PAINT, KAREN BARTH, CONTINUITY
Karen Barth's 35-year painting career—even with all its exuberant variety of experimentation—shows a remarkable continuity. Tracing a few of the many threads that weave throughout the long arc of her decades of painting proves to be one of the most rewarding ways to see the subtle depths and sweeping range of her painting practice. And to best appreciate the comprehensive consistency throughout Barth’s oeuvre, it is helpful to recall that Barth is a premier example of the fact that we are thoroughly mimetic creatures, regardless how much or little we choose to acknowledge it. All painting, indeed all human making—think Aristotle here—is unavoidably mimetic. Aristotle also suggested, fortunately for us, that imitation is so pervasive because seeing and making likenesses is the ultimate source of our pleasure. Barth’s works reignite the pleasures of finding and making likenesses in the swirl of sensuous life, out of the flows that seem unwilling to remain fixed long enough for us to discern this or that temporarily stable image.
Making and finding likeness does not mean that we aim always at making mere copies of things, but rather that all our making, and especially all art-making, is aimed at producing a likeness of something, a version of this or that, or even just an emanation from ourselves. Some call this expression, but that term fails to capture the extent to which our making is not only outer-directed activity but also unavoidably an act that can’t help but forge a unity with the person and the activity from which it arose. The likenesses we make are continuities constantly uniting and reuniting us, and thus expressions—indeed, likenesses--of all our inexorable continuities.
Some Barth continuities seem to be visually immediately available; for instance, the ready affinity between Catskills (1), a 2014 painting, and Between Sensation and Thought #14, a 2005 painting. Note that the visual affinity here resides in the atmosphere and middle pictorial space, which means their kinship is to be seen just where their invisibility begins. This particular quality of what might be called submerged continuity puts us in mind of Denis Diderot’s profound insight that no matter when it occurs and what its content, the final human thought will doubtless somehow be continuous with the very first human thought, whatever its shape and content might have been. Barth's work makes fleetingly visible that which is present but somehow also seemingly absent. When we take the measure of Barth's work from 1979 until 2015, and see the overt as well as subtle overarching continuities, we thereby and therein find multiple experiences of things persisting in and out of the visible realm, and see the continuities that Barth herself expressed in paint. Barth’s paintings create a neat parallel between two sets of continuity: on the one hand the whole run of continuity from work to work, and on the other hand the singular pairs of continuity between each work and what it was leaning toward.
There are as many ways of making likenesses and continuities as there are ways of human making. Some of the most prominent artistic methods include obscuring an obvious likeness between things in order instead to merely indicate a potential likeness, an occluded or barely indicated likeness, something not immediately apparent. Perhaps just such a strategy allows a likeness to reveal itself more slowly, over time, in the duration of experience rather than in the pop of immediate recognition. Barth’s goal was not the creation of a likeness or representation of something known or recognizable. Barth instead sought to invoke a duration, which is to say an experience. Barth was often on the path of investigating how we familiarize ourselves with transitions and junctures within the flow of experience as well as how we might likewise de-familiarize ourselves with what we think we know. Her paintings are interested in the movement toward and away from things, and the things she was most often aiming toward were the experiences of duration and time. This is how I make sense of the motif of the circle and drip that appear in so many works. One of the most compelling instances of continuity in Barth lies just here. Compare, for example, the barely visible circles in the large untitled orange painting (probably 1979 or 1980) with the all-over multitude of organic globular life in Lake of Dreams #II (1995). We learn from this that Barth’s paintings provide opportunities for the experience of expansiveness, we might say the experience of expanse itself. Expansion and expansiveness are no mere elements of experience, nor are they simply choices among the many possible modes of experience. We might instead say that expansion is in fact the very dynamic of experience, of the body inhabiting and breathing into space, and the movement of the self forward into and toward something. Expansiveness is the spatial experience of the sensuous self becoming something larger than what it was only a moment ago.
