Sue Scott Gallery

Sunday Morning: An Interview with Jennifer Bartlett

Sue Scott

On a beautiful Sunday morning in October, Jennifer Bartlett and I had a delightful conversation that touched on topics ranging from her childhood drawings to her use - or non-use - of imagery and iconography, to recurring themes in her work, to the process of printmaking, and finally to the relationship of her work to the art world in general.

Bartlett's work - including subjects such as season, elements, swimmers and the twenty-four hours - reflects her active mind, her interest in marking the passage of time and her openness to the effects of chance in subject matter or process.  The esthetic beauty  and quality of Bartlett's paintings and prints derive from her concern with how they are executed and her commitment to keep going until her prints are perfect - even if it requires 100 screens.

SS: I am curious about your use of imagery and whether you reject a metaphorical reading of your work.  You've been quoted as saying "the objects in my paintings aren't symbols.  They're not standing for things other than themselves." However, others see significance in the objects you depict, and one writer even discusses the house as your alter ego.

JB: I have changed a lot in my attitude toward certain uses of imagery.  I think I can say with all honestly that I am not interested in creating a symbol for an existing set of feelings.  I am not interested in that kind of signmaking.  However, in Air 24 Hours I found a lot of information that I didn't understand until I remembered certain things about my past.  So I think there are things I gravitate toward, and whatever my personal drama is will be acted out within the framework of the painting.

I agree with Alex Katz; there is the subject matter and then there is the content of the painting.  And the subject matter is a device, it's a starting place.  The content is something different.

For instance, in the Seasons, the subject matter is the four seasons...

...and the number of disparate objects that find their way into the paintings.  The content is the way in which they are painted.

And your ideas for images?

The images are essentially received images that I then think around.  Even though I loathe surrealism, there is a surrealistic aspect to the gathering of a box, a skeleton and a butterfly in the middle of a landscape.  I liked thinking about whether it would rain or snow in the spring painting and the quality of the light in each.  How summer light is different from autumn light, about the different times of day of each season.  Is spring early morning or early evening?

Did you make the Seasons as a further development of your use of the seasons in Rhapsody?

The Seasons happened because I was asked to do a commission for Seibu Department Stores.  At the same time I committed to do a ballet for Lucinda Childs, which I decided to do as the elements.  I had already started on the elements as an extended body of work, and had completed fire and was beginning on air. I have just now started on earth.

Both the Seasons and the Elements began to share exactly the same images - the red box, the skeleton, the tiles.  But I created both series not because of a need to do them, but because I was asked.  They were, in a sense, commissioned works that I wanted to do.

You use iconography from many cultures like the Tarot or the I Ching or even the zodiac.  The suits in the Tarot are the wand, sword, cup, or disk and represent creativity, intellect, love and money.  The Zodiac signs are divided into fire, air, water and earth.

These images have been floating around forever.  You pick them up in poetry, reading detective novels or the newspaper.  When I decided to do the elements, I was going to have three dimensional objects with each one.  For the fire series, I made an orange hexagonal table and someone told me that in Tibet it was the symbol for fire.  That was something I didn't know.   So when I was trying to come up with an image for the object for air, I called the same person who told me it was a bowl and I thought "great".

In this case, you chose the bowl because it was suggested to you.  How else do you choose your images?

No, I chose the bowl because I had made the table that led me to the person who would choose the bowl for me.  I just pick things.  Some people get nervous choosing.  I don't get nervous because I'm not interested in taste.  So if you asked me to pick something from that table, I would just pick it out.  Because I do that I think the things I pick are personally loaded.  I pick them not as a person who likes only 18th century furniture or a person who only likes St. Laurent clothes.  I assume everything has a future and a history and is capable of crablike or lateral movement.

Dick Field sees fire as destruction, I see is as creativity.  Someone sees a skeleton as death, yet it can signify regeneration.

That's what's fun about looking at paintings.  It's what you bring to it and the questions that arise when you see something familiar used differently.  But I don't have to think of my work that way, I just have to make it.

What is the idea in using a related object, as you do in the Elements?

I had done that in my painting and so I thought "why not?" with prints. My idea is that everyone of the objects fits within the box; you can have them out or in.  But they wouldn't be lined up underneath the prints, they would be placed around the room.  It's referential, seeing objects in two places and having a memory of it.

