In the midst of his preparations for a new exhibit at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Jake Berthot takes time to welcome painter Ron Janowich to his Accord studio in upstate New York to talk about his life and work.
Ron Janowich (Rail): Can we begin with the accident that injured your right hand, your painting hand, which undoubtedly must have had an effect on your work?
Jake Berthot: It’s been tremendously difficult for me to learn slowly how to regain the movement of my hand, but to a great extent, I was forced to become more focused and intense about the whole recovery process. And consequently it altered the way I see and feel about my work. However, when I moved up here and began to paint the landscapes, I knew that I’d have to go through a period in which the work would demand more of a balance between the act of drawing and the painting. I suppose that out of my need to acknowledge the phenomenological presence of the things, I’ve learned to accept the new challenge of dealing with the image without making it explicitly trivial. In other words, I had to let people know, “this is a tree” and at the same time the whole space should be as felt as it is seen. What happened was that I was working on large canvases, but due partly to the injury and my own struggle I had to paint smaller ones. I mean, I was trying to work in the modest 22"× 30" format and I couldn’t get the mark to carry the scale, space and distance. In order to make “big” paintings I had to paint really small paintings, and that’s why the work to be shown in New York is extremely small. In a way I’m now getting to be much more sensitive to the mark, size, scale and their difference. The new body of work is atmospheric but at the same time [the pieces are] organized within their own structure. It’s something I really am trying hard to be conscious of. Hopefully, the synthesis can be gradually attained one day.
Rail: Some of us who have been following your work from the late 1970s and throughout the ‘80s found the change from abstraction to representational quite shocking. To me it seemed quite a natural progression. I always see them, in spite of their dense surface—resulting from the painterly application and somewhat formal structure—consistently evoking a sense of atmosphere. Therefore they always seem to be some form of contemplation of nature. And, more specifically, landscape painting. What are your thoughts on the changes?
Berthot: First of all, I’ve never thought that I’d end up here. Secondly, I’ve never worked representationally before and I certainly had no intention of being a representational painter, but while I was building my studio I got a chainsaw and started to cut down the trees in order to clear out and shape the necessary space outside so I could have a view. Martin Puryear, who lives nearby, came by and I was pointing out the formation of the landscape, how a certain alley goes this or that way, how I’d choose to leave certain smaller trees and cut the big ones. I guess I was organizing the space of the land. So Martin said to me, “You sound like a landscape painter.” And I said, “No way will I ever be a landscape painter.” But finally, as soon as the studio was built, I began to work on mostly drawing, which was inherently and exactly like what I did to the outdoor space. I realized that I was drawing the space that I had created. And the whole spatial construction of the drawing rests a great deal on geometry.
Rail: Just like your early abstractions, they also generated from geometry, though it was much simpler in that it dealt with the proportion of the rectangle. You have recounted your observation in the past of de Kooning’s landmark painting, Woman I, where the vertical bar that was painted in metallic paint in the right of the canvas, was the point of your discovery, in that everything else in the painting was to be measured in relation to that vertical bar. It makes great sense to your early abstract paintings.
Berthot: You have to understand, when I came to New York, I didn’t really have any formal training in painting or art history. My only education was largely self-taught, mostly spending endless hours on my own or, on some occasions, with other painters’ friends in the museums, either at the Met or the MoMA, just like what Gorky and de Kooning and the rest of the Abstract Expressionist painters did in their formative years. However, I was fortunate that Milton Resnick took me under his wing, and through his friendship and guidance I became more aware of the real possibility of painting. As far as my discovery of the silver bar in de Kooning’s Woman I is concerned, it was a kind of epiphany for me at the time, because prior to that point, I was very involved in making big and complicated-shaped canvases that would take a month or two to build (the stretchers) and maybe only two or three hours to paint them. It was utterly absurd. Besides, nobody really wanted those paintings anyway. So for a period about two years, I only focused on a series of drawings on graph paper, trying to analyze every possible form through geometry. But as my study of geometry got more complex and far removed from my initial intention, the urge to get back to the sensual activity of painting became more pronounced. Again, de Kooning’s Woman I has both the simplified geometry in the vertical bar and the physical presence of the paint. A perfect combination, really.
Rail: What that vertical bar also does is pull the image, which was painted off the center to the left, to the right of the canvas. It’s an amazing tension between the stable form of the vertical bar and the instable glimpse of the image. But let’s get back to your current work: how did the geometry become so reinvested in the landscape paintings?