It’s important to understand and to appreciate how the final body of Barth’s work came into existence, and so, too, to understand the precise form of existence these works now take. There is a surprising kinship between the process by which these works were made and the multiply-determined experiences of suspension that they prompt. The works began as small paintings, their dimensions varying from approximately 5” x 7” to 12” x 24”. Barth began by painting a smaller version of each work that could then be expanded and (re)produced as a digital print in the size that she envisioned the original painting should have. Recalling the relationship in sculpture between a maquette and its intended destination as a fully realized object, I’m inclined to use the term maquette. Maquette is commonly used to describe the initial object in a sculptural process whereby the artist produces a reduced-scale object to serve as the source for the fabrication of a larger realization. These smaller pieces by Barth, in addition to being paintings in their own right, serve as source and model for the larger objects which, though digitally produced, Barth insisted were also in fact paintings. Barth worked assiduously to produce the highest quality digital prints possible, repeatedly color-correcting each print until she was satisfied that it matched the source painting. The finished works are in the precise scale and size and colors that Barth envisioned for them. What is so noteworthy and unusual is that these works arrive at their final state of existence as paintings in a procedure unlike any other paintings I am familiar with.
Spending time amidst Barth’s final suite of paintings is to find oneself deeply submerged in many of the most compelling issues in the practices of contemporary painting. Barth’s paintings likewise suspend the viewer between residual layers of image and process, and thereby bring to the fore an experience that alternates between restfulness and quickening, between stasis and dynamism. The suspension of the viewer within and between these currents is precisely what allows each of us to tarry sensuously and provocatively within the folds and flows of Barth’s paintings.
One first powerful impression of this final series of Barth’s work signals the mobility and fleetingness of the imagery, complemented by the overall commitment to the quasi-figural elements within many of the paintings. These paintings appear of a piece with one another and point to and evoke a world utterly consistent in—and full of—colors and textures. They stand as ciphers for a world beyond us while being at the same time oddly familiar. In this regard one imagines the paintings as a merger, the twinned products of conviction and hesitation. Their conviction seems to lie in the sheer confidence in the reality of the appearances they body forth while their hesitation resides in the very transitoriness of the imagery itself.
One visibly prominent suspension in the paintings is the alternation between abstraction and landscape. It seems Barth was well aware of the long tradition of landscape painting whereby it came to express and embody a certain kind of yearning. The longing within landscape painting means that landscapes appear as a projection of what nature might look like were it wholly in accord with our feelings toward it. And yet, landscape painting is no simple projection of what we want nature to be, it is also, as yearning, an expression of a longing to be at one with nature, to be made whole by and within nature, and finally, to be reconciled with it rather than to continue as its adversary. That each of her paintings appears as a cohesive and dynamic unity—despite the dizzying variety that often spills across it—is a testament to the enduring classical goal that art create unity amidst variety. To put it mimetically, we might imagine that the legacy of landscape painting in Barth’s work is a form of sympathetic magic, a desire to align ourselves with and in nature, to affirm at once both nature’s and our own animated unities. Barth’s work is no mere appropriation of what is other than us, but rather an attempt to draw nearer to it, even to submit ourselves to it, and thus not only to transform it but more importantly to position ourselves in just the right place so that we might be transformed by it.
The productive tension in Barth’s paintings, at once both visual and experiential, lies between two poles that might also be designated flow and image. We could similarly approach this tension by way of her overarching commitment to abstraction, to the process of making that actively suspends itself in a double movement: one direction is a movement away (abstraction) and the other a movement toward (image). And yet, I also suspect Barth would be somewhat dubious regarding this talk of image in paintings, and especially in reference to her paintings, since she was fiercely committed to the notion that paintings are not images, but rather things. And the particular kind of thing a painting is, includes, most obviously and straight-forwardly, that it is a material thing, which is to say that it is a thing that exists not only as matter, but more importantly as the residue of singular processes and events.
