also the elements that compose it, and what happens if those elements were isolated? Would they still seem important without the support of the rest of the painting? What happens if those individual panels extend into an adjoining space? Would the viewer continue to follow it? I have experimented with this myself, and have seen the success that Jennifer Bartlett’s work has achieved doing these very things, and can say definitively, yes. It seems that regardless of her subject, or approach (figurative or abstract) she has done these things very successfully.
Due to health issues, Bartlett has spent long periods of time in the hospital and housebound. This has led to a more recent series called “Hospital.” Her approach to this series is different than much of her past work. Most are composed of a single image of an empty room or hallway, or sometimes a view from the hospital. Typically, her hospital paintings are on a single canvas and have a random line a little over an inch wide that goes across the painting in a similar manner to some of the jagged lines used in “Rhapsody.” In addition, Bartlett includes the word “hospital” in each of the paintings, sometimes obviously, and other times disguised in the scenery itself. The absence of figures in these images create a feeling of emptiness that I have also been representing in my recent paintings portraying vacant rooms. Although these spaces are definitely empty, they are painted in a way that also demonstrates an element of beauty, leaving the viewer to contemplate how they feel about the space – lonely isolation or beautifully solemn?
Bartlett’s more recent work continues to explore many of the same concepts such as space, time and approaching a subject from multiple view points at the same time. Many of these recent works are large diptychs that portray the same subject from two different perspectives with subjects often taken from her garden or a favorite vacation spot in Amagansett, New York. Often, Bartlett will create the images with just a slightly different point of view in order to create discord. While I have experimented in my recent work with juxtaposing images beside each other, I am intrigued by Bartlett’s use of images that are only slightly different than each other, and how it creates the feeling that something is just slightly “off” as opposed to making the viewer work to figure out the connection between two very different images that represent a slight shift in perspective.
I find myself contemplating some of the same issues that Bartlett sought to resolve. While my style of painting is not necessarily the same, I seek to find a way to stay true to myself, and the things that I feel inspired to paint, but to remain relevant in the world of contemporary art. One of the approaches I have recently taken was to use multiple smaller canvases to give the sense of a window or screen that the viewer is looking through. The scenes may be a beautiful garden scene juxtaposed to a dark empty room. The subjects portrayed are images that are actually in very close proximity to each other, but each has a very different atmospheric feel to it. My initial intent was to allow the viewer to contemplate the relationship of the two images and consider the potential inaccuracy of a first impression. Upon completion of the two images though, I discovered that some very interesting things started to take place when I shuffled the individual panels and opened up negative spaces between the juxtaposed images. Much like Bartlett’s work, it began to take on a bit of a vague narrative as the images broke down and transitioned into something else altogether. My subjects vary, but typically include the use of space, sometimes a beautiful garden, sometimes less traditional things like a dumpster in an alleyway or a rundown bridge. Bartlett’s work demonstrates that one can engage a viewer regardless of the subject.
I believe that Bartlett’s successful use of multi-panel grids to create monumental two-dimensional work demonstrates that this approach not only provides flexibility in the installation of works created this way, but also allows a variety of responses to her work, depending on how it is installed. Her use of multiple panels for her painting surface enables her to show her subject from many different points of view, whether formal and in their entirety, or as abstraction. Her composition and approach to her subjects demonstrates that an artist can in fact take a subject that seems insignificant or uninviting and make the viewer reconsider it, and maybe even like it.