I visited Jake Berthot in upstate New York at his home in the woods of the Catskill Mountains. After spending time in his studio, followed by vegetable soup for lunch, we walked outside towards my car. He paused on the steps to look at the trees and a rock wall beyond. It then occurred to me how Berthot, through body language and the tenor of his conversation, creates spaces for observation, allowing words to linger. The pauses are an equivalent of the felt, middle spaces and voids in his paintings.
Berthot studied at the New School and Pratt Institute. He also cites Milton Resnick as a major influence in his development as a painter. He has been exhibiting his work in New York since the 1960s, at the Feiner Gallery, O.K. Harris, and David McKee Gallery. He has had numerous exhibitions in Boston with the Neilsen Gallery. In New York, he is represented by Betty Cuningham Gallery, where his recent paintings were exhibited last month. He has also been the subject of museum exhibitions at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis, Dartmouth College, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
Berthot’s early paintings were abstractions on shaped canvases. In the 1980s he was known for pieces that included a distinctive oblong shape amidst a thick, painterly surface. In the 1990s, he made a group of saturated, densely-textured red abstractions. Since the late 1990s and his move from New York City to upstate, the landscape has become Berthot’s main subject. His recent exhibition included drawings and subtly modulated umber and sienna paintings of trees, skulls, and mountains, in which underlying grids are left visible.
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Jennifer Samet: Can you tell me about your childhood and how you became interested in painting?
Jake Berthot: I grew up with my grandparents on an eight-acre truck farm in Central Pennsylvania. The only object that hung on the wall was a drawing of a horse. I am lucky, because I have the drawing now.
It was framed in a double-sided frame. On the other side was a Victorian print of the Last Supper. That was what was visible most of the time. Every once in a while, it would be turned around, so that the horse drawing was showing. It hung above a commode. I would kneel on the commode and look at it.
The drawing was pure magic to me. It was drawn with only a few lines, but you felt the contours and volume of the horse. I couldn’t figure out how somebody could do this. How could someone make you feel a line that’s not there?
My grandfather tended to be totally oblivious to his surroundings. He would sit at the head of our long country table. If he turned his head slightly he could see the drawing. He would usually wolf down his food, but you sensed that at some point, he would look up, and see the horse drawing was out. He would see it and blow his stack. Then my grandmother would proceed to tell him what an asshole he was. And the next day the Last Supper would be out, much to my chagrin. It was only later that I realized her first boyfriend was an artist.
Even though we were very poor, my grandmother always made sure I had pencil and paper. She would instruct me to fill up the page of paper. I couldn’t just make a little drawing in the middle of the sheet. She would ask me to draw a face, and then she would say, “Now put a shadow on the face.” I would bring it back to her, and she would say, “No, that’s not a shadow; you put mud on his face!”
JS: You describe yourself as largely self-taught, although you attended the New School and Pratt. Tell me about your education.
JB: My formal education was very minimal. I went to a commercial art school in Pittsburgh. They taught you to be a worker: airbrush and lettering and hands-on work that probably now doesn’t exist.
There was one class I took with a man named Nesbitt. He taught a traditional French academic thumb-measured system of drawing in charcoal. Everything had to be measured: you kept your elbow straight and put a line at the top and a line at the bottom and fit the main axes of the figure accordingly. You determined how many heads made up the length of the figure. You put a tape on the floor where your feet would be, and set your drawing up on the easel. From a men’s store, you had to purchase a white shirt with French cuffs that came down to your knuckles.
Nesbitt really looked like an artist, with a big shock of hair. He would be at his desk nodding off. Suddenly, you’d hear “Whack!” He had hit a student’s knuckles with a long ruler he carried. He would tear the drawing down off the board, stomp all over it, and say, “You’re looking, but you’re not seeing! You should be a plumber.” He hated modern art and would rant and rave against Matisse and Picasso, but I did learn from him how to see the proportional relationships between things.
I realized I didn’t have the skills that were demanded to do lettering or fashion. I came to New York and went to a school to learn window display. I got a job in the Bronx and I really liked it. I was working with a couple of young people. We intimidated the head of the department because we came up with outrageous window display designs.
At that time, my first wife got a job at Pratt, which meant I could go to the evening school. Someone who really changed my life is a man by the name of Hank Raleigh. He had started a program there called Advanced Special Study. You didn’t matriculate, but you could study whatever you wanted.
Raleigh said to me, “A teacher didn’t show up for a figure drawing class. You should teach this class because it would be good experience for you.” He liked how I handled the class and gave me a job teaching in the fall. I liked telling people what to do, rather than them telling me what to do.
That is when I became a painter. I made a small flag painting at that time, 1961, and it means a lot to me, because my life was changed. Raleigh really supported me. I hadn’t had any intentions of being a professional painter, and exhibiting at that time was almost impossible.
JS: How did you get to know Milton Resnick? In what way was he important to you?
JB: I was studying with a really great painter who ended up dropping off the map. His name was Bob Hoagie and he was very influenced by Milton Resnick. Resnick’s sister had the Feiner Gallery, on 13th Street and 5th Avenue. I was still very young, in my 20s, but I had two or three shows there, and got some good reviews. I wasn’t going to make a living doing this, but I sold a few things. The future looked promising. Then Pop Art hit. I knew I didn’t want to do anything with Pop Art.