What it means not just to say but to emphasize that a painting is a material thing is to acknowledge the ways in which it resists being pulled entirely into the immaterial realm of the image, into that hovering appearance that floats above the surface of the painting. Barth’s paintings suspend themselves between the materiality of paint and the ephemerality of the appearing image. I want to suggest that it is just here, in this peculiar suspension, that Barth’s paintings thereby become models of human life. Here again we might note the strong presence of mimesis in Barth’s practice: the digital extrapolation of these works from the original paintings mimetically parallels the practice of abstracting a painting from the experience of viewing—or of imagining—nature. By extension we might say that this artistic practice points to how we live, for to be alive is also to exist in two rather different realms, that of material embodied existence as well as that of immaterial, ephemeral thing. This ephemeral life of ours has been variously characterized as mind (in opposition to the material brain), consciousness (recall that for the Existentialists especially consciousness is not even a thing but instead a mere motion; Sartre even likens it to a breeze blowing across a field), spirit, soul, etc.
Consider how this vacillating suspension between matter and evanescence occurs in the painting titled Pond. Imagine yourself in the position of a bird on a branch above the pond, looking down on its surface. Note first the ingenious production of a pictorial space between the base layer of the pond’s surface and the layer of reflections suspended in an evanescent space floating somewhere a few feet above the pond. Consider how what I’m describing as the reflected tree branches themselves come to appear as things already melting into the texture and motion of the water below. Look too at how the selfsame branches nonetheless retain their materiality even as they deliquesce; this is a depiction and enactment of an ongoing transitional state between materiality and immateriality, between stasis and dynamism.
But the branchings in many of the paintings also allude to the body, especially to its membranes and to its fluid inner coursings. It’s as if Barth’s paintings function both as microcosm and macrocosm, vacillating between the various allusions in which the paintings point away from us and toward, for example, the geological, while they function microcosmically in pointing toward us indeed, inside us. This continuous dualism is one of the most sustained achievements of this body of Barth’s work, that it so subtly maintains a balance between that which exceeds us and that out of which we are composed.
One way to appreciate this sustained and sustaining balance is to place the paintings Ground Fog and White Light alongside one another, and to observe how the former appears as a well of dark opacity and White Light its contrary. White Light promises nearly to efface itself in an increasing intensity of light while Ground Fog betokens a kind of enveloping darkness. And yet both paintings bring to light just how much there is to see within the mere ebb and flow of light. Both paintings give the impression of some rich and extensive percolating, though of what we cannot discern. They each promise to reveal something primordial about the world, to show us the origin of things, however thick and porous, vibrant and full, it might prove to be. Note even how Ground Fog’s congealing images complement the melting yellows of White Light.
One of the painters that this body of Karen’s work most readily brings to mind is Charles Burchfield, whose dreamy land and skyscapes appear as precursors to Barth’s more fluid evocations of field, pond, season, fog and night. And though Burchfield’s fluidity is to be seen in both the visual forms themselves as well as in his famously deployed set of key allegorical motifs—in other words the fluidity also pours through the relation of icon to image—Barth’s more fluid imagery and process point still more directly toward the fluid fact of being alive. Barth’s subject—her activity we might say—was to depict and enact the condition of an active embodiment, of a motion and a flow unencumbered by the blockages of pain, or thought, or suffering. A painting that epitomizes this dynamic juxtaposition of rest and motion is Spring Mist. Consider how the title and even the hints of lavender at the top and center of the painting allude to Jackson Pollock’s iconic 1950 work, Number 1 (Lavender Mist)—Barth was deeply moved by Pollock’s achievements and so we must take these allusions seriously. It’s interesting in this light to see the dark tendrils of Spring Mist, reaching centerward from the left and right edges of the painting, as complements to and extensions of the drips of Lavender Mist. “Drip” has never seemed a very accurate description of how Lavender Mist was made nor how it appears; this is true of Spring Mist as well. Better to think of Pollock and Barth both attempting to outmaneuver the constriction and conventions of the traditional line in painting. Pollock’s pourings facilitated the paint to, if you will, compose its own line, to allow the paint to align itself; Barth’s paintings likewise sidestep the whole problem of the drawn and painted line by giving the paint a compositional agency of its own. Where Jackson Pollock poured, Karen Barth instead allowed the paint to leak and to blossom, and thereby to flow and delineate an aliveness that inevitably exceeds us.