It's associative.

Like déjà vu - where you see a specific water lily leaf and wonder where you saw it before.  It's about time and about physical properties.  I've always been interested in the relationships between the thing and the thing depicted and between the thing and me.  

Is that related to your interest in abstraction and figuration?

I have never been interested in the question of the difference between abstraction and figuration until now.  I've never understood why it upset people, why they would get so hot under the collar about something being abstract or something being figurative.  I've never seen a really sad abstract painting but for that matter I guess I've never seen a sad figurative painting.  Bad of both but not sad.  I guess painting by its nature is cheerful.

The abstract/figurative issue never interested me, but now it does.  I'm working on a set of images about family life that I've thought about for two years.  I want to find out how abstraction and figuration are different for me.  I'm going to do each image in a figurative version, an abstract version and a dotted version.  The new paintings are all 6 1/2 x 9 feet and covered with a one inch grey grid.  The canvases look so beautiful I don't want to do anything to them.  I'm trying to answer for myself what the difference is between abstract, figurative and dotting.  I think back and that's what Rhapsody was about.  And that makes me think it's very hard to have a new idea.

I would like to talk about the recurring themes in your work.

The Seasons are about marking time.  Although there are a lot of disparate elements in the painting, they're painted in a very homogenized way.  The objects are painted like the grass, like the skeleton.  So they're almost there as ghosts.  It's as if you've walked into a story for which you must imagine the beginning and the end.

It's non-linear.

Right.  None of the things in the Seasons has a story.  The skeleton is obviously dead, the landscape reflects that the seasons are changing.

This notion of marking time is something you've dealt with before.

That division of and interest in time has always been a strong part of my work.  I did the seasons in Rhapsody. In Swimmers at Dawn, Noon and Dusk, I considered times of day, in air (Air 24 Hours), the hours of the day.  My first print, in fact, came from a painting - 27 Howard Street/Day and Night.  There is a daytime side and nighttime side.

As we discussed, one there is the passage of time.  Another is the subject of chance.  For example, in Nine-Point Pieces (1973) you used chance to determine placement of the shapes.

That's always been present in my work, whether I am working abstractly or figuratively.  The pieces you're talking about had 48 squares across and 48 squares down.  I had two coffee cans with numbers in each from one to forty-eight.  I would pull a number from one can for horizontal spaces and a number from the other can for vertical spaces and then plot where the point would go.  I selected nine points that way.  I was interested in whether it made a difference if you planned or didn't plan.  It was funny because sometimes the images came out looking like something and I gave them figurative names, like Bow Tie or Chicken Tracks.

Is that element of chance in your work now?

The Air paintings (Air 24 Hours) are derived very loosely from snap shots.  I shot a role of film at each hour of the day to get a base image for each hour with a haphazard, immediate quality.  And then I spread all those photos out and selected images.  The winning images seemed to be the ones that were more neutral, more fragmentary, more blurred.

At different stages in one's work there's opportunity to select a planned, methodical approach or to leave it to chance: to how I feel today, or what colors I have in the house.

The plates Alphabet 1-9 (1993) were made because I wasn't ready to start a new body of work.  I didn't have it worked out in my mind.  I thought I would just use the materials in my studio. I happened to have a lot of fancy, expensive pastel paper and plates left over from fifteen years ago.  I didn't have to buy anything, and that's an element of chance, using what exists, what is at hand.  That can also apply to ideas.

The cards and dominoes in the Seasons and the Elements are games of chance.

In terms of the observable things in the pictures, the cards and dominoes are the only thing illustrative of chance. Otherwise chance is more in the method of working. The domino games appear exactly as I played them with my studio assistant, Nancy Brooks Brody. We are both competitive. I am competitive to the extreme of being unable to play most games because I hate to lose. She enjoys the thrill of competition.

 Did you win?

Sometimes I won and sometimes I lost, but she was so psychologically thrilled by the competition I feel I lost.

The dominos document how the games were played, but I arranged the cards. What interested me was whether I would give the person in the painting a good hand or not.

But if you think about it now, it occurs to me that the game is a system of thought...

and rules...

and there's always a winner and a loser.  Games of chance are such that skill, intellectual acuity, or strength do not necessarily determine the winner.

It's the luck of the draw.

