“I build the work through geometry. It’s not a formal geometry; it’s like watching spiders. In fact I think I was a spider once. If not then I’ll be reincarnated as a spider. Which I wouldn’t mind.”
JAKE! – the third Jake Berthot exhibition at Betty Cunningham Gallery since his death in late 2014 includes 22 paintings and 4 drawings. 2 of the 22 paintings are hanging in the gallery office downstairs.
The first time I saw this show was on Sunday January 26th in the early afternoon. I went with painters Anki King and Alix Bailey. We only had an hour to spend there because we were planning to see a movie later that day and wanted to have a late lunch across the street from the gallery at Freeman’s before the movie. We agreed within fifteen minutes that an hour was not going to be enough time to see this show. We were all three knocked out and so excited about the work, especially in this context. It’s a beautifully organized exhibition.
The press release says that there are 24 paintings and 10 drawings in the show. The discrepancy between press release numbers and the actual number of works on view tells a story. The work is hypnotic. One can loose sense of time while looking. It’s easy to imagine how installing this exhibition must have been a complicated process of trial and error that lead to installation revisions after the press release had already been written, printed, and uploaded to the gallery website.
With the exception of one abstract painting in the gallery office titled “105 (Studio)” from 1990, the other 21 paintings and 4 drawings include pictorial landscape elements like trees, rocks, and sky. Works range in size from 16 x 12” to 48 x 54” and no two works are the same size. The palette is earthy including umbers, ochre’s, cool greys, heavy blues, terre verte, and burnt sienna and most of the paintings are dark with at least one bright spot in a corner.
On that first Sunday over lunch at Freeman’s – Anki, Alix and I had so much to talk about in response to the show. One thing we all agreed on was that we would have to come back several times to spend more time looking. These paintings warrant sustained attention. They feel discovered. And just as each one is a unique size, each one is its own world. After lunch that sunny cool day and back out on Rivington Street, Anki announced that there was no way she could see a movie. She headed south to the M Train and back to her Brooklyn studio to paint. Alix and I headed north, walking to City Cinemas Village East at 12th and 2nd to see the Safdie Brothers new movie “Uncut Gems”. As intense and terrific as “Uncut Gems” is, the feeling of Jake’s paintings dominated the evening and when I woke up that Monday morning – the only thing I could think about was the “JAKE!” show.
Since that first visit, all I want to do is think about Jake and look at his work. I’ve been back to the gallery on six different occasions spending a minimum of two hours each time. One day I was there for five hours. I’ve been drawing and writing from the paintings. I’ve watched every video I can find about Jake online multiple times. I went to the New York Studio School and watched all three of Jake’s lectures that are archived in the library there from 1992, 2002, and 2008. Went through the NYSS’s archive folder of their collection of Jake catalogs, essays, reviews, and books and read every word. Bought all of the catalogs for sale at the Betty Cunningham Gallery counter and have been pouring over them. Read Ed Breslin’s Jake book and am now working my way through every book referenced in that book, plus any other books that Jake mentions anywhere in any of this material. Donald Hall’s “Essays Over Eighty” is a favorite. And all of this energy for Jake’s world is coming out of an overwhelming involuntary response to the work in this current exhibition.
Jake would begin by drawing a grid. Jake’s grids are beautiful drawings in themselves. They feel intuited like spiderwebs. In the 2008 NYSS presentation he said, “I build the work through geometry. It’s not a formal geometry; it’s like watching spiders. In fact I think I was a spider once. If not, then I’ll be reincarnated as a spider. Which I wouldn’t mind.” He talks about how a spiderweb is situational. It’s anchored to whatever best options are available. So for example, a spiderweb in a tree looks very different than a spiderweb between two chairs. Likewise the grid in each one of these paintings and drawings feels like a fresh improvisation and because each work is a unique size, the grid in each is unique to that format. He would “build” a painting over the grid, painting until the grid was “overrun” or could no longer be seen and then he would work to or against whatever was happening in the painting as he went. The grid-work is clearly visible in the drawings and partially visible in most but not all of the paintings. Most of the grid lines have been made in dark pencil graphite lines but there are red grid lines too. What did those red lines mean to Jake? Other than just being a different color, did they function differently than the black lines? Also, I wonder if Jake ever read Kay Ryan’s poem “Spiderweb”? It’s one of my favorites.
