Jennifer Bartlett, a New York artist whose conceptual paintings, executed on square, white-enamelled steel plates (inspired by the city’s subways) evolved into “Rhapsody,” a historic extravaganza of paintings over 50 feet long, died on July 25. around her home in Amagansett, NY She was 81.
Her death was announced jointly by her representatives in New York, the Paula Cooper Gallery and the Marianne Boesky Gallery.
Her daughter, Alice Carrière, said that although Ms Bartlett struggled with dementia, the cause of death was acute myeloid leukemia, who was diagnosed in early July.
Mrs. Bartlett was an unrepentant misfit who started out as a fringe member of the post-minimalist generation, Conceptual Art Division, devising mathematical or geometric systems that she just needs to execute, without further aesthetic decisions. She characterized this as a “What if?” approach.
With ‘Rhapsody’, a major turning point in American art of the late 20th century, Mrs. Bartlett integrated the cerebral style of Conceptualism with her preferred medium, painting – often to the chagrin of artists on both sides of the painting/non- painting aisle . She also broke the wall that separated abstraction and representation, as did painters like Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, Susan Rothenberg and Joe Zucker. But with “Rhapsody” the break was epic, noisy and indulgent.
The work was first exhibited in 1976 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in SoHo, where the 987 plates took up all available wall space. Later, to the surprise of many, it appeared custom-made for the vast atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, whose collection it entered in 2005, a gift from the architect and collector Edward R. Broida.
English critic John Russell reviewed “Rhapsody” in DailyExpertNews, calling it “the most ambitious new work of art that has come my way since I moved to New York.” It summarized aspects of pop, minimalism, and conceptual and process art, while also reopening art to imagery, narrative, repeating patterns, appropriation, and stark juxtapositions that continue to inform painting.
The images span numerous styles, from photo-realistic to naive, with several modernist ones in between. It explores line, shape, and color as ends in their own right, while also laying out the simple themes that would preoccupy Ms Bartlett for the rest of her life: tree, mountain, house, and ocean.
Each steel plate in “Rhapsody” was printed with a grid of quarter-inch squares, to which she added dots according to the system she set up, sometimes with results that appeared to be computer generated.
She characterized the work as a “conversation” – “in the sense that you start explaining one thing and then wander off to another topic to explain by analogy and then come back again.” But it’s a tumultuous one, full of interruptions and arguments and, it seems, talking to everyone at once.
“Rhapsody” made Mrs. Bartlett a star, although it was not universally loved. Indeed, she had her doubts, especially since she didn’t see it complete until it was installed on Paula Cooper. She was concerned, she told writer Calvin Tomkins for a 1985 profile in The New Yorker, that the work might have been the worst idea she’d ever had. The title “Rhapsody,” suggested by a friend, “was so awful I liked it,” she said.
“The word implied something bombastic and overly ambitious, which seemed accurate enough,” Mr Tomkins quoted her as saying.
She liked to tell, as she did in a 2011 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, how a prominent New York curator had said of her dotted surfaces, “That’s not painting, that’s knitting.” (The words echoed Truman Capote’s dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s “spontaneous” prose — “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”)
In the New York of the 1970s and 1980s, Mrs. Bartlett was one of the first artists of her generation to make a living from her work, which she did generously and sometimes not – budget was not part of her vocabulary – while she often friends and relatives in need. She was also one of the first to work directly with out-of-town dealers rather than through her representatives in New York.
As New York’s attention faded in the 1990s, she developed an extensive network of galleries in other cities, hosting numerous shows of new work. At Locks Gallery in Philadelphia alone, she had more than 20 solo exhibitions from 1994 to 2021, mostly accompanied by catalogs.
Mrs. Bartlett took a 20-year hiatus from performing with Paula Cooper from 1996; during that period she rarely exhibited in New York and when she did she usually hopped from gallery to gallery. Her work seemed more popular—and marketable—outside the New York art world. In 2016, Mrs. Bartlett’s performance with Mrs. Cooper, who joined forces with Ms. boesky.
Mrs. Bartlett was a stylishly dressed, quirky, extraordinarily prolific artist. Despite appearing to spend a lot of time on a couch with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, she said she would go crazy if she couldn’t work. And the work she did: painting, printing and drawing, especially in pastels, and designing furniture, glassware and jewelry, with limited forays into set and costume design.
With all that, she found time to read voraciously; give long, entertaining interviews; write an autobiographical novel, “A History of the Universe”; and play a major role in the redesign and furnishing of three substantial New York City commuter residences: two in lower Manhattan – a large loft on Lafayette Street and a cast-concrete industrial building on Charles Street (to which she has an intricate garden added) designed with Madison Cox and a pool on the top floor) — and one in Brooklyn, a former union hall in Fort Greene, whose ambitious garden of specimen trees featured large rocks landed on a flatbed.
