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Jennifer Bartlett's Self-absorbed Yuppie Art

February 23, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

I was once acquainted with a woman as beautiful as a sunrise and modest as a swan. Everybody adored her unforced grace and unwillingness to exploit her physical charms. She had the reassuring impersonality of a lovely summer's day. All of this was so comforting that none of us realized we didn't actually know her. Radiance masked a citadel whose interior contents were secret, even to their owner. Occasionally, there were hints of shoe-leather toughness, an impersonal brilliance as vast and distant as polar ice. When these hints came, they were a bigger surprise to her than to us because she was also an enigma to herself.

Maybe everybody has known somebody like that. If so, they will likely be reminded of her on viewing the art of Jennifer Bartlett in a retrospective survey at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art to March 23. At the age of 45, the artist has been anointed with the praise of prominent critics, canonized by commissions from influential collectors and placed among the elect in important museum collections.

Yet, despite several local exhibitions, our view of Bartlett has remained fragmentary until now. A retrospective organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center provides its usual superior catalogue, a good look at a number of Bartlett's big suites of paintings, sculpture and drawings, and as much revelation as such a purposefully elusive art can provide.

Elusive and assertive.

This is preppie art. It slouches on stage casually in Bermuda shorts, a pullover with a little alligator and Topsiders. No socks. Some of the most dedicated preppies are not native New Englanders.

Jennifer Bartlett was born Jennifer Losch right here in Long Beach. She abandoned these climes as soon as she could shake the confetti from her high school cheerleader pompons. She went to Oakland's Mills College, which is sometimes called the Vassar of the West, and then moved on to Yale graduate school, where she married medical student Edward Bartlett and consorted with such classmates as Richard Serra, Rackstraw Downs, Nancy Graves, Chuck Close and Jonathan Borofsky. As soon as possible, she set up a studio in a New York loft. She never considered returning to California, regarding it as an impossible place to make serious art. Somewhere along the way, she divorced Bartlett. These days, she is married to film actor Mathieu Carriere and lives half the year in Paris.

That thumbnail profile is significant to Bartlett's art on a number of counts. The patently absurd crack about California suggests Barlett's reputed inclination to wax tough and ironical. This does not show in her work, but a belief in the mystique of the New York art world does. Her nurturing in a fabled Eastern Establishment university along with a group of friends, all of whom became successful, suggests the kind of Old Boy (and Girl) network one associates with stockbrokers, literary Mafias and stories by Mary McCarthy.

It also suggests the absolutely radical shift in the profile of the artist since the days when he was a Pollockesque, hard-drinking, Existential dropout whose wife kept her own considerable light under a bushel and worked as a waitress rather than compromise their shared principles.

Every serious artist is fueled by a desire for recognition, but in the old days there reigned a quasi-mystical belief that success was inseparable from doing good work and was always involved in the-thing-itself. Today, cynical careerism saturates artland so thoroughly that it has become the subject of a hilarious "Doonesbury" comic series.

The most common result of this climate is mountains of weak, raw work being palmed off as great art. Bartlett is living proof that it does not have to be that way. Early on, she vowed that she would quit art if she did not have a show by age 26. Her ambition is proportioned like a Rubens, her sensibility is positioned somewhere between Paul Klee and Emily Dickinson. The combination has made her an artist for her times.

This is yuppie art and so it is quite naturally about pleasure. Initially, the art was so distant some people seriously thought it had been made by a computer. Bartlett, burning with energy and ambition but bereft of ideas, started painting pointillist grids on foot-square tiles of enameled metal, which were hung in serial checkerboards so these compulsive visual-grammar drills could be endlessly expanded into operatic proportions. (Significantly, she also wrote an autobiographical novel compiling all sorts of personal anecdotes and observations into a 1,000-page tome called "The History of the Universe.")

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