Figure 1. Jennifer Bartlett, Chicken Tracks, 1973
Enamel over silkscreen on steel plates, 38 x 38 inches (96.5 x 96.5 cm)
© 2012 Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett

by Matthew Bailey

Since the early 1970s, Jennifer Bartlett has used rigorous systematic procedures such as mathematical and chance operations to determine a priori the nature of her work. Together with the serialized use of the grid that characterizes her art, these strategies are a means of de-skilling, or eliminating traditional forms of manual virtuosity from her practice, in order to keep in check the arbitrary nature of artistic subjectivity. Bartlett departed from Conceptual processes, however, in her ongoing engagement with the language of representation and with the finished work of art as an object of aesthetic appeal. As Calvin Tomkins has noted, Bartlett’s work has the ring of Conceptual art but not the look: “For Bartlett, the mathematical system was not important in itself; its only function was to provide a means of getting work done. The benefits came from the physical act of applying paint, not from the system.”1

In works such as Chicken Tracks (1973; fig. 1), made by hand-painting enamel dots within silk-screened grids baked onto steel panels, Bartlett blurred the boundaries between painting and drawing as well as those between representation and abstraction. Chicken Tracks is part of her “nine-point” series, which employed a limited vocabulary of black and red dots. As a point of departure for each work, the initial placement of nine red dots on the first of nine one-foot-square steel panels was determined randomly by drawing numbers. The black dots on each subsequent panel were then arranged according to a predetermined system—in this case, the red dots served as the point of an arrow, with each line growing by one dot on each subsequent panel.2

Bartlett presumably called the finished objects Chicken Tracks because of the way the resulting abstract compositions resemble the randomly patterned steps of pecking chickens. Yet the schematic nature of her gridded dots and serialized panels seems to impose a strict order on both art and nature, reducing the meanderings of chickens to a set of predictable patterns just as repetitive operations, grids, and formulas suppress the arbitrariness of artistic subjectivity and process. If John Cage delighted in the randomness of art and nature, Bartlett delights in establishing order in both. For Bartlett, rigorous concept and aesthetic allure are not mutually exclusive but are indeed congruent. Moreover, the viewer’s perception of the artist’s systematic operations can at times be overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of looking at her sensuous enamels and lustrous steel panels.


1. Calvin Tomkins, “Drawing and Painting,” in Jennifer Bartlett, by Marge Goldwater et al. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center; New York: Abbeville, 1985), 17.
2. Ibid., 20.


Matthew Bailey

Matthew Bailey is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology and a Lynn Cooper Harvey Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. A former Henry Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Dissertation Fellow in American Art, he has also received a Tyson Scholar Fellowship from the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art for fall 2012. His dissertation, Turbulent Bodies: Disruptive Materiality in American Painting, 1880–1940, historicizes the physical act of painting by select American artists by examining paint in terms of material culture and painting itself as a phenomenal process, shaped by evolving attitudes towards the material world and somatic experience.

Jennifer Bartlett

Jennifer Bartlett (b. 1941, Long Beach, CA) received her BA from Mills College, Oakland in 1963 and her MFA from Yale University School of Art and Architecture, New Haven in 1965. Bartlett was an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, New York from 1972 to 1977. Bartlett has received awards from the Art Institute of Chicago (1976, 1986), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1983), Brandeis University (1983), Carlton College (1983), and The American Institute of Architects (1987). Her work is held in the public collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas; Tate Modern, London; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. In 2001, her piece entitled Rhapsody was installed into the atrium of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bartlett’s most recent solo exhibitions have been held at The Cleveland Museum of Art (2008); Richard Gray Gallery, New York (2008); the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York (2010); The Pace Gallery, New York (2011); and Locks Gallery, Philadelphia (2011, 2012). Her most recent group exhibitions have been held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008); the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley California (2008); P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York (2007); the Colby College Museum of Art (2007); and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC (2010). In 2013, the Parrish Art Museum will organize a solo exhibition of Bartlett’s work.

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