Berthot: That’s partly because the woods were so dense, I couldn’t see anything. It’s just like what I had to do in cutting down the trees with some discrimination, and creating pathways around the land, which was a pragmatic act, but unconsciously it does coincide with my long preoccupation with geometry.
Rail:[Laughs]. Nature is not that perfect after all. It’s too chaotic—hence your job is to bring some order into it. But how does the drawing become an integral part of the painting process?
Berthot: Very simple. I just have to be content that I’ll make bad paintings for about a year or two and see what happens next! All I know is that I don’t want to make metaphor nor copy nature. I have to be true to my calling. And I certainly am not afraid of nature.
Rail: There’s a painting by Caspar David Friedrich called Monk by the Sea, in which a monk stands, a solitary central figure in the foreground before the immensity of sky and water. It’s what was called cosmic totality or cosmic emotion, where the sense of immensity in which the individual is swallowed up and feels his own nullity but is happy to be engaged in it. It’s very interesting because I think the Emersonian tradition, which regards the romantic view of individual intuition as the highest form of knowledge and the view of God as eminent in nature, led to the mystical belief in individualism and the harmony of all things in the life of nature. But what is so curious about the history of landscape painting is that it’s always painted by those who’re from the city, rather than the ones from the countryside. A good example of that is the impressionists, who were an educated and privileged group of townsmen who were able to evoke a sophisticated coding system by which mountains, water, trees all found their equivalents on the painted surface. That would include Cezanne and Pissarro, even though they moved permanently to the country later on. The same thing could apply to you as well, don’t you think?
Berthot: I suppose so. Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” part of his famous winter lecture, was very important to me in the sense that it inspired me to rethink what it means to be an American spiritually and emotionally. We don’t really have monuments like the Europeans do—I mean their ancient cathedrals, old palaces, buildings and so on. Our monuments are the bigness of nature. Now that I’m living in her, I feel as if I’m living in the American monument. I think that difference manifests in American painting as well. For instance, in Turner’s painting, he would paint a small figure standing on a beach, partly for scale, and partly for inviting the viewer to enter into the picture, but in Rothko’s, particularly the ones in his Chapel down in Houston, the viewer becomes that little figure and he or she cannot enter the painting. In other words, the painting enters the viewer, and that interests me a lot.
Rail: Would you think in similar terms with [Albert Pinkham] Ryder or [Ralph] Blakelock?
Berthot: Well, I like the kinds of images and spaces that they create. More importantly, they maintain an incredible integrity of the material and at the same time make the material itself earth. But I actually prefer George Inness because of his use of shifting sight lines, which generates multi-points of interest. Also, it is a different kind of light that exists in Inness’ with more atmosphere than in Ryder’s or Blakelock’s. But let me shift the subject to another direction. In painting, there’s also an element of time, which is very similar to that of music, in that music is created through the structure of time and intervals. I’m very interested in the notion of time that could permeate in my work. I mean you’re not going to see anything in my paintings if you don’t give them time. There’re paintings that only demand five seconds, ten seconds, half a minute, or the whole lifetime of looking. And I’d very much like my paintings to demand a greater span of time; not merely quick glimpses.
Rail: Henri Bergson’s discovery of time as a fundamental, irreducible component in our experience, which is not to be confused with time measured like clocks or timetables, but is time as lived. It’s not made up of points that can be isolated but is characterized by indivisibility and interaction, and is connected to memory as well. However, it’s tied with keen observation like in Cézanne’s paintings.
Berthot: Yes, I agree. I feel that more in his landscapes than I do with the still-lifes. The other thing is that if one tried to walk into his painting, one would fall into an abyss like the great painting of the quarry and Mont Sainte-Victoire, where the visual panorama is brought close to the peak; it’s even more accessible than some earlier pictures. The viewer is looking up this dramatic quarry and the mountain like a heroic sculpture. It’s so restless because there’s no platform of earth or foreground to tranquilize the strained upward movement. It’s right up to your face. That’s what I really want to do—I’m trying to get to a point where I can paint the out out. This is where I feel great admiration for Milton Resnick who had the courage to paint the out out. When you stand in front of his painting, it makes absolute perfect, concrete sense as a visual field being brought and compressed to its physical frontality.
