Jennifer Bartlett may take a serial approach to her artwork, whether within the pieces or in relationships between them, but she is never predictable and certainly not tedious.
In two shows on the South Fork this summer, both well edited and smart enough to leave you wanting more, she demonstrates a continual engagement with the natural and manufactured world around her. There is the 40-year retrospective at the Parrish Art Museum, “Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe: Works, 1970-2011‚” on view through July 13 in Water Mill, and the Drawing Room’s “Selected Work: 1970-2003‚” in East Hampton through July 28.
For someone who was an early colonizer of SoHo in Manhattan (now living in Brooklyn) and who has been a part-time resident of Amagansett for many years, it is a natural balance that shows her involvement in the different realms that make up her experience, including her incorporation of abstraction and figuration.
It always seems oxymoronic to call artists such as Sol LeWitt and Ms. Bartlett Minimalists. While each has had an historically pure aesthetic that keeps to basic colors and geometry, and that also paints within the lines (or grids, in Ms. Bartlett’s case), their wall and room-filling works seem the height of maximal and the grand gesture. With so many of her pieces extending from panel to panel or split into multiples, it would appear that few can be bound by the confinement of just one support. In later years, she has often abandoned a minimalist approach entirely, preferring gesture and rich tonality in depicting natural settings.
Much of Ms. Bartlett’s seriality comes from the baked-enamel plates she has silk-screened with grids since the 1960s. The white backgrounds give the work a backlit effect, even when the green, red, blue, and black of her simple house shapes covered the plates completely in dark enamel.
She has painted single canvases, but even those have bled over into diptychs, triptychs, and even longer multi-paneled works. Why not just paint one large canvas? The answer the paintings speak is that these squares are disparate units that may be related but are not fully integrated. In the “Pool” works from the 1980s, their slight difference in perspective gives the panels a liveliness that expands across each component. In the later work, it is not always clear whether she is painting the same subject from just a slightly different vantage point, as in “Grasses” and “Rose,” two recent works, until they are compared to “Two Feet of Snow Diptych‚” completed in 2010, where an identical scene is portrayed from two slightly different vantage points.
The other thing one notices, perhaps not at first but after taking it all in, is that these works are painted on and within a cross-hatched structure. It is a looser and more painterly effect than the mechanically reproduced silkscreens, but it ties the paintings back to the grids and the earlier “Pool” works with their grids in the water. There are very few works that do not relate to that structure in some shape or form. Those that do, such as “At Sands Point #16” (1986), adopt other structures, such as layered bands of Impressionistic paint.
There are so many knockout pieces in the Parrish show, including 1984’s “Atlantic Ocean,” which takes its composition from more than 200 enameled plates. This is a playful bout of realism with enough glitches of uneven composition to keep it interesting. It seems cohesive until one notices the different gradients of sky or the errant wave in the upper left corner that does not relate to the rest of the scene. While the Parrish has it displayed at its full length along a wall, the work, as her other monumental pieces, can be installed around corners and into nooks to make it seem more immersive.
Her works that meld painting and sculpture together are captivating. “Boats” and “Double House,” both from 1987, with their large enameled wooden objects and oil and canvas paintings of the same, could talk endlessly among themselves. It never becomes tiring to shift from one to the other.
The show also displays some word paintings and pieces from her 1990 “Elements” series. There is so much variety in it, and yet nothing she creates seems to escape some reference to the grid — it is like her home plate, the place to which she must eternally return. And when she is not off on some fascinating tangent, she also comes back to that simple house, a motif that becomes heavy with emotional associations even though it is really only the stacking of a triangle on a square.
In “No One Is Home” or “Something Is Wrong” (2005-2006), it is the absence of her iconic house in those sublime fanciful landscapes that seems to imply the inherent threat suggested by the titles. Never fear, in the same period the happy shelter returns in “Twins,” one of her word paintings, as it no doubt will appear again and again, a symbol for the artist and a touchstone for the viewer looking for hope and permanence in a world lacking both.
The Drawing Room’s compact exhibition is a marvelous bookend to the Parrish show, with an emphasis on the house as another unifying force between the two venues. The East Hampton show, however, goes in a different direction, with the artist’s very strong “Homan-ji” works, inspired by a ceiling she painted in Japan. She mixed her own paint from Japanese minerals and used handmade Japanese paper for this series. The drawings are an amazing visual stream of consciousness, though a digression from the Parrish show. They should be seen, standing well on their own in a separate location.
For those who may lose the connection between the two shows, there are two “House” works at the Drawing Room, executed in the full gamut of canvas, plate, and paper in oil, enamel, and silkscreen.
Her “One Through Six System Using Six Colors” from 1970 touches on themes similar to the monumental works she has made through her career, such as the 1976 “Rhapsody‚” a 987-plate installation in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, or, more recently, “Recitative‚” shown at Pace Gallery in 2011, a 372-plate installation completed in 2010. The works here fill in the blanks left by the Parrish show to make a more cohesive presentation.
So, whether you want a little or a lot of Jennifer Bartlett, or both, her rich, varied, and still reassuringly consistent work awaits you just a few minutes from the security of your own abode, depending, of course, on traffic.