Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jennifer Bartlett's In the Garden

Artist, Jennifer Bartlett, is well known for her abstract paintings. The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many other institutions have featured her work. Yet during the winter of 1979-1980 (an early part of her career), Bartlett switched visual mediums. At the time she was invited to live at a villa in Nice. Rather than the picturesque scene she anticipated, the rainy climate was too gloomy to roam around and Bartlett forgo intentions to paint and instead focused on drawing the humble garden surrounding her rented villa. A review from the New York Times about Bartlett’s work reads, “The main adornment of the garden, apart from its natural elements, was a rectangular pool on whose edge was poised a saucy French cliché, the kitschy-classical statue of a urinating youth” (Glueck). Flipping through the dozens of pages studying this nude statue, I wondered how does an artist so interested in abstract and conceptual art spend an entire season sketching one scene?

Pencil (left) and brush and ink (right) on paper
Charcoal on paper

Conceptual art can be defined as art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the viewer (if in visual art) diminishing focus of a traditional art product like painting. After entering Yale University Jennifer Bartlett was absorbed in the art communities exploring these newly developed questions in conceptual art. She specifically cites Sol Lewitt and his "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" as a critical source of inspiration. Common commentary of her work points to its presence of both representational and abstract art. Her collection, In the Garden, is a sequence that highlights the ebb and flow of Bartlett’s balance between the representational and the abstract. In the introduction chapter of In the Garden, John Russell describes Bartlett's early work as “fastidious and geometric, with abstract subject matter”. Her fascination with the geometric and the grid is evident in the focus of her garden studies. The tiled pool plays a central role in most of the drawings (for instance, see In the Garden #196).

Pencil on paper
In research, I found that Bartlett’s sketches of the garden were formally presented in two ways. One of which was publication of a book, Jennifer Bartlett: In the Garden, from which pages were used in this blog post. The 200 total pages of her work are presented in chronological order almost as if Bartlett had left them in a stack for the viewer to peer through. A year before the publication of the book, In the Garden was exhibited at the Paul Cooper Gallery in New York in 1981. There drawings were framed and lined along the gallery walls in rows. Grace Glueck in her 1981 review of the exhibition for The New York Times described the exhibition:

The 200 drawings, which fill the entire gallery, have the force of an environment. It gives a daunting first impression. But like an absorbing novel, once you're into it, you can't put it down.

In the Garden #1-80. Installation at the Paula
Cooper Gallery, New York, in 1981
In the repetition of a single scene and the accumulation of drawings, Bartlett forms a grid. The gallery installation calls to mind the tiles of the garden pool and the grids structure of Bartlett’s work that is central to her later stages of her work. Works completed in the garden seem to highlight a transformational process from a physical scene to an abstract style where sense of place and detail is extracted from the work.

IN THE GARDEN #196 (1981)
Charcoal on paper
Jennifer Bartlett received a M.R.A from the Yale School of Art after receiving her undergraduate degree at Mills College. Prior to academia Bartlett grew up in Long Beach, CA that, she noted, framed her experience in the garden in Nice. As mentioned earlier, she turned to other mediums including brush and ink, conté, oil pastel, gouache, and crayon. The drawings in the blog post focus on those completed with pencil and charcoal. With these mediums Bartlett produced many styles of sketching. Pointillism is among many another techniques utilized in the garden sketches. She plays with a variety of approaches to depth, scale, focus and shadow. Often, one-point perspective is used, but the viewpoint of the scene transforms throughout the collection. For instance, “IN THE GARDEN #196 (1981)” introduces a new viewpoint set behind the statue.

I was drawn to Bartlett’s series of sketches based on my interest in landscape architecture. What I considered while viewing Bartlett’s drawings is that proportion and realism are not exclusively important elements of representing the effect of landscape. Sol Lewitt writes that, “Different people will understand the same thing in a different way”. Adding to this statement, Bartlett’s work reminds me that the individual can experience the same thing in different ways. Her many representations of one scene collect as layers and layers of interpretation. Unexpectedly, I found that the experimentation with the abstract can inform the representation architecture; archiving and communicating memory of our experience in a space. As I look forward to developing my own style of depicting landscape, abstract styles will be valuable inspiration.  

In the Garden #66 (1980)
Colored pencil on paper, 26x19.5


Bartlett, Jennifer, and John Russell. In the Garden. New York: Abrams, 1982. Print.

Glueck, Grace. "ART: GARDEN DRAWINGS BY JENNIFER BARTLETT." The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Jan. 1981. Web. <>.

"Jennifer Bartlett (American, 1941)" Artnet, Web. <>.

Lewitt, Sol. "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art." Tufts University, n.d. Web. <>.

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