MAKING IT MORE
Born in 1951, the artist Karen Barth came of age in the 1970s. Change was in the air, even revolution and it was intoxicating; so much was in social, cultural and political upheaval. From across the country and around the world, artists of all generations converged on New York, but mostly it was the young. Barth, aspiring, talented, keen, was one of them, arriving in New York in 1975.
She studied at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a countercultural redoubt for the idealistic and the restless, graduating with a B.F.A in 1973. A decade later, she earned an M.F.A. from Hunter College. She had a number of solo exhibitions in a career spanning more than three decades and participated in multiple group exhibitions although her resume was modest, at least by today’s standards. Barth’s preference for abstract painting—marginalized in the 70s in favor of more conceptual art—is perhaps one reason for the lower profile. Another might be that when painting made a comeback in the 80s, it was figuration that became the dominant mode. Hovering over the art world was the bias against women artists, its existence just beginning to be acknowledged by growing numbers of women who had been fearful of backlash, ghettoization, and stigmatization, including those who formerly thought that such discrimination didn’t apply to them.
One of Barth’s undated, untitled collages on paper, most likely from 1990, with its painterly drips and centralized image of a target embedded with letters of rejection from a number of galleries, serves as an institutional critique, reminding us of the greater hurdles women encountered then. It is bold in content but muted in coloration, the message both assertive and softened. In a kind of balancing act, the work visualizes the ambiguities, complexities and precariousness of the position of women in the arts. That prejudice has since lessened, depending upon whom you ask, aided by the resurgent activism of radical feminist groups in the 80s, among them the media-savvy Guerrilla Girls in their flashy gorilla suits, but parity has yet to be achieved. One heartening trend at the moment is the reassessment and acclaim—although unconscionably belated—accorded to a number of older women painters, both abstract and figurative, who have been sidelined or overlooked. Among them are Alma Thomas, Carmen Herrera, and Maria Lassnig; certainly others including Karen Barth deserve similar reconsideration.
Her work of the late 1970s, often undated, is non-representational, a response to and further exploration of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, and other modernist movements. Many of the paintings are also untitled, as are those of other abstract painters of the period in an attempt to avoid referential implications, under the sway of the still extraordinarily powerful mid-century critic Clement Greenberg who believed that art should be based exclusively on formal values, devoid of representational content. One especially striking work from this time is an orange monochrome canvas, as much glow as it is color. Encompassing in scale, in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists, the round forms that create the allover pattern are in close proximity, jostling each other, slightly brighter than the ground behind them. The circles emerge slowly, nebulously, disrupting the surface, as if about to sharpen into focus but they never quite do. The painting’s vacillation projects a state of uncertainty and fluidity, a coming into being and dissolving, a concealing, or slow revealing that are themes apparent in her work virtually from its inception. The circle motif is also recurrent, mutable, later becoming more representational.
By the mid-80s, Barth had introduced figuration into her work, and with that, a narrative or potential narrative. In some paintings, the shapes have become more robust, solid, clearly defined but not razor-edged, the richly colored compositions now displaying a broader palette. Barth, experimenting with ways to re-vitalize her medium and its lexicon and syntax, was intrigued for a time by graffiti, Neo-Expressionism, the Transavanguardia, photography, and video. In revolt against elitism, formalism and academicism, the postmodernist discourse sought to formulate more diverse and inclusive exemplars often in conformity with concepts originated by pioneering feminist artists and advocates of feminism.
United/Hawaii (1985), for instance, while still structured around a modernist grid is much less abstract. It suggests a contact sheet, storyboard, or an assemblage/collage of a number of small paintings tacked onto a support. It is not easy to decode what these images represent. Are they simplified renderings of doors, windows, other architectural elements, paintings within paintings, or are some of what seem to be objects merely abstract shapes, or both? The only image that is clearly identifiable is the silhouette of a red airplane, although it appears almost toy-like. The backstory is that Hawaii is where Barth went on her honeymoon, the date of the painting the year she married. However, with the exception of the title and the plane, nothing else indicates a specific autobiographical event. Afterglow (1986), equally enigmatic, might be read as frames within frames, recessions through which the central composition is viewed, corresponding to a classic pictorial convention in Western painting that depicts the world through the confines of a window. In Barth’s version, it’s as if Josef Albers had collaborated with Howard Hodgkin to arrive at a pastoral that has undertones of a Matissean idyll. Part abstract, part representational, of indeterminate space, it is a synthesis (even a symbiosis) between the formal and the painterly, abstraction and landscape, exteriority and interiority that prefigures what will also be recurrent themes henceforward.
