Jennifer Bartlett at Pennsylvania Academy

After 40 years, still searching for the meaning of life

'Amagansett Diptych #1': Keep your mind open.
'Amagansett Diptych #1': Keep your mind open.

Jennifer Bartlett has been a hot New York artist since 1976, when she exhibited her 987-steel-plate installation, Rhapsody, at the Paula Cooper Gallery. That compendium of everything new in art was later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and Bartlett has been breaking new ground ever since. Now Philadelphians can view the new developments firsthand at Bartlett's 40-year retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy.

Bartlett began her professional life by spending most of her time pondering the kind of art she could create that would not look like everyone else's work. If only more artists would think and act along these lines, we could have another Renaissance.

This current exhibition of more than 22 works, organized by Klauss Ottmann of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., reveals an artist in search of herself. Bartlett is still seeking answers to the perennial questions of every undergraduate: "Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?" She still has that zest, and it's contagious.

Trees bending in wind

The exhibition begins with Bartlett's early usage of the baked enamel square steel plates to depict the Earth and Mars from the Moon, circa 1970. Since Rhapsody wasn't available for this exhibition, we see 237 Lafayette Street (1978), enamel over silk screen grid on baked enamel steel plates. The prominent grid applied to all the square steel plates provides the structure Bartlett seems to need for her own reassurance. These steel plates, with holes in each corner for ease of installation, provided the flexibility required by a young artist with limited wall space in her studio"“ a perennial problem for all artists.

(Jon Manteau, a prominent Philadelphia artist, creates his paintings from the vantage point of a high ladder, gazing down to the wooden panels flat on the floor.)

Bartlett varied her use of the steel plates with traditional oil on canvas paintings such as Pool (1983, three canvases) and Wind (1983, oil on five canvases). Although the latter's five canvases portray the same location, in this landscape the trees bending to the wind have become threatening elements that almost make you shiver.

Visual meets verbal

Bartlett's Atlantic Ocean (1984, enamel over silkscreen grid on baked enamel steel plates) captures the swirling water, foam and salt air of the ocean so well that you almost feel drops of salt water against your skin. It's the most expressive image of the turbulence of the sea that I've ever experienced.

Other works in the exhibition include Boats (1987) and Double House (1987), two Bartlett paintings made three-dimensional by creating painted wood sculpture additions that become integral parts of the work. Also included are examples from two series of Bartlett paintings visualizing personal activities at the hours specified by the painted clock face. Select your own personal interpretation; they all differ.

Bartlett's creativity always has embraced the two "V's"— verbal and visual— and this yin and yang finally intersect in her 21st-Century art. Now she invites us to consider the visual characteristics of words, seen in reverse, as well as their ultimate impact. Keep your mind open and share her traumatic hospital experience.

Submerged in her landscape

Then we're back to oil-on-canvas landscape paintings created with a graining brush for depth of color, as viewed through mist and morning reflections. Works from Amagansett Diptych #1 to the most recent painting on view, Grasses (2011), impart such a sense of place and immediacy that you seem to feel and hear the moving leaves. You're submerged in the landscape Bartlett has created.

After closing in Philadelphia on October 13, the Bartlett show will travel to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, Long Island, where it will reopen in April 2014. Meanwhile, I recommend the exhibition's excellent, illustrated catalogue, and will look forward to future encounters with Bartlett's unique verbal and visual explorations of the universe.

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