That's one possibility.  It also seems that people who like games of chance - and that usually means gambling - are putting money on things that are uncertain.  The losing can be as addicting as the winning.  There must be something exciting to those people.  But gambling makes me nervous.  There is the allure that you could win a lot of money, but the reality is that you will probably lose, and losing upsets me. 

You usually can't play games of chance alone.  I think that's critical.  There are always at least two people.

It's interactive.

Yes, and I don't think I'm fond of the interactive either.

When your prints and paintings include games, who is playing with whom?

Not the skeleton.  But the skeleton has probably played before and these cards may be a residue of those games.

Are you the dealer?


The player?

No.  Just the observer.

How has your relationship with printers affected your printmaking?

A lot, although I've only worked repeatedly with Pat Branstead and Hiroshi Kawanishi.  I really enjoy working with them.  Both are responsible, in part, for my interest in printmaking because the experience has been so positive.  It is interesting to take my ideas to someone who helps e develop them.

Are there things they push you to do?

Hiroshi is a great printmaker with a deep understanding of printmaking but a lot of it isn't discussed.  And I don't know how to discuss it.  He has the ability to push a project in directions that bring real life to it.

Pat works in an intuitive way.  Her etchings have a clunky warmth and energy to them.

How do you decide which printers to work with?

A lot of it is chance.  Someone may suggest a printer or I select one.  You do one project and then another.  I've been printing at home now, which helps.  I don't like going to shops.  I want to make prints in my own space.

There's nothing I routinely do; I don't make a print every year.  I make one when I feel like it, or when someone has pushed me really hard to do it.

Like using 100 screens or five different methods of printmaking?

Yes.  The Seasons are so complicating they don't even look like silkscreens.

Is that complication conceptual?

No, it's just what the print needs.  Using 100 screens is like doing a painting.  When does the print seem done? It's not a conceptual thing.

It's interesting that you like to do your printmaking in your home, because I wonder how much your work reflects your immediate surroundings.  After seeing one of your paintings in a gallery and then coming to your home, one sees a lot of the objects from the paintings.

Objects from my house appear only in the Elements, Seasons and 24 Hours.  The reason I like to make prints here is that I can get up and go to work.  I don't like the travel time and the waiting and going at someone else's pace.  I like to be busy.  I don't like to sit in cars going from one place to another, which is different from a driving trip, which I love.  Although I don't like to drive, I like to be driven.

So working at home is more a matter of convenience, laziness or familiarity plus the ability to do my other work during the times I'm not needed in the printmaking process.

What about your most recent prints? The Homan-ji (1993)?

I did those prints with Hiroshi, based on the drawings for the temple ceiling in Japan.  I'm doing the same thing with silkscreen that I did with the drawings - using handmade paper and gold leaf - so it will look the same but the images will be original to the prints, not seen before.  The same format, a different medium, a continuation of a thought but a new stage in it.

For our next project, we've discussed doing a print that doesn't refer to an existing work.  The print will not be a spin-off but a primary idea.

Will that be the first time you've used the print as a primary idea?

No, I did it with Aldo (Crommelynck) when I printed Glass of Water I and II.  I was in Paris and had a few extra days and asked if I could come over and do something.  So I brought some things from my house and just drew them.  Aldo and I have always intended to do something else together, but the timing has just not been right for it.  I think we will one day.

Were those prints inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem The Glass of Water?  That poem seems much like your painting; it even has a reference to card playing.

No, I am not aware of it.  How does it go?


That the glass would melt in heat,

That the water would freeze in cold,

Shows that this object is merely a state,

One of many, between two poles. So,

In the metaphysical, there are these poles

Here in the centre stands the glass. Light

Is the lion that comes down to drink.  There

And in that state, the glass is a pool.

Ruddy are his eyes and ruddy are his claws

When light comes down to wet his frothy jaws

And in the water winding weeds move round.

And there and in another state - the refractions,

The metaphysica, the plastic parts of poems

Crash in the mind - But, fat Jocundus, worrying

About what stands here in the centre, not the glass.

But in the centre of our lives, this time, this day,

It is a state, this spring among the politicians

Playing cards.  In a village of the indegenes,

One would have to still discover.  Among the does and dung,

One would continue to contend with one's ideas.


Well, that sounds right.

You may do a print as a primary idea, of it may be an immediate translation of an existing work, or it may be a replication of an existing painting.