During her marriage to the German actor Mathieu Carrière, from 1983 to 1993, she lived for half a year in a large apartment in Paris – almost entirely furnished in modernist designs by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto – in a building where “Last Tango in Paris” was filmed, because she rarely told anyone who was visiting.
Mrs. Bartlett was as systematic in her life as she was in her art. Arriving in New York in the late 1960s, she evaded bohemianism, instead wearing pearls, sweater sets and tartan wool poodle skirts, whose plaids would often appear in paintings as lifelike grids. For a long period, starting in the late 1970s, she wore only Zoran’s minimalist fashions and later Ronaldus Shamask’s. Almost without variation, she wore her hair short or cut with bangs.
She liked lists; her novel included several. At the beginning of her career, she made lists of art ideas and marked those she thought other artists “owned.” And in her somewhat brassy, ironic monotone, she often spoke lists.
At the beginning of a 1985 interview, Mrs. Bartlett’s friend and fellow painter Elizabeth Murray asked her what had been on her mind when they met in 1962 as students at Mills College in Oakland, California. She replied, “Being an artist, Ed Bartlett, Bach cello suites, Cézanne, graduation, going to New York, Albert Camus, James Joyce.”
She was born Jennifer Ann Losch on March 14, 1941, in Long Beach, California, to Edward and Joanne (Chaffee) Losch. Her father was an entrepreneur whose main activity was a pipeline construction company; her mother had attended the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and worked as a fashion illustrator until she had children.
Jennifer, the oldest of four, was precocious. She drew constantly, starting in childhood; loved the ocean and swam in it regularly (she also drew large pictures of sea creatures); found inspiration in her mother’s single art book, on French Post-Impressionism; and was excited about a Van Gogh exhibition she saw in Los Angeles. She graduated from high school and was determined to become a painter.
After graduating from Mills in 1964, Mrs. Bartlett married Edward Bartlett, a Stanford graduate, and the two attended Yale for graduate school, he in medicine and she in art. (They divorced in 1972.) In Yale’s art department, today’s students, recent graduates, and their friends included some of the most ambitious and competitive artists of her generation: Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis, and Nancy dig. After moving to Greene Street in SoHo in the late 1960s, she befriended artists Joe Zucker, Jonathan Borofsky, John Torreano, Joe Brainard and Alan Saret, who hosted her first solo show in New York at his Spring Street loft.
When she arrived in New York, Mrs. Bartlett, inspired by the art of the leading conceptualist Sol LeWitt, developed systems on graph paper, which she usually damaged or worn. One day it dawned on her that New York City’s subway signs “have endured a lot of punishment,” she said in her archive interview. They suggested, she said, “a hard grid paper that was impenetrable to me.”
The 12-inch square plates based on the boards had the added convenience of being small units that were easy to machine, pack and transport, but also take on monumental scale when installed. She liked the lasting “freshness” of the enamelled steel, she said; it wouldn’t physically age or look dated. After she worked out production of the steel plates with a small manufacturer in New Jersey, she destroyed her previous paintings.
Her gridded plates represented Mrs. Bartlett’s consuming interest in the mechanics of painting, and she would use them for the rest of her life, such as in two more epic plate pieces, “Recitative” (2007) and “Song” (2009-10).
She also expanded her materials. Her next major project after “Rhapsody” was “In the Garden”, a suite of nearly 200 drawings of a dilapidated garden behind a small villa in Nice, France, where she spent the winter of 1979-80. These works became the basis for large paintings – on plates, oil on canvas and enamel on glass – and various types of prints.
“In the Garden” was also important because Mrs. Bartlett worked from life, particularly her immediate surroundings, including, ultimately, her studios, her homes, and her own gardens. The 1991-92 “Air: 24 Hours” consists of 24 large canvases, each depicting one of these locations at a specific time of the day. In 1992-93, she reimagined her living spaces with ’24 Hours: Elegy’, usually including a piece of clothing or a toy belonging to her daughter. In these works, dense accumulations of hand-painted grids create a grainy atmosphere reminiscent of that created by Georges Seurat’s dots.
In 2012, a hospitalization of several weeks – caused by what her daughter, Mrs. Career, described as “a series of symptoms that never quite coalesced into a diagnosis” – in the “Hospital Paintings”, an uncharacteristically stark, realistic group of 10 paintings. Each was disrupted by a thick, random line of color that ran from edge to edge.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Bartlett leaves behind her sister, Julie Losch Matsumoto.
Incredibly confident and independent, Ms Bartlett was often asked about her take on feminism, as in 2011 for the Archives of American Art. In that case, she replied, “I’m not the feminist type by nature. I just wanted to be the best artist.”