But before that breakthrough, she made the provocative Women Artists Grisaille (1990), a feminist critique masquerading as an expressionist painting, rivulets of grey and white paint coursing down its surface. Upon closer viewing, you see that it consists entirely of covers of ARTnews magazine. Selectively featuring only women, among them Louise Nevelson, Susan Rothenberg, and Jennifer Bartlett, the artists are barely visible, obscured by streaks of paint, and leached of color, as if still veiled by the all white, all male legacy of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Abstract Expressionism.
After that, Barth shifted away from overt social and political commentaries in favor of process and materiality. The core of her practice, she once said, was based on “the question of what painting is, after Pollock, after Greenberg, after photography, in an increasingly digitalized age.” Nonetheless, traces of these ventures continued to inform her thinking, most notably the slipping of content into abstraction.
Her production in the years 1992 - 2005 was premised on color photographs of landscapes as a source and catalyst—but mediated, not copied. She wanted to refresh the vocabulary of abstraction by combining old and new technologies, although it was painting, it is quite evident, that she passionately loved. One method she devised was pulling paint to mimic chemical emulsions. Blending the illusion of “flawless” photographic surfaces that she found distancing with more expressive painterly gestures that incorporated chance incidents, it brought the “landscape closer,” as something to be experienced.
Her very seductive Lake of Dreams series, 1995-1998, made of polymer (she stopped using oil in 1988) on canvas is a complicated juggling of the abstract and the representational. Aptly titled, it has a moody, surreal quality that evokes the flux of the oneiric, of unstable interior states that are impossible to pin down. Most are somber in hue, like bodies of dark water, with glimmering, undulating tonalities that advance and recede, in some ways reminiscent of the orange monochrome discussed earlier. If this is landscape, it is a sensation of it, a vision that might be interpreted as granular, nose pressed against it. Or it might be an aerial point of view, from far above, suggesting mountains, rivers, and plains. But it also conjures human tissue many times enlarged, identifying and presenting the body as landscape. It is a significant correlation that will inform all her future work in an increasingly complex reading of the abstract and representational, metaphor and reality. The presence of these paintings is also different, more mysterious, more existential and curiously moving. In entangling the macro with the micro and the reverse, they reverberate with internal as well as external immensities; we could lose ourselves in their imagined spaces.
A subsequent series titled M.A.P.P. (which was originally called Motivating Acts of Perception and Presentness), might also be described as materials and process paintings, a designation coined by artist Georgia Marsh, Barth’s close friend. Often on wood panel, many much smaller than her usual scale, dating from 1999 - 2002, they depend for their configuration on “puddling, staining, dripping and pulling,” processes that she honed throughout the years. Her understanding of paint had inevitably deepened as she familiarized herself with its material possibilities and resistances through incessant trial and error, always striving, it seems, for improvement, for something more, as had her deftness in handling it. Some of these paintings burst with small bombs of colors, some recall blurred, Richteresque landscapes as if seen swiftly in passing, and some suggest cross sections of skin, bones, nerves, ova-shaped organic matter under extreme magnification. One detail from M.A.P.P.#1h seems an image of cell division, tinted an icy blue but, zooming out, it might also be read as ice floes in Arctic water. All give off glimpses of unexpected beauty.
The view of nature in her work was not sentimental, not romanticized. Mother Nature does not mother us and Barth did not anthropomorphize it although she was awed by it. Instead, she defined and portrayed nature and the human as they are: matter that is in flux. Landscape, the earth, and nature are environments and experiential. They are physical bodies that sustain us (in obedience to physical laws that we imperfectly comprehend and wantonly destroy), as do our own much more discrete bodies in a constant cycle of generation, disintegration, and renewal. Inspired by this belief, Barth evolved an aesthetic realm that became more and more personal, intensely intuitive and psychologically charged. Exalting the body as part of the primordial, she particularly embraced the image of fluid, protean water as a symbol of nature, painting and process. We are nature, as is our consciousness. There is no nature/mind/body divide.
