Dot by Dot: Visiting Artist Jennifer Bartlett

Last Friday night at the Addison Gallery of American Art’s opening reception for fall exhibitions, which attracted approximately 400 visitors, Ewald and Jennifer Bartlett’s collections proudly adorned the walls of the gallery. These works will remain at the Addison until the end of fall term. Though these artists have very unique styles of art, they both use their artistic abilities to combine education, art, and expression. ————————————– “All the figurative artists were lame, and the abstraction artists were hot. How could I give up being both?” asked visiting artist Jennifer Bartlett. Dressed in all black, wearing huge Jackie Kennedy-esque white sunglasses and gargantuan diamond baubles, Jennifer Bartlett was the antithesis of the word lame. She exuded nonchalant confidence and entertained the audience with her sharp wit during her gallery talk last Friday. Arriving directly from the walls of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Bartlett’s pieces are now hanging on the walls of the Addison Gallery of American Art. Bartlett’s influential works represented a reflection of the post-minimalist art era of the 1960s. Her signature technique is painting squares on one by one foot enamel grids that resemble graphing paper. By using small dots on the grid, an optical-illusion emerges. Bartlett first used this method of expression in 1968. Afterwards, she fills in the squares with vibrant colors. On some pieces, she picks 6 to 25 random colors and paints each individual square a different color. Sometimes, she uses the same color throughout but achieves different textures. Instructor in Art Therese Zemlin said, “I saw Jennifer Bartlett’s exhibition or something similar to it in Minneapolis and at that time I didn’t quite know what to make of it, but now, 30 years later, it’s historical. It’s so interesting to see how it fits in with other artwork of that time period. When we see colored dots and grids, we typically imagine virtual and digital images. Even though her work conjures images of these things, it’s completely handmade and artistic.” On the top floor of the Addison, Bartlett’s visiting collection occupies four rooms. The largest of the displays is her most celebrated work, “Rhapsody.” Often referred to as the “Encyclopedia of Possibilities,” “Rhapsody” took a whole year betwen 1975 and 1976 to create and is a collection of 987 one foot squares that flow over the entirety of a show room in the gallery. “I decided to come to the opening tonight because we came to look at Jennifer Bartlett’s work during my art class,” said Jane Shin ’08, one of the many students at the event. “She explained to us why she painted Rhapsody and what she was thinking. Her artwork looks really simple, but it’s made up of all these different parts.” The individual pieces range from mathematical-looking grids to intricately drawn houses, trees, and other scenery. However, all of the squares flow together to create the illusion of one large painting. “Rhapsody” was an attempt to create a painting that “didn’t have any edges and was endless. Therefore, I [wanted to create] a work that had so many edges so the viewer can’t concentrate on just one point. The painting definitely has a pulse,” according to Bartlett During her gallery talk Bartlett said, “Painting on graphing paper was an inside joke to conceptual artists. However, my pieces did not look as crisp as other artists’ pieces so I decided to work on a harder surface.” Bartlett says most of her pieces come from “What If?” questions. “What if I keep removing random sections of the painting, until there is nothing? What if I take a square of the dots and create larger and larger pieces?” Bartlett set strict mathematical rules for herself but always ended up with an innovative and invigorating product. “In art projects in school, the teacher gives you an assignment with limitations,” Ms. Zemlin said. “These limitations can cause you to be more creative because you have to figure out what you can do within the limitations. Jennifer Bartlett gave herself an assignment with her Rhapsody piece and had to figure out how to express herself through the boundaries of her assignment.” Even though some say that mathematics and art don’t mix, Bartlett admits to her crush on mathematicians. “There is something really sexy about numbers. The Fibonacci sequence, patterns, and shapes have always intrigued me,” she said. In addition to her mathematical constraints, Bartlett carefully judged what color dot should go where and how that one dot would affect the whole piece. Even though her works are the products of the post-minimalist era, the fact that her art lacks excessive ornamentation make errors more noticeable. “I don’t like the messiness of atheistic. I don’t want to have to argue or defend something I do,” says Bartlett. In choosing “Rhapsody’s” main thematic subjects, Bartlett selected main environmental and geometric elements are the most prevalent in life. She asked herself the question “what can you have in art?” and she thought of color, lines, shapes, painting styles, and imagery. As you read the work from left to right, seven thematic sections appear :called Introduction, Mountain, Line, House, Tree, Shape, and Ocean. Her paintings mimic Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jette.” Up-close, a viewer sees many tiny dots, but as the viewer steps back, a full image and story comes in view. The Addison Gallery’s focus is to learn from accomplished artists. Bringing Jennifer Bartlett to Andover to discuss her influences, ideas, processes, and reactions of her work definitely gave people insight on her pieces. Roxanne Barry, Director of the Summer Opportunities Office and participant in the opening said, “I was really glad to hear her explanations behind each piece. A person can stare at a painting all day and try to get into the artists mind, but hearing it firsthand is so much more fascinating.”