By John O’Hern
Andrew Wyeth wrote, “Art to me, is seeing. I think you have got to use your eyes, as well as your emotion, and one without the other just doesn’t work. That’s my art.” Writing about Wyeth just after his death, Bo Bartlett called his friend “…a Zen master. He was a contemplative. Regarding the patience it takes to discover a painting, he would sit for hours looking; he said, ‘If you sit long enough, the life will appear.” He has called Wyeth’s ability to see “a lost art. We’re scared of seeing. If we were to see the mystery of what all this is…it’s very overwhelming for our little brain.” He suggests that if we could slow down, and look, “we could, perhaps, if we’re lucky, tap into the great mystery.”
Bartlett’s encounters with the great mystery are contained in his latest paintings on view at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe in New York from July 7 to August 12.
On author Ken Wilber’s website, www.integrallife.com, Bartlett wrote, “From the smallest particle to the largest galaxy the mystery is great and I am awed by it. I have no need to name it, to quantify it, to sum it up. If I attempt to address it in my work sometimes, it is not searching for a theology or a science to explain the great mystery.”
Integral Life is “a community of people dedicated to serving others by working on their own growth and evolution.” Bartlett’s exploration of himself, the people he loves and the world at large revealed in his paintings, sometimes subtly and sometimes only we pause to allow ourselves to see.
When Andrew Wyeth painted he tapped into the moment,” Bartlett says. “Almost anyone who looks at this paintings feels the universal in his microcosm… “In the ’70s I read Albert Elsen’s Purposes of Art. He wrote about the reasons for art, the influenceson it and the influences it has,” he continues. “ He broke the influences down into different strata like religious, political, propaganda, personal. That made me think about the different reasons for the making of a work of art and the different ways a viewer can see it.”
Elsen wrote in the introduction, “The working definition of art used for this book is that art is the skillful and imaginative creation of objects which interpret human existence and produce an aesthetic response. As ego-gratification or extensions and metaphors of human experience, paintings, sculpture and architecture can be shown to have been effective means of achieving harmonywith the visible and invisible world.”
Bartlett began drawing in pencil on the back of church bulletins during long services on Sunday mornings in Columbus, Georgia. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as privately with Nelson Shanks. In 1975, when he was 19, he had called Wyeth about studying privately with him but Wyeth told him he didn’t take students. He invited him to stop by his studio the next day, however. Bartlett mistakenly went to the artist’s home and was greeted by a startled Betsy Wyeth who said she didn’t know where her husband was. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that he heard again from Betsy. She had read a devastating review of his work by Roberta Smith in the New York Times stating, “As consciousness raising, this is fairly simple-minded; as history painting, it’s idiotic.” Betsy had noted on Bartlett’s resume that he had studied filmmaking and invited him to make a film about her husband’s life and work. He has spent nearly every day of the next five years with the Wyeths and completed his documentary Snow Hill in 1995. The experience was greater than the student/teacher relationship he had hoped for 20 years before. “It was a continual lesson about how one can live one’s life fully, moment to moment. This is why I consider Andrew Wyeth my “ Artistic Father,” Bartlett says.
Wyeth wasn’t and isn’t accepted in many parts of the “art world”Smith’s review put the damper on Bartlett’s early career. Their work couldn’t be more different on the surface, Wyeht’s nearly monochromatic, subtle and intimate, Barlett’s large in scale, colorful and complex. But beneath the surface is the awareness of andconnection with the universal, the “great mystery.”
Bartlett learned from reading Elsen that people can appreciate a painting just for its surface. He says, “ You can’t know how people will interpret a painting. All you can control is what’s right there on the canvas. You can understand others’ interpretations, though. It’s like seeing things through different lenses.”
He learned to be true to his own temperament. He explains, “Mine is the temperament of a boy who grew up in the South and went to church with his parents on Sunday. That’s different from growing up in Bronx. We change, but there are those core things that remain.
I like everything to a fault,” he continues. “Art is incredible. I’m able to take it all in and it comes out through the filter of who I am. I’m trying to make the work I’d like to see in the world. In a way art has become like a sport with no rules. Games have rules - baseball is baseball, gold is golf. In the old days, record stores had bins for jazz, rock and roll, folk rock. You could pick from the bins and enjoy a bit of everything. Today contemporary art isn’t like that. The latest thing is THE thing. It’s not all appreciated equally. I knew I was going to be marginalized from the start that I was not going to be part of the general conversation.
I don’t want the work to alienate people. The purpose of art is to wake you up. I have an idea and I present it in way that looks great. Duke Ellington said, ‘ If it sounds good, it IS good.’ You have an idea and see it through to the smallest detail. You’ve considered every interpretation, every detail, every inch of the canvas.” The rest is up to the viewer.
Consistent with the view of the universal, he explains, “Each thing is part of a larger whole. Art isn’t completed until it’s understood – or misunderstood. Art is a living document. As you’re making a painting you’re in the moment but you’re thinking about the past and everything you’ve ever done. You also have an eye on the future. The painting exists in the present moment and it will have existence in the future. You want it to continue to be alive.”
In 1995, I chose Bartlett’s painting, The Listeners, for an exhibition at the Arnot Art Museum –three blind men riding in the back of a hay wagon, their canes like antennae. I wondered then what they were tuned in to and mused on what they were “seeing.”
In 2013, Bartlett and his wife Betsy Eby, whom he married in 2007, released a film, See: AN Art Road Trip. The couple had set out to see America and various art sites around the country. During the journey, Bartlett began to lose his sight. In 2008, he was diagnosed with a tumor pressing on his optic nerve. A successful operation restored his sight.
In 2014, his youngest son, Eliot, passed away. Easter in the Cemetery of the Confederate Dead was painted in 2015. The painting is filled with symbols, some universal and some particular. The open tomb and three women have biblical roots as do the wounds on the young girl in the center. The cemetery holds the grave of Sen. Alfred Iverson who, in his parting speech to the Senate in 1861, said, “We will rise again and again…” giving rise to the rallying cry, “The South will rise again.” In the distance, a ghostlike figure walks away, a reference to the confederate dead or, perhaps, to the artist’s son.
A small dinghy appears often in Bartlett’s paintings. It’s most recent appearance is in The Promise Land. The artist rows the boat and the two female figures look to the future and to the past. Painting during the time of Syrian migrants escaping in overloaded boats, the painting depicts people who are obviously not migrants, but who are part of mankind’s constant search for something better. The wave appears solid, as if it is the back of a whale. “There is no right interpretation,” Bartlett says. “ I’m not trying to be didactic. All narratives are open ended. It’s more a feeling or a mood. I was addressing the idea of pushing through, deciding to move forward. You have to keep rowing. It’s an act of the will.”