Her next series and penultimate body of work is called Between Sensation &Thought (2004-2005), a phrase reiterated in a statement in which she explained that for her, “a painting is complete when it suggests a kind of mystery that exists in a realm between sensation and thought.” This series continued to develop themes that began with M.A.P.P., the compositions becoming more luminous, lightening in tonality, and often tantalizingly on the verge of representation. The diffusion of forms veer between the semblance of the digitalized and the painted and in the sumptuously colored Between Sensation & Thought #12 and #14 (both 2005), they seem about to snap into focus as a fantasia of a garden or a lily pond. It was one of the last two works in the immersive scale she preferred that she was able to complete, due to the progression of a rare lung disease diagnosed years earlier. The remainder of the series was small, some a mere few inches. In 2009, she shuttered her studio; she hadn’t painted since 2005. In 2011, she received a lung transplant. As was her nature, she began to work again as soon as she was able.
Barth had grappled with the role of painting in a postmodernist context and an increasingly technologized world. She was deeply engaged in reconciling the manually produced with the mechanically and electronically reproduced, the resultant works somewhere between a photograph of nature, a painting and her direct experience of it. Her final endeavors are named after the seasons, weather conditions, and atmospheric and geological phenomena. They are radiant with color and light and even more ephemeral in appearance then previous work, almost like watercolors or stained paintings. One, White Light (2014) is a plane of pure luminosity. They crackle with images that might be branches, trees, and roots thrusting out of an unstable, insubstantial ground, recalling magical, mesmerizing landscapes made by self-taught and visionary artists. In yet another mix of landscape and the human body, they might also suggest proliferating nervous systems, with axons, dendrites and their synapses etched across the surface. All she knows, she said in an entry about these works and the photographs that initiated them—an observation that could be applied to the greater part of her oeuvre—is that she needed “to put these colors together to make a painting. The rest is process.”
She painted these on small panels, wanting to work quickly, to see results quickly. They were also a size that could incorporate the accidental and be easily controlled. Afterward, they were digitally scanned and enlarged, some to an approximation of her capacious signature formats. During the scanning, they were meticulously adjusted, using techniques she had innovated, the colors calibrated and recalibrated as she would have done with any painting, the refining as integral to the process. They were then printed on paper with archival pigment and mounted on panel. She likened the method to the way we enlarge images on our touchscreens, in order to delve into them and tease out details. End of Autumn (2015), was her last work. It was nearly finished upon her death in March 2015 (completed by artist Kelly Worman afterward) and has a particular poignancy since aesthetic arcs and that of an artist’s life are indissolubly linked, one created out of the other, destined.
Barth’s emphasis on process and materiality is an insistence on reality: on the reality of nature; the reality of its transformation into paint; and the reality of paint’s transformation into art. It made me think of these lines from “The World,” by the American poet C.K. Williams, who also died in 2015:
“…reality has so solidly put itself before me
there’s little need for mystery…Except for us, for how we take the world
to us, and make it more, more than we are, even more than itself.”
CLEARINGS: THE INNER LANDSCAPES OF KAREN BARTH
Halfglimpses of the sea
Shockheaded trees dripping moss
Heavy leaves rubbery shiny
Varnished with sun
A finely polished heat
I’m not listening anymore to the animated conversations of my friends who are mulling over
among themselves all the gossip I brought from Paris
On both sides of the train over our heads or else on the slope of a distant valley opposite
The forest is there staring me down disturbing me attracts my eye like the blank maskstare of a mummy
I stare back
No trace of an eye
--Blaise Cendrars, “Clearings” (translated into English by John Dos Passos)
Blaise Cendrars wrote “Clearings” in the early 1920s, inspired by a train journey the poet made through part of Brazil. In the poem, Cendrars travels through landscapes that are utterly alien to him—indeed, it is these landscapes that give rise to the poem in the first place. These landscapes, seen by the poet through the windows of his train, seduce him away from the people conversing around him and draw his gaze outside, out into foreign expanses, expanses that are simultaneously enchanting and unsettling.