My early prints were reconstructions of the ideas from previous works.  It was only when I got to prints like Shadow that I began duplicating an existing work.  And I did that in Elements.  They were the same size as the drawings, so they duplicated in some ways the markings of the pastel.

In his essay, Dick Field talks about the idea of working from an existing piece.  In the Seasons, I did and I didn't.  I did work from it, but I didn't try to reproduce anything accurately.  In other words, if I had had a photograph taken of a Seasons painting and then blown it up to the size of a screen, all the elements would have been tiny.  To get everything in the print, I went back to the original source material.  Things are in different locations in the prints.  The prints are based loosely on the paintings but, because of all the changes in scale and technique, are actually original in a way.

What about a more universal reading of your work, maybe a Jungian interpretation?

I hate Jung with a passion.  I find him irritating.

So you don't buy into the idea of the collective unconscious?

I buy into the idea that we're human, that we share experiences and that our experiences are more common to each other than uncommon.  There are endless individual variations on a few themes.  I'm a product of my own time and painting always seemed to me to be about painting.  The miracle is the distilled individual effort, where somebody makes a painting that is so clearly oneself.  It is a rare thing.  But to associate it with a body of thought or ideas has never been interesting to me.

What does interest you?

A change in myself that provokes change in my art.  When you reach an age, certain possibilities are closed or dead for you, certain passions are closed or dead for you.  It's hard to continually reinvent yourself.  The state of the world right now is a very disturbing one where people feel incredibly powerless.  I have lost a lot of friends to AIDS.  When you're thirty and the phone rings, it might be someone asking you for a show, someone's fallen in love with you or with someone else, someone's had a baby.  When you reach the age of fifty, you don't want to pick up the phone because it's somebody getting divorced or something has happened to someone's child or someone has been diagnosed with a terrible illness.

Even something as well-known as Vivaldi's Four Seasons is really about one season, it's about fall.  Even though we have winter, spring, and summer, it all sounds like fall to me.  There's a kind of melancholy to seasons, a kind of grieving, bittersweet, like French movies.

In the Garden #40, half silkscreen and half woodcut, is one of my favorite prints.  I did it with Hiroshi and its brown tones remind me of the four seasons.


All four seasons remind me of autumn - any four seasons, no matter who did them.  The four seasons describe a complete cycle.  When you talk about the seasons, you talk about closure.  It's not the same leaves that come back every spring, but different leaves.

I have read that you knew when you were five that you wanted to be an artist and as a child, you made a drawing of everything that is underwater.

I also drew a Spanish mission scene where you could see into the mountains behind, over the cliffs and across the sea.  There were Indians, Spanish ladies, sailors, dogs, cornfields, smoking fires, rain, and sun.

Do you see connections between what you do now and what you drew as a child?

Yes.  There's a lot of listing.  I can remember doing 300 different Cinderellas after I saw the movie.  They all had different dresses and different colored hair, but the dress shape was basically the same.

What you were doing as a child is what you do now - presenting different ways of looking at the same thing.

It was just an exercise in thinking.  It wasn't, for instance, everything under the sea, it was everything I could think of that was under the sea.

Looking back, do you see an evolution or certain cycles, or does your work move more in a linear direction?

There are distinct bodies of work and efforts in certain directions.  Right now I feel a need to simplify everything.  But my work is all about what I do with my hands, what I want to say.  All the things I've made have been a way of thinking about those things.

I've done a lot of exploratory things, which is one of the reasons I've had to work so hard to get the ideas clear so I can see them myself.  I've always envied and been sympathetic to artists who have one vision.  I think I'm a different kind of artist because I needed to do all these different things as a preparation for what may happen in my work in the years I have left to work.  And maybe that work will have a kind of continuity.  I'm not sure.  I don't know.

How do you see your work connecting with the art world at large?

I've always been out of step but everything relates to art at large.  Even during the conceptual period, the plates I developed were related to that context, but I can still comfortably work on them as I did fifteen years ago.

It's so pretty today.  We should have done the interview outside.

You can call it "Sunday Morning" like the Wallace Stevens poem.  You should look it up.  I'm sure that poem said exactly what I meant to say in response to your questions.  I feel this is Sunday morning thinking, it's not Monday or Tuesday afternoon.






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