Jake Berthot, Fellow Traveler

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

I know several people who knew Jake Berthot personally. I was not so lucky. But a fan of his work I have been for a long time, and I was deeply saddened to read of his death on December 30. He was 75.

Over the years, reading or listening to an interview with Berthot invariably resonates with me. (Several are available online.) He has often spoken about his journey as an artist with a sincerity and candidness that is becoming increasingly rare. In the class of successful and admired artists, there are few who can steer clear of pandering, posing or playing to the art buying crowd.

It is that honesty that allows him to share his vulnerability which is, in my experience, at the very core of art making I care about most. He has been willing to acknowledge that private part of an artist’s life, the one that is happening constantly during the thousands and thousands of hours spent alone in a studio. Berthot always felt like my kinsman, and by describing his own struggles he was able to put a name on my own. He made me feel less alone, less solitary.

And his paintings. They are so thoughtful and yet not cerebral. Berthot blends intelligent painting and powerful feeling. Standing in front of one of his works I am invariably struck by the herculean intention to bring something deeply authentic into form. Like his hero Paul Cezanne, Berthot is incapable of being vapid or flip. He traveled by foot, simply and steadily. It was always about the work, about gaining access—which sometimes required him to claw his way—into the next valence, to move even closer to the essence of that mysterious and compelling process.

Many obituaries and articles about Berthot’s life and work have appeared over the last few weeks. One of my favorites is by Carl Belz, a tribute that appeared on Left Bank Art Blog. I hope this is just the harbinger of more to come about Berthot and his work.

From interviews and articles, here are a few of my favorite Berthotisms, ones chosen because of the commonality I share with his way of working and seeing the world. If you have a few others that speak to you, I hope you will share them too.

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I can’t do anything but paint. That’s a blessing and a curse, but this is all I can do.

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The paintings I’m doing now, I don’t have any idea about whether they’re good, or bad, or what they are. In many ways that’s a really good place to be. These are the hardest paintings I’ve ever done, and the ones I am least sure about. [He said this in 2012!]

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People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art.

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Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you’re involved in and go where that investigation takes you.

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As a painter you can decide whether you’re going to have a system or a method. Artists like Chuck Close and oy Lichtenstein had a system—they know how to start it and what the end painting will look like.

What I prefer is more like Cezanne. He had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.

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I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

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A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history—as an embrace, rejection, or reaction—then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he’s trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that.

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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.

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Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there’s a certain amount of terror in it. That’s when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around.

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I’ve always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it—kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is—I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see.

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I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.

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If you have source, and you believe in that source, then the form will come.

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As Milton Resnick used to say, you have to become the servant to the painting. When you start you are the boss. At that point it is like a thought process, not about feeling. But at a certain point the painting takes over. There is no real “rationale” for what you do, you just have to do it.

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“Room” by Jake Berthot at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” in 2006. Photo: Keith Bedford for The New York Times

14 Comment

  1. “People want art to come to them, and it never will. You have to want to go to art.”

    Wonderful. I’ll pass that on to my students. Thank you, Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Michael. He is a true hero in my world.

  2. The best quote for me was: “I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.”

    1. “If you have source, the form will come.”
      Thank you for this post Deborah. Today was one of those low points in the studio and I needed to hear Jake (and your) words.

    2. deborahbarlow says:

      His words have carried me through many a tough day too. So glad this helped you too.

    3. deborahbarlow says:

      So many of the talented ones–truly talented ones–can say that. Like you Andrew.

  3. “I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.” Yes.
    Thank you Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Such a simple line but it says so much.

  4. 3beeches says:

    i love ‘listening’ to people outside my craft talk about their craft… there’s so much you can learn!

    1. That’s why I rely on poets to describe the creative process. They are so much better at it than I am.

  5. I met Jake a few times in the ’80’s, and also knew of him through some close painter friends of ours at the time @ McKee. He didnt think of trying to game the system nor was desperate to fit in to passing trends. He was the real deal and though I sometimes couldnt understand the path he was on, I never doubted his sincerity and desire to extend himself no matter where it went and no matter if it sold. I was very fortunate to have crossed paths with him however briefly, he was the rare artist in NYC to fully believe in the craft in the long and rewarding journey that is painting, how quaint now…..

    H
    e seemed to sometimes go backwards to re explore what he had done before, and I wondered why he revisited what was sometimes in my view not particulary fertile territory, but again his sincerity won me over every time. It was imperative that he did it, He was on a mission to get to the essence as he saw it. Total integrity. I tried to hang with him some and he was very shy and private so that didnt go anywhere, I should have tried a little harder.

    Eric Erickson

  6. andrew rodell says:

    Jake Berthot, I love your painting, truth, your total dedication to your calling, your humor and ability to talk about your painting as flowing from the river that all great artist drink from. You have given me courage and hope in my own work. I truly am saddened that the world has lost a very important artist and person. Rest in Peace,
    Andrew Rodell

  7. I loved that statement about having to “want to go to art,” too. Having just read Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, there is another of Berthot’s statements that just seems so authentic to me…the comment that Cezanne “had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.” I will go back and try to find the citation from Dutton so I don’t misquote it, but it has to do with differentiating art from craft by the inability to know ahead of time what exactly one is creating.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I liked Dutton’s book. And that distinction Berthot makes between a system and a method is a useful one. Thanks Ann, always love hearing from your poetic self.

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