I do not know what Karen Barth thought of the poetry of Cendrars, but this poem strikes me as an apt point of departure for discussing the paintings that she made in the last year of her life. Barth’s last paintings, like Cendrars’ poem, offer up strange and beautiful and seductive vistas. Many of the poets and painters associated with Surrealism, from René Char to Salvador Dali to Max Ernst, returned repeatedly to the subject of landscape, as a kind of screen onto which they sought to project visions welling up, ultimately, from the unconscious. Landscape, for the Surrealists, was one means of escaping what Andre Breton called “the reign of logic” and “absolute rationalism.” Landscape represented mystery, and a counterpoint to the rules and regulations of civilization. “Poetry” wrote Breton, “is made in the forest.” As such, landscape was a catalyst for free association (even Freud, in 1913, used the analogy of looking at different landscapes through a train window to describe the psychoanalytic technique of free association). The act of projection does not end with the creation of the poem or painting; the work created—if it is vital enough, compelling enough, as it is in Barth’s last paintings-- becomes itself a screen onto which subsequent readers and viewers project their own readings and misreadings, inevitably drawing on conscious intent, unconscious wishes and fears, personal experience, and sedimented layers of memory — aesthetic, cultural, and otherwise.
Walking into a gallery space filled with Barth’s last works, made in 2014 may cause one to feel as if one were traveling on the train of Cendrars and Freud. Each painting opens up a window on the wall-space—through the wall-space—into Barth’s own imaginative free associations. Barth once wrote that she began her late works with “photographs of the natural world.” She did not elaborate as to the specific subjects of these photographs, and the fact that she gave her paintings titles that suggest landscapes—Mountain, Pond, Winter—of course does not preclude the possibility that Barth was inspired by images of nature that could just as easily be on a microscopic scale or from the point of view of an aerial or satellite camera. One of the many images and concepts of which Barth’s paintings may remind us is what Benoit Mandelbrot called “fractals,” detailed, naturally occurring forms (i.e. not straight lines) that replicate themselves on many scales, from continental coastlines down to mere centimeters of a shore. “The photographic image,” Barth once said, “stops the chatter and churn of my mind and places me in the present moment. The painting begins.” This makes me think of Cendrars again, turning away from the chatter of his friends on the train so as to allow himself to be absorbed by the natural world outside his window. One thing that is clear from Barth’s statement is that the act of painting is, for her, synonymous with “the present moment.” And yet artists from Proust to the Surrealists to the great still-life painters of the Baroque era have shown us, again and again, how the present moment isn’t an isolated cell of time. It is, rather, a crystallization of time, and of our personal histories, and even a crystallization of the intersection of our personal histories with much broader cultural and social histories. (This is to say that, Barth, as she was focusing her mind on the present moment while painting, was nonetheless an artist very much aware of the history of art, from the twists and curves of the Baroque to the filigree of Gothic cathedral spires to Pollock’s drip paintings and Warhol’s oxidation paintings.) Conversely, as we look at Barth’s paintings, we, too, “stop the chatter” around us and engage with each painting in the present, thus focusing our own recollections and references stimulated by each work. In other words, Barth’s paintings demand—like the landscapes witnessed by Cendrars—that we be present, and that we open ourselves up, to associations and to the act of free-associating.
