Last week, two days before the Inauguration, I somehow managed to fly into Washington D.C. and then back home the same afternoon without seeing any signs that our new President was about to ascend to his office. It was an uninterrupted ride from Dulles to Embassy Row, near Georgetown, where I had a meeting with one of Eastern Europe’s ambassadors to the U.S. to talk briefly about working with him on a book project. But our lunch plans were interrupted by a delegation of his countrymen who were insisting on attending the Inauguration. While he attended to his guests, I was happy to amuse myself for an hour before we were able to meet. His administrative assistant was incredibly solicitous and offered to keep me company until he was able to return, but instead I wandered around Embassy Row, had a quick salad at Pizzeria Paradiso on Dupont Circle and then realized the Phillips Collection was a couple blocks away.
It had been years since I’d visited the Phillips, which I recalled as one of the best art-viewing days of my life, the permanent collection was so good. I was able to spend only about twenty minutes there this time, most of which I invested in the rooms where the institution’s large holding of Jake Berthot’s paintings was temporarily on view. I moved quickly past the earlier paintings until I came upon a fairly recent one of a lone bare tree. At first sight, it was remarkable, and the longer I stood before it, the more it offered up–I’m repeating an observation that has been made before about his work, that after long viewing what you see in his work becomes increasingly rich and subtle. His work ranged from nearly pure abstraction to his minimal, often Turneresque evocations of the natural world around his Catskill studio. His engagement with heavily-layered paint brought to mind Stanley Lewis and even Auerbach, though Berthot’s accretion of thick oil feels more tranquil. There’s a dark serenity in his images, a truce–or perhaps a productive trade agreement–with mortality. His work resonates more with the Taoist void, a sense that form in nature rises up out of something inexpressible and inchoate, but intensely alive. Even in that very short window of time, I felt I’d discovered work both remarkable and masterful. A very serendipitous encounter, thanks actually to Google Maps, which–when I routed my walk back to the embassy–had helpfully pointed out that the Phillips was only a short walk from the bar where I was finishing lunch, and only a block from my appointment.
Hyperallergic interviewed Berthot a few years ago, not long before he died, and it was a revealing conversation. He was mostly self taught, though he did some coursework in his youth, and over the years he groped toward his final approach in fits and starts. For a while, early in his career, he found himself doing constructed canvases and then painting them in a single sitting, until he realized he’s reached a dead end, working from ideas rather than feeling. He found a way out as he stood before a De Kooning, when one aspect of the painting opened up the approach his used from them on, which sounds akin to Agnes Martin’s methods in much of her work. He started to rely on an idiosyncratic grid as the seed for everything that followed–not as an aid for drawing a subject, but as a catalyst for feeling his way forward with the application of paint, creating a field of tensions and a sense of volume that guided how he applied his oil. The interview is fascinating.
JS: Yes. You made abstract paintings for many years before you started landscape-based paintings. The shift was received as very dramatic, but did it feel dramatic to you?
JB: Yes. It was huge. I was a cowboy-boot-wearing New York painter. I’m not a New York painter anymore. I am living in nature as the subject. The way I felt earlier could be summarized by de Kooning’s comment, “I wouldn’t paint a tree if you gave me a million dollars.” And for a year after I moved upstate, I was still doing the paintings I had been doing in New York: abstract paintings.
In my early days in Soho, a businessman who visited the studio remarked of a painting, “That looks like the most beautiful landscape on the worst possible day to see it.” I had titled the piece, Pennsylvania Road Trip. It was abstract, and I would have denied that it had anything to do with nature or the landscape. But it was inspired by this long bus trip I took to Pennsylvania. I was just blown away by nature as I looked out the bus window.
But living here (Catskills), I realize that I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want to disguise nature. I realized that these spaces kept coming up in my work, and I had to go there. Young painters now know me as a representational painter. Many of my peers wonder what happened to the abstract painter. No matter what, I am still the same painter.
Even though my work now is landscape-based, it is more abstract than it was a few years ago. It is dealing with the space in the middle. At first I was painting the volume of the tree in space. Next, what I felt was that space itself has volume. And now, it is the light that has volume.
There is a phenomenological truth that exists in nature. Some days it is totally flat, other times and days, filled with endless voids and volume.
I never thought, because of my age, I would have enough time to shape, build and work with nature’s complexity. Now, I don’t want to depict nature; I want to paint nature’s phenomena. The painting is always the boss. I go where it says to go; it is endless. That’s the beauty of painting. That is its freedom. It all leads back to the horse.
If you want to understand the reference to the horse, read the interview, when he talks about his parents and the drawing of a horse his mother kept on the back of a picture of the Last Supper in their dining room. The relationship of form to void in that line drawing–his first exposure to art–prefigures the essence of what he was trying to do in his mature paintings.