It looks like Jake would work with white impasto, painting with thick white paint early in the process of making a painting. In areas where ridges of impasto are nicked or have been scuffed, the white core of the thick paint is visible. Then he would paint over those textured areas with mostly thin translucent layers of paint, glazing over the thick areas. He was interested in how the ridges of textured paint would catch light and cast shadows. In this way he was working with the way actual light and shadow play across the surface of a painting.
All of the paintings in this exhibition have simple wood frames made by Jake. Thinking about his frames brings to mind something Jake said in one of the NYSS presentations, “Bob Rafter taught me how to do carpentry.” In his early days in NYC, Jake made money doing carpentry on the side. Like the exposed wooden beams of the gallery interior and the hardwood floor underfoot on the lower level, the wooden frames speak to the depicted trees in these paintings and drawings. Many of the frames were added to the paintings early in the process. Jake would often paint on the frames as he worked on the painting. Some frames that were either left raw or painted white appear to have been added later. The frames never feel like afterthoughts and are an important and fully integrated feature of each painting. My favorite frame is the one on “Oak at Field’s Edge” downstairs. The wood on that one feels like spirited old barn wood filled with magical power. It brings to mind Jacopo da Varagine’s book from the 13th Century “The Golden Legend” telling the story of the wood of the “True Cross” and Piero’s “The Legend of the True Cross” frescoes in Arezzo, Italy.
Whereas Frederick Edwin Church shows every leaf on foreground trees in his glorious 1859 painting “Heart of the Andes” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jake doesn’t depict a single leaf. He’s not that kind of painter. These paintings are more abstract than representational. They’re imagined scenes. But there is still a feeling of the abundance of trees full of leaves in a densely populated forest in many of these paintings. In lieu of representational details, there is the slow accumulation and orchestration of the various components Jake employs to build a painting. We can see it in the paint handling, in the marriage between painting and frame, in the repeating form, shimmering light, color, and in the grid work chassis over which he builds composition.
Jake loved poetry. Jake often titled paintings in honor of poets; for example a painting in this exhibition is titled “Testing Tree (Tyrant and Target) Stanley Kunitz” in honor of the late poet Stanley Kunitz. During one of my visits to the gallery, I brought a book of Stanley Kunitz’s collected poems, which compounded the feeling of wonder to an inner state of euphoria. The feeling of these paintings and the idea of late Jake reading these poems overpowered me. I sat alone in the room on the comfy black gallery couch downstairs with tears streaming down my face as I read “Green Ways”.
Philip Guston also loved poetry. And like Philip Guston, Jake Berthot was a poetic painter. Jake had tremendous respect for Philip Guston. They were both represented by McKee Gallery for years. Jake is quoted as telling the following story in Ed Breslin’s “Jake Berthot & The Primacy Of Art” (for sale at the gallery):
“…I got a really good feeling when Harvey Quaytman and I were invited to dinner by David (McKee) after an opening for Guston. It was in a restaurant, I think, on the Upper East Side. After dinner Guston wandered over as we were leaving and thanked us for making money for McKee so he could help Guston out financially. This was during the period when Guston was struggling and the critics were kicking his teeth in for abandoning abstract expressionism. A lot of the abstract expressionists were kicking his ass too. So his work wasn’t really selling then. Harvey and I were glad to help, though we didn’t know we were doing it till he thanked us. Guston was a class act.”
After Philip Guston died in 1980, his daughter Musa gave Jake a lot of Philip’s leftover paint. Jake said, “There was a lot of red. I never used much red. But now was the time to use it. I wanted to make red function like green.” So he started making mostly red paintings using Philip Guston’s red paint.
Looking at the green paintings in this show, this anecdote comes to mind and begs the question, “Was he trying to make these green paintings function like red?” After an hour of looking at the mostly green “David’s Clearing” painting on the first floor, I did have the experience of seeing the red after-image of this 24.5 x 27” painting floating on a patch of white wall. But there are metaphorical and poetic allusions to red in the mostly green paintings in this show too. For example, there is the symbiotic life of people and trees, blood and chlorophyll, trees outlasting people, and Jake’s drawings and paintings that will probably outlast the trees around the home and studio in Accord, NY where he lived and worked throughout the last 22 years of his life.
This is an exhibition that I will never forget. Thank you Betty Cunningham. The show is up through this weekend and I hope everyone will go see it!
Jake! continues at Betty Cunningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, NY, NY) through Sunday, February 23.