Before Jake Berthot became a painter, he was ridiculed by high school peers for an unorthodox answer he once gave in class. Berthot’s teacher rescued him by saying that the response he’d given made its own kind of sense because the young man was a poet.
That is one of the many instructive anecdotes Berthot shared with Ed Breslin in 2014, in the last few months of his life, recorded in Jake Berthot & The Primacy of Art (Parkside Books, 2016), in which Breslin and Berthot pass the bulk of their time together dissecting books by poets and writers.
Not coincidentally, I was reminded of lyrical poetry — its introspective urgency and quiet resonance — as I took in Jake Berthot: In Color at Betty Cuningham Gallery. Dominated by mid-career work, the exhibition’s outstanding range of paintings show how Berthot balanced formal abstraction and cold geometrics with reverie-inducing, liquefied coloration and dappled, earth-toned surfaces. The current New York show will be followed up later this year with a special exhibition of Jake Berthot at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., showcasing work that the artist bequeathed to that museum.
Of the current show’s 15 abstract paintings, 10 of them are oil-on-linen works made around the early 1990s. Each features a prominent, hovering oval. In some, it is painted in crenellations that hint at a human face; in others the oval is dissolving into a contiguous field of complementary colors; in still others it takes on a metallic sheen that imbues it with a sculpted, totemic authority.
A clue to the meanings of these stealthy, meditative works might lie in this recurring oval. That object — and the suspended quadrilaterals featured in earlier paintings — function like the famous “jar” in “Ancedote of the Jar,” (1919) by Wallace Stevens, one of Berthot’s most cherished poets.
In Stevens’ poem, the speaker is an artificer who handles words in the same way an abstract painter handles color and form. The speaker places a jar into a rural landscape where it imposes a fortuitous order on arbitrary nature. But that order exists within the poem, not anywhere outside it. As any deeply realized abstract painting is ultimately about itself, “Ancedote of the Jar” is a poem about poetry; its meaning develops as its internally directed language manifests a harmonious interface between the manmade (the jar) and the undomesticated ( “the slovenly wilderness”) :
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
The bizarre positioning of this jar parallels how the oval operates in the Berthot paintings. Just as Stevens’ jar interrupts nature, Berthot’s recurring oval first focuses attention on itself before yielding to the rest of the picture — the earth-toned color fields and scraped and layered textures of paint suggestive of the unruliness of nature; still, our eyes return to the oval just as the reader’s attention is drawn back to Stevens’ jar.
The way Berthot integrates such unassuming geometric forms into a miasmic, monochromatic or polychromatic picture plane lends a special charge to each work. In “Untitled (Carl’s Red)” (1988) a gold and brown oval gleams like a weather-beaten gemstone encrusted in magmatic red earth. That dominant red is scorched, so to speak, with smudging that resembles ashen residue. Nature, solid as a flecked capsule of gold, is also serrated, metamorphic and apocalyptic.
In “Sometimes It’s All I Want” (1995) Berthot’s red oval erupts, bleeding downward in ribbon-like patterns, as if the form had been ruptured or punctured while couched in its life-affirming bed of foliate greens.
Still other paintings from the early 1990s harness the austerity of Berthot’s 1960s strict abstraction, bringing it to bear on more fluid, untamed elements. “Hard-line Yellow (Echo)” (1991) contains two centers of gravity — a red oval and a tilted yellow rectangle embedded into a bluish ground that resembles stippled and mottled limestone.
In “Three Triangles (Red, Yellow, Orange)” (1991), crisply colored geometric shapes contravene against a meditative organic yellow-green background, which is itself an homage to the visceral, all-over paintings by Milton Resnick, one of Berthot’s acknowledged influences.
Like all of Berthot’s work, these two paintings reconcile the ostensibly incompatible precipitateness of Abstract Expressionism with the architectonics of Hard-Edge Abstraction.
We could call these works action paintings for prolonged meditation. For Berthot, like the poet Wallace Stevens, planes of aesthetic knowledge — such as origination, composition, cohesion, rumination — should be art’s primary subjects, with the artwork serving as experience. And though these aesthetic dimensions of knowledge are distinct, in Berthot’s work they often overlap.
For instance, in “105 (Studio)” (1990), the oval — painted yellow and overlaid with black grids and triangles — dominates the center. It is a catalyst and nucleus, exerting control over the radiating, crisscrossing black curves and lines surrounding it.
The resultant patterns orbiting the oval are tinged with framed patches of enlivening color — aqueous blues, flourishes of white and fleshly pink. Each painting is distinctive, yet each one ultimately sends you back to its neighbor to affirm the disciplined continuity within the variety. The pictures are consistently tranquilizing, bracing, clarifying and inebriating.
In the gallery’s lower level, the exhibition ends with five mostly monochromatic, large-scale paintings from Berthot’s breakthrough earlier periods. These five works constitute a surprising, extended encore to an already exciting show.
The clinical pale green of “Bone” (1973) and the rich, earthy umber of the wall-sized “Nympha Red” (1969) unfold with a stern, serene majesty. Their canvases have notched corners and edges, which exert a geometric pressure on the palpating color and variable tonalities. The notches, in the words of the painter, were created to shift viewer’s attention so that “there would be more than one focal point, more than one single corner-to-corner” relationship than the kind “you have in a conventional rectangle.” Mark Rothko might have envied the degree to which such a simple innovation deepens the emotive vocabulary in Berthot’s meditative color field work.
On my way out, Betty Cuninhgam informed me that Berthot kept a quote by Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson on his studio walls that read, “We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, or spirit, or poetry—a narrow belt.”
That biographical detail reinforces the prevailing critical assessment that nature was Berthot’s real muse, just as it was for Emerson, a fact borne out by Berthot’s break with strict abstraction as he took up landscapes and nature studies in his final drawings and paintings.
But that fidelity to nature is only half the story, for the paintings in this exhibition also conform to Wallace Stevens’s neo-Modernist credo, laid out in the poem “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” (1942) that the work of art “must be abstract,” “must change” and “must give pleasure.”
In this vein, Berthot’s paintings are confident diagrams that map shifting relationships between our seemingly limitless human capacity for reinvention and the finite properties of the natural world. His clarity in execution and purpose serve that mysterious balance so well that they make palatable Stevens’ notion that “Music falls on the silence like a sense/A passion that we feel, not understand.”
Jake Berthot: In Color continues at the Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 23.