Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Bartlett

Air: 24 Hours: 6 pm, ed. 65 by Jennifer Bartlett
Air: 24 Hours: 6 pm, ed. 65 by Jennifer Bartlett. Geoffrey Clements / Contributor / Getty Images

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941) is a far-reaching and deep-thinking artist who has become one of America's greatest as well as one of the world's most influential artists. Coming of age as an artist during the 1960s, on the heels of abstract expressionism during a period when the art-world was dominated by men, she succeeded in expressing her unique artistic vision and voice and continues to do so to this day.

Biography and Education

Jennifer Bartlett was born in 1941 in Long Beach, Ca. She went to Mills College where she met and became friends with painter Elizabeth Murray. She received her BA there in 1963. She then went to Yale School of Art and Architecture for graduate school, receiving her BFA in 1964 and her MFA in 1965. This is where she found her voice as an artist. Some of her instructors were Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Claus Oldenburg, Alex Katz, and Al Held, who introduced her to a new way of painting and thinking about art. She then moved to New York City in 1967, where she had many artist friends who were experimenting with different techniques and approaches to art. 

Artworks and Themes 

Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe: Works 1970-2011 is a catalog of her exhibit by that name held at the Parrish Art Museum in New York from April 27, 2014-July 13, 2014. The catalogue includes a review of her work by Klaus Ottoman, an intimate interview with the artist by the museum director, Terrie Sultan, and an excerpt from Bartlett's own autobiography, History of the Universe, her first novel (originally published in 1985), that gives the reader greater insight into her creative process.  

According to Terrie Sultan, "Bartlett is an artist in the Renaissance tradition, equally engaged in philosophy, naturalism, and aesthetics, constantly questioning herself and the world with her favorite mantra, "what if?" She has a keen mind and finds inspiration from "such disparate fields of inquiry as literature, mathematics, horticulture, film, and music." She is a painter, sculptor, printmaker, writer, furniture maker, glassware maker, as well as set and costume designer for film and opera. 

Bartlett has been a commercial success since the 1970s when her highly acclaimed artwork, Rhapsody (1975-76, collection Museum of Modern Art), a painting based on geometry and the figural motifs of house, tree, mountain, and sea on 987 gridded, enameled steel plates was shown in May 1976 at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. This was a monumental painting that incorporated many of the themes she would continue to explore during her career and which brilliantly integrated painterly figuration and mathematical abstraction, something Bartlett has continued to do throughout her career, moving back and forth effortlessly between the two.  

Rhapsody, "one of the most ambitious works of contemporary American art," was purchased the week after the opening for $45,000 - an extraordinary amount at the time - and "in 2006 was given to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has been installed twice in its atrium, to critical acclaim." New York Times critic John Russell has commented that "Bartlett's art enlarges 'our notion of time, and of memory, and of change, and of painting itself.'" 

The house is a subject that has always been of great interest to Bartlett. Her House Paintings (also known as the Addresses series) were painted from 1976-1978 and represented her own house and the houses of her friends that she painted in an archetypal yet unique style, using the grid of enameled steel plates that she often uses. She has said that for her the grid is not as much an aesthetic element as it as a method of organization.

Bartlett has also done several room-size installations based on a single theme, such as the In the Garden Series (1980), which consisted of two hundred drawings of a garden in Nice from all different perspectives, and later paintings (1980-1983) from photographs of the same garden. The book of her paintings and drawings, In the Garden, is available on Amazon.

In 1991-1992 Bartlett did twenty-four paintings representing each of the twenty-four hours of the day in her life, called Air: 24 Hours. This series, like others of Bartlett's, marks the notion of time and incorporates the element of chance. According to Bartlett in an interview with Sue Scott, "The Air paintings (Air 24 Hours) are derived very loosely from snap shots. I shot a role of film at each hour of the day to get a base image for each hour with a haphazard, immediate quality. And then I spread all those photos out and selected images. The winning images seemed to be the ones that were more neutral, more fragmentary, more blurred."

In 2004 Bartlett began to incorporate words into her paintings, including her recent Hospital Series  based on photographs she took during an extended stay in the hospital, in which she painted the word hospital in white on each canvas. In recent years she has also done more abstract paintings, including shaped canvases and "blob paintings." 

Bartlett’s works are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX; among others. 

Bartlett's work unceasingly asks questions and tells a story. In an interview with Elizabeth Murray Bartlett explains how she sets up a problem or construct for herself and then works her way through it, which becomes the story. Bartlett said, "My requirements for a story can be brief: 'I'm going to count, and I'm going to have one color expand and dominate the situation.' That's a great story, to me."

Like all great art, Bartlett's art continues to tell her story while simultaneously evoking the viewer's own story.

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Marder, Lisa. "Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Bartlett." ThoughtCo, Oct. 26, 2022, Marder, Lisa. (2022, October 26). Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Bartlett. Retrieved from Marder, Lisa. "Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Bartlett." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).