Jennifer Bartlett’s groundbreaking work in painting, printmaking, sculpture, and installations positioned her as one of the first female artists of her generation to achieve both commercial and critical success. She produced large-scale installations with paintings of landscape and non-representational art. She is best known for her gridded work “Rhapsody” a monumental installation first exhibited in 1976. Now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, “Rhapsody” is a painting based on geometry and the figurative motifs of house, tree, mountain, and sea on 987 gridded, enameled steel plates.
Bartlett, who grew up in Long Beach, California, attended Mills College in Oakland where she met the painter Elizabeth Murray with whom she maintained a close friendship until Murray’s death in 2007. Bartlett received her B.A. from Mills in 1963. She attended the Yale School of Art and Architecture, receiving her B.F.A. in 1964 and her M.F.A. in 1965. According to her it was in Yale where she found her voice as an artist. After marrying medical student Ed Bartlett in 1964, she shunted back and forth between New York and Connecticut, where she taught at the University of Connecticut. After her divorce in 1972, she moved to New York permanently and taught at the School of Visual Arts.
Much of the new art in the 1970s was impersonal, and this was the tradition to which Bartlett attached herself. Her early paintings, with their gridded surfaces and dot-patterns, have been compared to computer printouts. With “Rhapsody” she became known as the Euclid of the art world who saw visual systems everywhere.
As with “Rhapsody” Bartlett used musical terms as titles in two more of her large-scale installations: “Song” 2007 and “Recitative” 2010. “Recitative” extends the musical metaphor literally as its total length is 158 feet, compared with “Rhapsody” at 153 feet and “Song” at 97 feet. “Recitative,” in relation to the earlier “Rhapsody,” is a deeper analysis of the color explication with a line only introduced at the end. “Recitative” is composed of enamel over a silk-screen grid on baked enamel and 372 steel plates. This work introduces each of the primary and secondary colors and puts them into different combinations and sizes. There are dots, squiggles, diagonals, plaids, stripes, cross-hatches, and loose brush strokes. The free-form black line is painted across 24 plates and is scattered on the wall, trailing off like an unfinished sentence.
The generic image of a house has been used as a motif by her since the 1970s. Her “House Paintings “ 1976-1978 represented her own house and those of her friends. She painted in an archetypal style of a simple rectangle topped with a triangle – simple geometric shapes which to her are universal symbols.
Bartlett explores multiple facets of a scene in serial images in her “In the Garden Series” 1980, showing drawings of a garden in Nice taken from different perspectives and then paintings, taken from photographs, of the same garden; in her “Air: 24 Hours” 1991-1992, derived from snapshots to mark the passing of time; and in her color screen prints “The Four Seasons” 1990-1993, which use pattern and personal symbols – including a skeleton – in an iconic view of her own garden seen from above.
In 2004, Bartlett began to add words into her paintings, included in her “Hospital Series,” based on photographs she took during a hospital stay. Her words are spelled out in dots on gridded plates. In recent years she has also done abstracted nature scenes in her drawings and pastels, abstract paintings sometimes on shaped canvases, and “blob paintings.”
Bartlett’s work was featured in the Whitney Museum’s 1978 survey “New Image Painting.” She had her first American museum retrospective, “Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe – Works 1970-2011,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia 2013. It traveled to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, Long Island in 2014. The title “History of the Universe” is also the title of her autobiographical novel, published in 1985.
Bartlett’s works are in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Museum of American Art, Cleveland Museum of Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, and Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, among others.