“I Choose To Be Free”. Jake Berthot, 1939-2014
In this personal tribute to Jake Berthot, who died on the penultimate day of 2014, fellow painter Elisa Jensen pays tribute to a defiantly individualistic painter and charismatic educator. Information on a memorial to Jake, to be held at Betty Cuningham’s new space on Rivington Street, will be posted when available.
Two years ago I met Jake Berthot in Chelsea, outside Ruth Miller’s show at Lohin Geduld Gallery on 25th Street. We were both in a state of awe at what we had just seen. “You have to paint a lifetime to make paintings like those,” Jake said. And I had to agree as we talked about the ways in which Ruth used color and, even more importantly, light to create a vibrant sense of time and place.
Last year I found myself back on the same street, this time to see a genuinely masterful group of paintings by Jake himself, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, that were haunting, haunted, living, breathing, and absolutely undeniably alive. I could borrow from Whitman and say that they contained multitudes, but while that would certainly be true, how much better to admit that I found myself quoting Jake to his own paintings: “You have to work for a lifetime to make paintings like that.”
What I loved so much about them was that they went very far beyond the sense of sight. As your eye travelled across the painting, you felt the paint, the marks holding you in space. You felt distance, a longing for light, a sense of yourself being transported into another realm. In this day and age it might be anathema to say this, but they were sublime, in the most raw and American kind of way.
Before Jake moved up to the Catskills in the early ‘90s he was an abstract painter, and a city painter. But once he was in the country, settling in Accord, New York and taking inspiration from the surrounding woodlands, he truly shocked devotees as his work took a radically new direction.
At that point he did the thing that can be done only by the most relevant artist: he pissed people off. I certainly remember talking to many a crestfallen artist who felt that their mentor/idol/hero had stopped making the paintings that had inspired them — as well achieving critical and commercial success for Jake, including international acclaim as far afield as the Venice Biennale. As I listened to the teeth gnashing I remember thinking of the folkies booing at Dylan going electric in Newport. What could be better than that?
And when Jake went electric with his paintings it meant light, with a capital L, as he brilliantly looked for illumination in the place one is least likely to find it: the darkness. The evidence not only abounds in his work, but in recent comments about the upstate terrain that clearly entranced him, in an interview with Jennifer Samet: “I have never seen woods as dark as the woods in the Catskills. They are in constant flux.”
During a recent studio visit with Zachary Keeting and Christopher Joy, in a video posted at their website, Gorky’s Granddaughter, Jake said, “I’m interested in painting. I’m not interested in theory. I’m not interested in historical possibilities… I choose to be free.”
With Jake’s passing on December 30 we have lost a wonderful man, and a brilliant artist. But the paintings that he used his freedom to create continue to live among us. As Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats: “…he became his admirers. Now he is scattered over a hundred cities, and wholly given over to unfamiliar affections.”
We will miss the man no small amount, and for no short time.
But Jake, as a painter, has, indeed, become his admirers, and there are enough of us who feel an altogether familiar affection for his work to be certain that his accomplishments will be celebrated for a long, long time to come.