Cezanne baseballs. Who are these for? The thought crossed my mind while handling some regulation baseballs that were imprinted with images Cezanne’s bathers and his wife Hortense. They were for sale, along with the usual sundries, at the tail end of the exhaustive retrospective in Philadelphia eight years ago. Although absurd, I concluded that these baseballs were somehow an appropriately American cultural response. How else might our culture make use of Cezanne, whose work is otherwise so intensely reserved and singularly private?
I had similar thoughts upon viewing Jake Berthot’s current exhibition at the McKee Gallery, which is on view through April 10. How does Berhot’s work, which draws heavily upon late Cezanne-and a painting like Bend in the Forest Road from 1902-6 in particular-speak to our culture now? Especially in the immediate atmosphere of the Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show? Understanding, of course, that no one is going to attend a Berthot show sniffing out 21st century trends. Berthot has always been a painter with painterly values-a rarity among recent generations-and he gave up flirting with modernist tropes years ago, most noticeably after moving upstate.
His current show includes 10 paintings, all landscapes in the American tradition best exemplified by Ralph Albert Blakelock, and 6 works on paper, which are an intense graphic fusion of Mondrian, Giacometti, and Buckminster Fuller’s collective structural/organic sensibilities. Berthot’s works on paper are remarkable, and the most visually rewarding drawings I’ve seen since the recent Gorky show at the Whitney, which they rival in the depth of their probing. His use of an isometric-orthographic grid is now closer to the 19th century academic practice, than to the modernist 1960’s standard model. Although, Berthot’s handling of materials in general is thoroughly modern, and his current work is still more closely allied to his seminal painting from the 70’s (the bar and lozenge abstractions and the painter’s planar icons) than with 19th century painting at large. Berthot is clearly a painter of his time, but one consumed with concerns that have preoccupied artists of every era.
Most of the work here explores the central motif of a solitary tree, again recalling Cezanne’s celebrated Large Pine and Red Earth from 1890-5. Berthot’s trees suggest a protective paternal presence, gently radiating against dark forests of sap green and Courbet blue-green. There is a greater economy at work in Berthot’s latest painting-he employs a glazing technique more often-but his images remain as dense as ever. Every decision seems thoughtful, every brushstroke well landed. There’s a biting weight here pulsating behind the darkness that’s reminiscent of the vague supernatural forces described in an Algernon Blackwood horror story like The Wendigo or The Willows. Berthot bravely descends into the mystery between night and paint in this show. Three paintings: Camp Fire At Web Rock, Night Meadow, and The Edge of Miller’s Meadow, are particularly outstanding. In each of these the depthless nocturnal haze that dominates the entire gallery is piercingly punctuated by a cataract of burning light-a highly effective move. Again, these recall the fiction of James Fennimore Cooper, where a menacing darkness pervades throughout the forests and glades of upstate New York and it’s spiritually contested “Burned-Over District.”
Berthot enjoys a strangely divided reputation among painters. For some, he is something of a heroic stalwart who retains the older, more deeply valued qualities of painting and their sentiment. For others, his personal proclivities remain problematic. I’ve heard other painters of his generation dismiss his work as “fusty” and “fuggy”, whereas others have implied that Berthot has “faked” his surfaces in order to invoke some intrinsic labor value. Others have recoiled against his Taoist claims of painting without ego, or his assertion that painting resists language. Berthot’s own artist’s statement “An eye not told what to see, sees more” from 1996 serves as example. Many are suspicious the artist’s habit of wrapping himself within poetic armor in the same manner politicians shield themselves with the flag. They deride his retreat into the woods and his abandonment of the advancing cause of modern painting. One painter discounted Berthot as being nothing more than a musician like “John Coltrane” (imagine!), an adventurist self-satisfied enough to call his own tune regardless of an indifferent audience. My students have questioned whether Berthot’s work would fly within their own pre-professional art program. It’s a valid concern, not really an issue with much other work
None of this amounts to much. I certainly cannot judge whether such claims deflate or legitimate Berthot’s work. I respect the painter for forging his own path and engaging in his own personal late work. I appreciate the resolve of his entire oeuvre. I wouldn’t denigrate his sentiment, as is displayed in his painted tribute to the late Harvey Quaytman. As far as his painterly values are concerned, I think that Berthot is highly underappreciated in this regard, perhaps second only to the great Milton Resnick. His work to some degree has always been about isolation, so his withdrawal, like Cezanne’s to Aix-en-Provence, seems well considered. There is no large audience, no expanding market for this work-at least for the moment. This isn’t an amusement aimed at heavy traffic. These paintings are personal statements made to address one person at a time and they engage those faculties to the fullest degree. Which has more value, work predicated on externalities or an internal dialogue? Again, I’m left with the question, how else might our culture make use of Jake Berthot? Most artists are straw dogs.
Michael Brennan is a New York painter who writes on art.