About the artist:
Jake Berthot was an American artist whose abstract paintings contained elements of both the minimalist and expressionist styles. During the first 36 years of his career his paintings were entirely non-figurative. His style changed in 1995 when he moved his studio from New York City to a rural community in upstate New York. While continuing to be abstract his paintings thereafter contained figurative elements and were seen to have greater emotional content. Throughout his career his work frequently appeared in solo and group exhibitions in both commercial and public galleries. It has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, National Gallery of Art, and other major American art museums. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981 and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1983.
Berthot was born on March 30, 1939, in Niagara Falls, New York, and, from age two, was raised on a truck farm in Clearfield, Pennsylvania, 175 miles to the south. As a child, he received his first drawing lessons from his maternal grandmother who was also his primary caregiver. Having completed his education at local public schools, he briefly enrolled in a commercial art school in Pittsburgh before moving on to New York where, from 1960 to 1962, he attended evening classes at Pratt Institute and from 1960 to 1961 at the New School for Social Research. Berthot later credited a Pratt instructor, Hank Raleigh, with getting him a start as a professional painter. The classes he took gave him relatively little grounding in the technique or history of art, but he learned much from hours spent in museums. He also learned much from other artists, particularly Milton Resnick who, as he later said, took him under his wing and through his friendship and guidance I became more aware of the real possibility of painting."
Berthot began his career making abstract paintings in the minimalist tradition. He would apply a thick painterly surface to large shaped canvases that were seen to employ the reductive means of minimalism, but expressing instead of restraining emotion. Despite its simplicity of means, his work was said to deal "more in feelings than in analysis." Painted in 1969, "Lovella's Thing" is a good example of his style at this time. Shortly before his death, Berthot explained the way in which it evolved: "With Lovella's Thing I originally thought of painting the middle a flat, blank color, but when I got into it, putting down a lot of acrylic washes, I just started to paint it in a more felt way. So it became a kind of dialect between something very concrete and something very felt. I liked the blunt presence the shape had on the wall and then penetrating the surface in the middle in what I suppose could be called a Rothkoesque kind of way."
In the mid-1970s Berthot's style evolved. His work continued to have a painterly, lyrical quality, but he added bright colors to the muted palette of earlier work and introduced rectangular bars and ovals into canvases that were now simple rectangles. Regarding the bars, he later said that he worked to uncover the tension points, or focal points, that were inherent in the vertical and horizontal axes of a grid. He said he sought "a balance between the object and the opening," and thereby "to gradually achieve balance between my two influences: the systemic and the felt." "Yellow Bar With Red," of 1977 is typical of paintings in this period.: 207 Another well-known painting from this period, "Walken's Ridge," 1975-1976, is somewhat unusual. Although a pure abstraction, it has the size and shape of Monet's Water Lily paintings—14 feet wide in two equal sections— and has, as Berthot said, the feel of a landscape.
During the 1980s Berthot began to exhibit etchings and drawings along with his paintings. The drawings were often graphite on a background of a gray enamel. The lines frequently formed ovoid shapes and were accompanied by quasi-calligraphic markings. A critic said this work contained a "poetic lyricism" that could be accessed "not at a cognitive level but at a more elemental, intuitive one." Berthot later told an interviewer that in it "gradually feeling began to predominate." The paintings of this period continued to employ ovals and rectangles in canvases on which the "materiality of pigment," as one critic noted, produced "a highly tactile surface." Another critic wrote that "the shimmering, encrusted surfaces of the 'ovals' are reminiscent of Claude Monet's late Waterlilies. The use of gold with deep reds and bright blues recall Medieval icons." Of his work at this time, Berthot said: "I try to break the code of painting and let it take on its own life without any code."
During the early 1990s, Berthot continued to employ bars and ovals in paintings. Of this period in his career, Berthot later said, "I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt." He said that he wanted to "make the painting something you experience rather than just see." His "Hard Line" of 1980-83 is an early example of this approach, showing a rectangle in a muted background having bright accents that a critic said were and unexpected fiery flame. In 1994, Pepe Karmel, writing in the New York Times, said of works like these: "Despite the lack of recognizable imagery, the paintings seem haunted by a nostalgia for representation." The oval shape appears as well in Berthot's drawings and etchings of this period some of which had representational content, including most often an ovoid skull.
Apart from a brief period spent in Maine, Berthot had lived in New York City from the time he moved there in 1959 until the day in 1994 when he moved his home and studio about 100 miles north of the city to a rural spot in Ulster County along the Hudson Valley in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. At this time he made a gradual transition from abstract paintings that had no clear subject to ones that, while continuing to be abstract in character, had the natural environment as their subject. Of this transition, Berthot said: "Even though my work now is landscape-based, it is more abstract than it was a few years ago. It is dealing with the space in the middle. At first I was painting the volume of the tree in space. Next, what I felt was that space itself has volume. And now, it is the light that has volume." The painting, "Chapel Trail Near Alter Road" shows the direction that his work took at this time. His drawings similarly enlarged the scope of their subjects as the untitled tree drawing of 2002 shows.
Throughout his career, Berthot consciously kept aloof from the labeled art movements of his time. He once said, "I am not interested in the new but in trying to make paintings that refuse to grow old," and on another occasion, speaking of an affinity he felt with Cézanne's approach to his work, he said: "His clear method ... is not a closure but an opening.... You have to have a form and method and within that form and method, at a certain point you have to become the servant of the painting." Summing up this attitude on another occasion he said that as he worked a time would come when he felt that a painting would take over his consciousness "to dictate what it wanted to be." His paintings were his companions as well as the focus of his life. When the Phillips Collection asked to mount a major retrospective of combining the many works of his that it owned along with the work then in his studio, he declined saying he could not live without having the paintings around him.
During the course of his career critics had pointed to an increasing emotional impact in his paintings and one or two of them had said that while the paintings could be comprehended entirely on their own merits, it was possible to see in them Berthot's responses to the personal difficulties he encountered over the years of his career. While he was undergoing treatment for leukemia during the last few years of his life, Berthot produced paintings that have been seen to possess a high level of emotional content. Writing in 2015, a friend of his, the artist Elisa Jensen, referred to them as "haunting, haunted, living, breathing, and absolutely undeniably alive." Concerning one of them, called "Night, Wood, and Rock," a friend said it was "pure essence, stripped of all inessentials," and that his close observation of it infused him with a "serene acceptance of life's glory, suspended always above death, no matter death's imminence or seeming finality."