Resnick left and moved to New Mexico. I realized I hit a dead end. I thought by working with Resnick, and doing Resnick paintings, that I would find myself. But there was no room for yourself when you emulated Resnick.
I got involved with the Park Place Gallery, which was originally run by Paula Cooper. The painters were mostly from a California surfer and hot rod culture. This was a time when Minimalism was going on, but it wasn’t as cool as Minimalism. It was more like loft jazz and based on dynamic symmetry.
I turned away from very felt painting, made under the influence of Resnick, to something cool and measured. I began making work that involved elaborate, shaped stretchers. They were complicated to build, and I would spend weeks on them, and then paint the painting in about fifteen minutes. I started to wonder why I was going to the trouble.
I felt lost and stuck. I had gotten thrown out of a loft and was living in a tiny apartment on Spring Street and Sixth Avenue. I couldn’t figure out how to get back into painting that was about feeling, painting that wasn’t about concept or ideas. I was filling up graph paper notebooks, but it wasn’t related to my work.
One day I was at the Museum of Modern Art, looking at de Kooning’s “Woman I.”
Something clicked. I saw this bar that goes down the side of that painting. I realized that he wasn’t working towards a situation; he had created a situation to work from. This led me to painting “Lovella’s Thing”: a shaped canvas with bars that essentially framed a space, a space-place, and the complexity of shifting focal points.
That is when I started working with grids. I discovered that every rectangle in the world has this gestalt: vertical and horizontal axes and then tension points that come from those. Through geometry, if I worked and measured, these notches could shift our focal points all over the surface. Through that, a specific kind of void or space would be revealed. It was about a balance between the object and the opening. And it was a way to gradually achieve balance between my two influences: the systemic and the felt.
JS: Can you describe, in more detail, the gridding in your paintings? Do you start with the grid and then attach the subject matter to it, or do you start with an idea about subject?
JB: Yes, my intentions for the piece determine how I build and shape the grid. A painting cannot exist without presence or gaze. If I’m concerned with presence, I build a shape with a different intention than if I’m concerned with gaze. In each, I work with and combine three different grid systems: ratio, warped, and perspective. I also use and am aware of the tension Cézanne creates through the unseen, but felt, diagonal.
I have an idea of what I want to paint, but I begin every painting with the grid. I wouldn’t know how to make it any other way. It is like I’m carving the space out and it is totally systemic. This is how I start everything that I do, whether it’s a skull drawing, a tree, or a landscape. They start in a bare-bones way, and then become increasingly packed.
There are so many variations that are possible from the grid system. Slight shifts create different spatial possibilities, from all the points and notches bouncing all over the place. But I come out of a period where flatness, the two-dimensionality of painting was stronger.
I feel a real connection to the sculptor Christopher Wilmarth, because I think both he and I were on the same path: trying to humanize minimalism. I felt it wasn’t until he committed suicide that I realized this, and realized I had lost this connection. In the 1970s, there was a dialogue, an understanding of what people were doing. And there are still people who are really pissed off at me for changing course and painting a tree.
JS: Yes. You made abstract paintings for many years before you started landscape-based paintings. The shift was received as very dramatic, but did it feel dramatic to you?
JB: Yes. It was huge. I was a cowboy-boot-wearing New York painter. I’m not a New York painter anymore. I am living in nature as the subject. The way I felt earlier could be summarized by de Kooning’s comment, “I wouldn’t paint a tree if you gave me a million dollars.” And for a year after I moved upstate, I was still doing the paintings I had been doing in New York: abstract paintings.
In my early days in Soho, a businessman who visited the studio remarked of a painting, “That looks like the most beautiful landscape on the worst possible day to see it.” I had titled the piece, Pennsylvania Road Trip. It was abstract and I would have denied that it had anything to do with nature or the landscape. But it was inspired by this long bus trip I took to Pennsylvania. I was just blown away by nature as I looked out the bus window.
But living here, I realize that I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to disguise nature. I realized that these spaces kept coming up in my work and I had to go there. Young painters now know me as a representational painter. Many of my peers wonder what happened to the abstract painter. No matter what, I am still the same painter.
Even though my work now is landscape-based, it is more abstract than it was a few years ago. It is dealing with the space in the middle. At first I was painting the volume of the tree in space. Next, what I felt was that space itself has volume. And now, it is the light that has volume.
I have never seen woods as dark as the woods in the Catskills. They are in constant flux. Nature does not care. Nature doesn’t give a shit. Nature cares about itself only.
There is a phenomenological truth that exists in nature. Some days it is totally flat, other times and days, filled with endless voids and volume.
I never thought, because of my age, I would have enough time to shape, build and work with nature’s complexity. Now, I don’t want to depict nature; I want to paint nature’s phenomena. Who knew I could end up back in total abstraction? The painting is always the boss. I go where it says to go; it is endless. That’s the beauty of painting. That is its freedom. It all leads back to the horse.