Jennifer Bartlett Obituary | art

In 1987 the BBC aired a documentary entitled Painting with Light, in which six artists were filmed working with a computer graphics system called the Quantel Paintbox. One of the six was Jennifer Bartlett, who died of leukemia at the age of 81.

Bartlett has been the underdog on the show in a number of ways. All the other artists – Larry Rivers, David Hockney, Sidney Nolan, Richard Hamilton and Howard Hodgkin – were men. It is no coincidence that they remain household names in the modern art world, where the amazingly creative Bartlett is less well known today than she was 35 years ago. But she also stood out from the six as the hardest to pigeonhole, and her art was defined as being defiantly different from everyone else’s.

Typical of this was the work that had made her famous a decade earlier, a 150-foot mural called Rhapsody (1975-76), now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Size wasn’t his only oddity. While traveling on the city’s subway system in 1968, Bartlett’s attention was drawn to the network’s signage. “The signs looked like hard paper,” she recalls. “I wanted a unit that could go around corners on the wall and stack for shipping. If you have made a painting and want it to last longer, you can add panels. If you didn’t like the center, you could remove it.” With $500 borrowed from a friend, she ordered 100 square feet of enameled steel plates from P Feiner & Sons, a sign maker in New Jersey. Seven years later these became the basic unit of Rhapsody.

A detail of Jennifer Bartlett’s 47-meter-long artwork Rhapsody (1975-76), composed of 987 metal plates that have been individually painted, subdivided or left blank to create a larger, pixelated image. Photo: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

That wasn’t quite as eccentric as it sounds. Fifty years earlier, the Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy had had enamel-on-steel paintings made by a sign maker in Weimar and had ordered them by telephone. Pretty much every American artist of Bartlett’s generation experimented with industrial materials. What set Rhapsody’s 987 white plates apart from all of these was that they looked kind of domestic — “like a fridge,” as Bartlett put it.

The use of the plates was also unexpected. Arranged on the wall in the familiar modernist grid and further subdivided into quarter-inch squares screenprinted onto each plate, they seemed linked to early conceptual movements – systemic art, perhaps. Bartlett either painted each gridded mini-square with a dab of craft paint or left it blank, resulting in a pixelated image. (Since Bartlett is a woman, this process has inevitably been compared to embroidery or knitting.)

Surface Substitution on 36 Plates (1972) in the Tate Collection is typical of her work of the period. The resulting images can be either abstract or representational — “I think an abstract painting is actually more figurative than a figurative painting because it’s closer to what it represents,” Bartlett said — the latter coming from a repertoire of forms that do would remain a mainstay of her art for the rest of her career: a tree, the sea, a mountain, a house with a red roof and a white picket fence. Representative and abstract, intimate and monumental, systematized and impulsive, Rhapsody broke all the rules of the art of its time by embracing them all. When asked what Rhapsody is about, Bartlett cheerfully replied, “Everything.”

The work made her famous and – it sold for the then astronomical sum of $45,000 – wealthy. By 1985, Bartlett received monographic exhibitions that toured the United States: the first went from Brooklyn to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. She had already won a coveted spot at the 1977 Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and her work had been hung in the US Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale alongside those of Laurie Anderson and Christo. As with Rhapsody, the art Bartlett created in the 1980s remained unnaturally natural. Her series In the Garden from 1980-83 showed 200 different views of a small repertoire of motifs from the garden of her villa in Nice. This was repeated in the garden of her Fort Greene, Brooklyn studio in the early 2000s, with the hatched surface of the works being a sign of Bartlett’s painterly intent.

Another segment of Rhapsody, 1975-76, that Bartlett said was about
Another segment of Rhapsody, 1975-76, which Jennifer Bartlett said is about “everything”. Photo: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

All of this was a far cry from her childhood in Long Beach, California. The first of four children to Joanne (née Chaffee), a graphic artist turned homemaker, and Edward Losch, a businessman with an interest in construction, Jennifer had an early desire to flee to New York. “My mom wished I’d gotten a job at Hallmark Cards, painted part-time, got married happily, had kids, and lived in Long Beach,” she later told People magazine.

After a BA from Mills College in Oakland in 1963, freedom came in the form of an MFA from Yale. The two years that Bartlett studied alongside Richard Serra, Chuck Close and Michael Craig-Martin opened her eyes to modern art. So is the proximity to New York, 90 minutes by train from New Haven. She lived in the city until 1968; Her first exhibition took place in 1970 in the apartment of an artist friend. The system behind the works was based on avoiding certain colors. “I didn’t have a need for orange or purple at all,” Bartlett said, “but I did need green.”

How many early Coups de Success, Rhapsody came with his problems. In the minds of the public (and the art market), Bartlett was defined by their trademark white plates. Not committing to this cliché, she spent the years from the mid-’80s to the turn of the century making large-format figurative paintings, some of which—for example, Sea Wall (1985)—were paired in the gallery with sculptures of her own. None were ever like this successful like Rhapsody.

In 1996, Bartlett left her longtime gallery owner, Paula Cooper, and exhibited primarily outside of New York for the next two decades. In 2016, she returned to Cooper after already returning to her white plates. Until marred by the dementia of her final years, her energy remained undiminished: she turned to an amazing variety of mediums, from theatrical design to glassware to printmaking. In 2001, she watched the events of 9/11 from the rooftop of her Greenwich Village apartment. Her painting of the scene – Goodbye, Bill, now in the Yale University Art Gallery – is one of the few artistic depictions of the day’s horrors.

Bartlett married twice: first in 1964 to Edward Bartlett, a doctor; and second, in 1983, to German actor Mathieu Carrière. Both marriages ended in divorce. She is survived by a daughter from the second, Alice.

Jennifer Losch Bartlett, artist, born March 14, 1941; died on July 25, 2022

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