by Eric Holzman

 Jake Berthot, graphite on Xerox (image from Artnet)
A VISIT TO JAKE’S                         

Kazimira and I arrived from Soho,  around twelve oclock. We could see through the front door, Mara, (Mara Held) and Jake were sitting comfortably around Jake’s Kitchen table. Mara signaled through the front door for us to come in. Jake and Mara were drinking tea with local honey.

Jake lived in Accord, upstate NY, in a beautiful home converted from a chicken coupe. It was opened like a loft, but cozy like a country home, nestled in a beautiful landscape that Jake designed when he moved in. Jake had removed enough trees to reveal the terrain surrounding the house, which was full of undulating, softly shifting slopes, rocky planes and graceful young trees that now populate his paintings and drawings. There had once been a quarry on this spot.

Inside, the walls were covered with beautiful things. There were two Pisarro’s and prints by Cezanne and Renoir. There was a Bill Bailey drawing and a small sculpture by Bruce Gagnier. And there was a small masterpiece by Jake, an earlier abstract painting that radiated a quiet silvery-blue light.

Jake and Mara were already engaged in conversation and we joined right in.  I brought up the Al Held show at Cheim Read and wondered if anyone had written about it yet. Jake said John Yau had. He felt John Yau hadn’t done justice to Al Held’s place in the NY School. It was nice to hear one artist defend the reputation and achievement of another with such affection and reverence, especially since they could not have been further apart in temperament and philosophy. When I read the article myself, it did seem positive. I thought that it went into depth to describe Al’s history and achievement. Al Held was a full generation older than Jake but they had known each other.  I was enjoying my good fortune at being a part of this conversation. Al had been one of my  teachers in grad school at Yale. I spent two years working around Al. I liked Mara, his daughter a lot, and was pleased that we had become friends. 

Speaking more about Al’s show, I related that I had sat on the floor near the big red painting during a panel, held earlier that week at the gallery. As people spoke, I felt Al's presence, that is to say his muscle and intellect, through the force and physicality of the painted surface that was just over my left shoulder.

Mara said she was too shy to say so at the panel, but felt there was more to be said about his color in these paintings and that no one had really gotten to the essence of what that was about.

Kazimira, who of us four, makes work which most resembles Al’s geometric abstractions, spoke in interesting ways of how it was both like and unlike her own work. Jake spoke in some depth about all this also. Then for a while I had the pleasant feeling that although my connection and understanding of what was being said was slipping away, I was still enjoying the music of the conversation. It had veered into the more abstract realms of space, shape, all over formalism, and the metaphysics of the painted surface.

Later, Jake spoke highly of Ivan Karp; a dealer who Jake said had been wonderful to him, giving him a yearly stipend equal to that of his teaching salary so he could be full time in the studio.

Margrit and Bill Jensen entered into our conversation.  They thought perhaps Kazimira and Margrit had gone to the same Catholic school.  Jake and Mara who know Bill and Margrit well, agreed that Margrit was not quite a saint, but close. The conversation switched back to Al. We all agreed that though Al loved nothing more than his own work, his love and commitment to painting in general was monumental. He enjoyed friendships with artists as romantic as Bill and Jake.  I said I could attest to his inclusive nature, remembering my student years when Al made sure I was invited to join nights of eating, drinking and arguing with Joe Santore, Judy Pfaff and Nabil Nahas. These were the nights he stayed over in New Haven between his two teaching days. I don’t remember contributing much during those nights. I was shyer than my friends.

This March day in the Catskills was still cold and wintery, though the snow had mostly been washed away on the weekend by warmer air and rain. Inside we were toasty, the sunlight pouring through the large windows and the wood stove easily heating the whole space. Now we were deeper into the warmth of afternoon light.

The conversation swung back to our personal experiences painting. Jake and Kazimira and Mara spoke of painterly technique and the perils and challenges of scale, the meaning of touch, and how these interrelated. Eventually we realized that hours had flown by and still we had not visited Jake's studio, so we made our way outside.

 Jake Berthot, 1994, oil on linen

Jake’s studio was a nice size, large enough, but not immense, just the right size for Jake's work. It was filled with the stuff of painting. It was orderly, studio-clean, with a prevailing feeling of quiet meditative stillness and of life being lived.

The first things Jake took out for us to look at were three very handsome pencil drawings in different stages of completion. Each exposed the mysterious personal geometry upon which he built his compositions. Earlier he had spoken of this component of his work, its function and its evolution. Honestly, I didn’t really follow his explanation at the time, but upon reflection I have some insights. Since Jake came to landscape painting from a different angle than everyone else, that is abstract painting, I imagine the grids provided a scaffold upon which he could build and construct his compositions. They must have made the space between things seem palpable and real, measurable in some way. With them in place, he could more readily move and feel his way through the warp and flow of form and space. Jake came to the sensuality of landscape and representation not through direct observation, but through abstraction and geometry which was also real to him. I bet he saw, felt or sensed those grids underlying the physical world, connecting and flowing through everything that we inhabit.

