I’ve never been much of a Jennifer Bartlett fan. Her work always seemed premiseless, muddy, and without vision; as an artist, she is more of a combiner, or an adept copyist, than a creator. Except for Rhapsody. Until last week, I only knew her epic ur-painting / drawing / installation by reputation, reproduction, and writing. And from that I thought I liked it.
I was an art student in Chicago in May of 1976 when it debuted at Paula Cooper’s Soho gallery, but even so, I heard about Rhapsody; it seemed to signal a change. The chief critic for The New York Times, John Russell, called it “the most ambitious single work of new art that has come my way since I started to live in New York.” In New York magazine, Kay Larson wrote that Bartlett was “one of the two strongest painters of the post-minimal generation” (the other was Elizabeth Murray). David Bourdon, writing in these pages, called Rhapsody “easily one of the most audacious, mesmerizing works to be seen in a New York gallery.” Even Robert Hughes liked it. But like I said, I missed it, and I kept missing it. After its auspicious New York debut, Rhapsody was exhibited more than a dozen times in the U.S. Now, for the first time in more than 10 years, Rhapsody is back. Shoehorned into, and winding around the walls of, a narrow L-shaped gallery, interrupted by windows and by extra jutting walls that have been built especially to accommodate the 153 running feet of its length, Rhapsody is a sorry sight. I think I’m disappointed, but I’m not sure, because it’s so horribly installed. It deserves better.
It’s here at all because the man who bought it in 1976, for $45,000, put it up for sale. It has since been sold to a Palm Beach collector for “a little over a million dollars.” Unfortunately, Bartlett oversaw the installation. It makes you mad that she allowed her masterpiece to be exhibited under such flawed, unsympathetic circumstances. It makes you wonder if this artist has any self-respect. But it is her masterpiece, and even in its present cramped condition it can take you back to an amazing turning point in America, and American art.
Nineteen seventy-six was a weird year. It was the bicentennial; Nelson Rockefeller was the vice president, Rocky was a blockbuster, Alex Haley published Roots, and Wonder Woman and Chalie’s Angels premiered on TV. Rolling Stone named Peter Frampton artist of the year, and the Sex Pistols made their first recording, “Anarchy in the UK.” Mao died, North and South Vietnam were reunited, Tom Wolfe coined the term “The Me Decade,” and Jimmy Carter was elected president.
Meanwhile, in the art world things were up for grabs. Post-Minimalism had given way to pluralism. Being an American artist in the mid ’70s was like standing on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: art was a series of problems—you’d solve one, then automatically move on to the next. You didn’t think about success because there was no such thing—or it was a shameful, secret thing. People were painting, but most of it was pretty conceptual. This is the milieu into which Bartlett, then 35, dropped Rhapsody—and it shook things up.
Bartlett was interested in success, artistic and otherwise. In a way, she was the first ’80s-style art star. She was ambitious (she wrote a book titled History of the Universe), brash, out there, and worldly. She was the first artist of her generation, that I remember, to appear in magazines like House & Garden, Vogue, and Elle. We saw pictures of her houses, her gardens, and her swimming pools. We were shocked; we were jealous. It was thrilling because art and money had just started dating and hadn’t really gone that far, but it was scary because you could sense just how far this thing could go. Bartlett was a want-it-all artist; she was a permission giver, a liberty taker. Plus, it was great that this monumental, personal work was done by a woman. With Rhapsody, Bartlett trumped male scale. Rhapsody is dumb but never dry; there’s a lot of Sol LeWitt and Dorothea Rockburne in it, but it isn’t logical—it’s wild, out of control, it has personality, subjectivity, and feeling. Bartlett took the grid and made it irrational and inexplicable.
Rhapsody is a flawed, sprawling, pseudosystematic exploration/encyclopedia of painting, abstraction, figuration, shape, color, and line. Bartlett described it as a “conversation,” but it’s more of a bomb that goes off in every direction. With 987 12-inch-square steel tiles arranged in 142 vertical rows, Rhapsody combines and recombines 25 colors and four rudimentary images: a house, a mountain, two trees, and the ocean. The piece is divided into roughly six sections; the first functions as an overture in which all the major themes and movements are introduced. Then she’s off and running. There’s a Brice Marden here, an Agnes Martin there; Jonathan Borofsky, Joel Shapiro, Joan Snyder, and Ellsworth Kelly pop up, as do Cézanne, Corot, Mondrian, and Grandma Moses. Along the way, Bartlett echoes artists and styles that hadn’t even happened yet.
Bartlett pushes Photo Realism toward photo appropriation, the exuberance of her paint handling anticipates Neo-Expressionism, her geometry hints at Neo-Geo, and her formalism is already breaking apart. Rhapsody announces the Post-Post-Minimal period with a bang. But there was something deeply wrong with Rhapsody—as well as with the work of many of Bartlett’s generation—even if no one knew it yet. Bartlett was like Gorbachev: initially ahead of her time, she was on the right track but couldn’t move fast enough because she couldn’t discard her old pluralist baggage.
In 1976, the trouble with the American art world was that it was too American. There were no Germans. Polke and Richter didn’t appear on American art-world screens for four more years, and they had already settled the main “problem” many Americans were working on: the reconciliation of abstraction and figuration. America still took (and in some provincial Manhattan circles, still takes) abstraction seriously. Bartlett and her peers were leading painting down a cogent, but marginal, blind alley. This was the trap that tricked a generation, and Bartlett wasn’t spared. It’s what makes her work seem like it’s been going around in decorative, dialectical circles ever since. In her recent work at Miller, Bartlett is still recycling the same imagery in work that looks more like it comes from Ikea than an artist’s studio. Nineteen seventy-six was the last moment that America had the stage to itself, the last time we were the real center. We thought we were ahead of the game. Soon we would see that there was a whole new game.