Light in the Darkness: Remembering Painter Jake Berthot

Jake Berthot, a unique visionary and an inspiration for several generations of painters, died just before the start of the new year. Berthot’s moody abstractions and landscapes were complex, and although they were perceptibly dark, their focus was always light. His art, which changed significantly and repeatedly over the course of his career, has long been an inspiration for other artists. Betty Cuningham Gallery, which represents Berthot, announced his passing.

Early in his career Berthot was one of a few artists who bridged the gap between an earlier generation of abstract expressionists and a younger cohort of reductivist, minimal painters. He was greatly impressed by the work of Mark Rothko and was mentored by Milton Resnick, and his work shared their Romantic, formalist affinities. “A painting cannot exist without presence or gaze,” he explained shortly before his death. “If I’m concerned with presence, I build a shape with a different intention than if I’m concerned with gaze.” He built shaped canvases and painted in near-monochrome grays and earth tones, similar to artists such as Brice Marden and Helmut Federle. Works such as Bone (1973), with its tetraptych, window-like grid structure, is both flatly, starkly abstract, and also suggestive of deep space, light, and meditative emotional resonance.

In the 1980s and ’90s he went through a period of brighter abstraction that included gestural imagery and references to earlier modernist art. His 1991 painting Red Point (Form for Brancusi) is an homage to the famed cubist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, with a large red oval in a blue field. Multicolored lines stream from the form, alluding to the kind of movement that the elder artist’s bronzes suggest.

In 1996, Berthot moved to upstate New York and gradually the atmospheric depth of his minimal work began to coalesce into recognizable references to the natural world, including intense attention to light, foreshadowed in his earlier work. Chiaroscuro works such as Janlori Loop (2008-9) show the kind of development and return to realism that Berthot made in his late career. Although hazy and not distinctly representational, the image can be read as rolling clouds over the countryside’s hills. More explicitly pictorial images, such as Icarus (2008) and Untitled (2010), depict trees and atmospheric landscapes in a manner indebted to forebears of Resnick and Rothko: J.M.W. TurnerCaspar David Friedrich, and other Romantic painters. 

Throughout his life, Berthot strived to show the inexpressible—in minimalism, in abstraction, in naturalism. His varied explorations are an example for all artists who strive to find a voice capable of speaking truth in many visual languages. He will be missed.

Stephen Dillon

Discover more artists at Betty Cuningham Gallery.

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