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“Jennifer Bartlett:

From the Elements, 1989-1997: Fire, Air, Earth, Water”

At Numark to March 21

That Jennifer Bartlett’s work straddles program-based conceptual art and the more familiar expressive kind is extremely well-documented, yet the actual experience of her production is a source of lasting interest and repeated discovery. Just how obsessive Bartlett can be is indexed by: 1.) her enormous output—including, in addition to hundreds of works on canvas, tile, and paper, six large-scale public commissions and a thousand-page autobiography—and 2.) the fact that her idea of a vacation from the massive “Air: 24 Hours” series was to repeat the project threefold on a smaller scale. Calvin Tomkins quotes Bartlett as saying what one might have conjectured after simply counting her brushstrokes, that she is “no good at just having fun.”

A tantalizingly small slice of Bartlett’s encyclopedic oeuvre is now on display at Numark. All of this work comes from “The Elements: Fire, Air, Earth, Water,” the series the artist has labored on over the past decade. From 1991-92’s “Air” sequence is 8 P.M., a 7-foot square. Abstract space and abstract time—the former expressed as a grid, the latter as a generic clock face—are the subthemes of this painting. Yet both are personalized, the former by what the artist considers emotionally charged imagery (a tea service, a falling doll, a Hello Kitty box, and other clutter that all but efface the blue-green grid pattern), the latter by the memory of a child’s death that Bartlett says came back to her while she was creating the work.

Other paintings, though not of the “Air” sequence, repeat this gesture. They court a tension between what Kant called the “pure forms of sensible intuition” and their particular realization. Thus the a priori grid—one of the givens of late analytic modernism—is variously and multiply inflected under the pressures of present necessity. In 1997’s Swimmers—whose subject has a long history in both Bartlett’s painting and that of the last century—Bartlett’s signature matrix becomes a basketlike weave that holds pink bodies in a decorative all-over composition. In Beaver: Man Carrying Thing, the space grid surfaces as a number of bright tartan patches, here flush with the picture plane as if parts of an actual collage. Yet these patches serve also to signal that old modernist standby of obliquely referring to the materiality of the canvas (with one fabric standing for another in Bartlett’s treatment). Finally, in some of the small works in this exhibition, the grid is gone altogether, except that the images—which resemble pages from the alternative graphic press and are miserably drawn in the best expressionist tradition—are deployed like cartoon cells on a cruciform pattern.

It helps to place Bartlett if one remembers that her Yale classmates included Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, and Chuck Close, a group that defined itself as much by its members’ differences as by their similarities. Perhaps no group has sought so hard, in a manner familiar to product marketers and homesteaders, to define individual territories. What, then, is Bartlett’s distinction? Certainly more than her chosen mark, the grid, since this much she shares with artists as various as Carl Andre and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, her use of the grid is so various—as is the stuff she puts in it, covers over with it, and, more recently, all but covers it with—that one can only assume Bartlett resolved her search by making everything her subject and exhaustive virtuosity her style. CP