Rail: Let’s go back a bit to what we had briefly discussed before. The difference about abstraction is that it’s generally painted vertically while landscape painting is horizontal, so the shift does coincide with the semiotics of the frame. Vertical format being subjective, horizontal objective. For instance, in early analytical Cubist paintings—let’s say Braque’s more specifically than Picasso’s, just because Braque had always stayed consistently with the cubist idiom, he never moved away from it really—which were painted mostly in vertical formats, hence, subjective. But when Braque moved to Normandy, the surrounding landscape and the sea found their way into his paintings. And through his admiration of the late Van Goghs, he eventually became a landscape painter. So I see that evolution occurred in your work as well. In addition, there’s an inherent subtlety, and other similarities, that you and Christopher Wilmarth share, partly because of the need to rebel against minimalism, in that there’s a sense of longingness and emotionality in both your and his work. You both are real romantics. The only difference is his being ephemeral and light while yours is dense and textured, especially in the “red paintings” where the oval motif is both presenced and nearly lost at the same time.
Berthot: After Christopher’s suicide, it was like the whole city warped, shifted and dissolved. I stopped painting. I basically withdrew. I wanted to paint paintings that were in their form gentle, yet demanding and difficult. I decided to use red, a color which has a very narrow range (that is once it is mixed it becomes another color like orange or pink) and to use the color as if its range of hues were that of green. In the “red paintings” I wanted to move away from the existential. I was reaching for something more quiet and concrete. It was my attempt to get out of the psychological and emotional state I was in. And it was my way of saying goodbye to Chris. After these red paintings, or in the midst, I had fallen in love and did a series of paintings called the “Kristen Paintings”, which are lighter more sensuous and lyrical in spirit. I was very much in love and I wanted the paintings to mirror that.
Rail: How do you feel about being known as a painter’s painter like a very few of your contemporaries such as Bill Jensen, Elizabeth Murray, Thomas Nozkowski…?
Berthot: There’s no greater honor than being acknowledged as such by other painters. The painter, as if a blind man could, through touch, feel his way through a familiar yet unknown terrain and in feeling gain sight. The alchemy and the sensual concreteness of paint are the mysterious things; it [painting] has more to do with simultaneity of feeling and seeing that leads to thought, rather than thought leading to feeling and seeing.
Rail: What would you say is the difference between thinking and seeing experience?
Berthot: I believe that one can unravel and address the inherent confrontation between the expression and presence that exists within a work, as a result of seeing experience that directs the thinking process—not the other way around. For instance, after having seen the recent great exhibition of Cézanne and Pissarro at the Modern, I was amazed at how this time—for me I saw how each painting was completed with a focused specificity. A focused specificity resonates in each painting, which had been questioned, reshaped, and revisioned depending upon each of the paintings’ needs. The whole experience made me realize that such works’ essence is invested with a subjective truth. A subjective truth that has its own singular and specific domain, which has nothing to do with reproduction through flat image like that of Baudrillard’s vision of the simulacral commodity-image which finds its validity in the reproducible. Let me paraphrase something that Adorno wrote in his last unfinished book Aesthetic Theory, which is, “Art is the model for philosophy, philosophy is not the model for art.” I mean we’re aware of the significant reversal since Warhol and the proceeding Poststructurist critique of referential representation. As Warhol once famously said, “I want to be a machine.” Well, I don’t. To me, and I’m sure most of the painters will agree with me, paintings shall always be made as long as we still use our hands for all the necessary manual and sensual functions of everyday lives.
Rail: Well, then what aspects in the painting process could one negotiate?
Berthot: Milton Resnick always said to me, paint to the place where the painting becomes the boss and the painter merely the servant and then you really are painting. In other words, if the painting is already realized, it is not where it should end, but is rather the point where the painting begins. This for me is also the lesson of Cézanne, for he had great clarity in that what appears to be solid at the same time remained open. I believe that in order to enter into this realm of painting one has to have the courage to confront and deal with contradiction. One has to have the courage to embrace both visibility and ambiguity. This is what makes painting a hellish and impossible endeavor, but when a painting is realized, if only for a fleeting moment, it is an exquisite pleasure.
As Emerson once said, “We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of spirit, of poetry, a narrow belt.” It is precisely here that I, regardless of intention, shape and form, exist as a working artist. It is precisely here, from the two opposites of this narrow belt, that the hard questions are asked and in asking give tension and depth to the spirit of art.
Rail: And I’m sure you know the story about Thoreau who refused to pay tax for he had earned what little money his life required by surveying, working as a handyman, and living in a small cabin. As a result, he was put in prison. So when Emerson came to visit him, he said, “What are you doing in there?”
Berthot: And Thoreau responded,” What are you doing out there?” [Laughs].