Next we looked at a gorgeous sketchbook from the 60s and 70s that was exclusively geometry. It reminded me of the flavor of abstraction in the air at that time among some artists I thought were very advanced.

The first oil painting Jake showed us was the largest we would see that day. When he
had carefully placed it on the wall a surprising thing happened. All the easy talk ceased. We were struck dumb. What Jake had said about his geometry and the structure of his landscapes had been totally realized in this canvas. We all recognized it and felt its presence and depth immediately. It got inside my head. We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at other new work. Slowly, silently, one at a time.

The end of the day was bittersweet. After a meal at Japanese place in town we said our goodbyes, as that cold, kind-of-scary Hudson River Valley winter twilight settled in. There was plenty of that purplish grey color Jake had spoken of earlier in the afternoon, the color of trees in a Catskill winter.

We met up several more times, usually at a museum show that Jake came down to see.  At the Gauguin show at MOMA the beautiful painter and mutual friend, Power Boothe, joined us. It was a show I was prepared to love but didn’t. Jake did. He was already weak, but spoke of, harmony, tone, color and dissonance. There was something in every painting. Jake was opened and easily moved himself into a position of appreciation.

I saw Jake for the last time 2 months ago, and he was dying. He was still a handsome man. His mind and his talk were fresh and sharp. He wanted to die because he didn’t have the energy to paint. He was angry because he did not feel he had finished what he had started.  Still it was a wonderful visit. I must have been there five hours or more. Still, I wished I could have left him more at peace. I was told that soon after my visit, he had gotten back into the studio for a short time.  I like to think I had something to do with that. We had talked a lot about painters and painting and it was energizing and fun for both of us.

Jake was a courageous explorer, an adventurer and since I have known him, a solitary. When I imagine where he is now, I see him fully engaged creatively with his imagination and his curiosity. He is exploring in an infinitely interesting place, an infinite space that we call death.

Jake Berthot, Ashton's Tree, 2010, oil on linen


I got to know Jake, a few years before he hurt his wrist. My family and I were staying near Accord one summer and I called him out of the blue. We hit it off. He was funny, down home and brilliant. I was very happy to get to know a kindred spirit. Our dark, moody tree paintings resembled one another's, as did our search for resonance, depth and meaning. 

The search for meaning is an aspect of painting we don’t often speak of. It is a slippery slope. I think everyone knows about it, but I will try to say something about what I mean. Hmm, well soul is another word for it, like soul music and soul singer. It’s a funny thing that a lot of great modern artists and writers have made it a point to take everything including soul and spirit out of painting. Amazingly you can actually make great work without it. Maybe the shear force of intention and creative intelligence or playfulness can actually be another guise for what I am calling meaning.  But some work emphasizes the mind primarily while some speaks to the body and soul.

I remember a conversation Jake and I had about this. Jake was referring to what he called sensation painters. Cezanne used the same word. Sensation painters evoke a feeling response, in contrast to more conceptual artists. Ironically, Jake said Van Gogh was the first conceptual painter.  He saw Cezanne as his primary sensation painter and I think he mentioned Giorgione in that conversation. Jake was certainly a sensation painter and a most soulful one. If you didn’t get that from him, you might have missed him. He left out a lot and didn’t embellish. Some paintings weren’t that easy to love. Sometimes they seemed as if he had felt his way through the darkness with his fingertips. In fact many of Jake’s paintings reside more in my heart more as a feeling, than as a visual event.

For me, taken as a whole, the work was an expression of faith and philosophy. It is a treatise on a way of being in the world of consumption and competition. It is an alternative to irony. Jake's work attempts to build a bridge to another way of being, to the sacred. Sometimes, I think he got deeper into hidden worlds than anyone since Cezanne. For Jake painting was a portal, a transporter to other dimensions where the line between life and death fades.

After his accident, I remember, in an attempt to see something positive in his suffering, I said to him that perhaps his pain had driven him deeper into himself, and that the work reflected this in a positive way. He would have none of that idea. Still I wonder at the role suffering had in Jake’s painting and Jake’s world. I read recently that at this time in man’s evolution, the ‘way of the cross’ is no longer a necessary component to spiritual growth. Jeeze I hope so.

We artists are drawn to our paths unconsciously, by character and personality, even by nature. But at the same time, through trial and error, we make choices about who we want to be and what we want to do.  I thought of Jake as a person of character and I think he consciously became a painter of soul.  I admit that his paintings are not easily understood in modernist terms. However, painters with an emotional and humanist bent who bring warmth, and sensuality, and a measure of peace into our world may be considered among the most modern of painters. They seem to paint with optimism and responsibility toward the future.

Jake Berthot, Skull, 2012, oil on linen

Images courtesy of Betty Cunningham Gallery