In Barth’s last paintings, root-like networks spread across fields of layered colors. The layers look as if they have been pulled and scraped across the surface, in a way that might recall the work (both abstract and “photorealist’) of Gerhard Richter, or the earlier frottages of the great Surrealist Max Ernst. The rhizomatic networks resemble an organic growth, or a spreading stain or “patch.” Georges Did-Huberman, in an essay on paint stains and patches that appear in Vermeer’s The Lacemaker (c. 1670), writes about one such patch in language that might be used to describe what Barth turned into a fundamental motif or even motivating force of her last paintings: “It is a run of red paint [in a section of The Lacemaker]. Joined by another, white this time, and less convoluted, but no less stupefying […] It frays out unreasonably, right in front of our eyes, like a sudden affirmation—in no way calculated, apparently—of the vertical, frontal existence of the canvas. The outline seems to wander, causing the pattern it makes to spread.” Later in the same essay, Didi-Huberman draws an analogy between stains or patches in paintings and landscape, in a way that feels uncannily close to Barth’s paintings: “[The patch or stain] surprises us with its essential capacity to intrude […] a solitary bearer of meaning, or rather something causing fragments to appear now and then, in an aleatory fashion, the way seams and veins spring from geological faults on the surface of the landscape, showing up a whole stratum or deposit of meaning (a metaphor made almost obligatory by the thickness and material depth of paint).”  In Barth’s paintings, these rhizome-stain networks branch out and gradually decrease in size like the dense, fibrous root systems typical of grasses, or like the network of bronchioles in the lungs—or, again, like stains or patches, visual fault lines spreading their way across our field of vision.
The colors of the paintings range from nearly monochromatic, as in White Light, to almost sickly-sweet combinations of El Greco-esque acid pinks and greens, as in Spring (I). One naturally views the four large paintings named for the four seasons as much for their titles as for their significant size, as imaginary landscapes. These are landscapes that—as in the Cendrars poem—simultaneously seduce and repel. Spring explodes in a feast of greens interspersed with pinks and unsaturated violets. (In the variation, Spring (I), these colors are intensified to a level reminiscent of German Expressionism, as in the paintings of Nolde and Kirchner.) A deep, atmospheric space is glimpsed through the rhizome-stain network, which here resembles nothing so much as a dense cluster of thorns. It is perhaps not too big a leap to recall the thickly woven, painful briars that surround the comatose castle in the old fairy tale we know as “Sleeping Beauty.” We may also think of Ernst’s La Forêt, in the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice.
In Summer, there are bigger gaps (clearings) among the rhizome-stain networks, through which we perceive, just to the left of center and in several other places, attenuating horizontal light and dark bands that strongly suggest ripples on water. Here, as if in counterpoint to the upward-thrusting movement of Spring, the root-like networks hang down. Around the edges of the painting are green stains reminiscent of algae. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to look at Summer and dimly perceive a large photograph of a sea-coast, in the process of being covered by some organic growth such as mold or fungus. By contrast, one might read the painting as a fanciful submarine tableau. A free-associating viewer of Summer may even be inclined to pick out a form like a green sailing ship at the painting’s bottom, just to the right of center, perhaps a shadow of the Wandering Dutchman of legend.
Fall shifts into a palette of earthy hues of red and orange. The rhizome-stain forms have moved mainly to the right and left sides, coming together across the top of the painting. The fragmented root-forms in the upper center suggest the rack of a stag displayed starkly in a hunting lodge. Fall is the season of the hunt, after all. The open expanses of this painting recall the waste-lands of Anselm Kiefer—or indeed the paradigmatic Waste Land of T. S. Elliot: “A heap of broken images,/ where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter,/ the cricket no relief,/ And the dry stone no sound of water.”
In contrast to the desolation of Fall, Winter may come as something of a relief, with its cool blues and deep greens. As in Spring, here, too, are strong visual suggestions of a landscape around water. There is the hint of a horizon on the right, as if one were looking across a bay or inlet, above which is a patch of what resembles blue sky. The dark, upward-reaching root forms take on a figural quality. Together with the prevalence of white and light blues, these dark figures bring to mind one of the best-known paintings of winter, Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow of 1865.
Even Barth’s vertical paintings create a sense of atmospheric space. Their verticality draws us in, as if through a door or over a threshold. Pond has much the same palette as that of Summer, though bluer and greener. If Summer presents us with an expansive vista, Pond gives us depth; as its title suggests, it seems to take us down beneath the water. One might think here of the Shakespearean title that Ralph Manheim and Jackson Pollock gave to Pollock’s 1947 vertical painting, Full Fathom Five. But whereas Pollock’s painting records a male artist’s legendary physical struggle with his canvas, in which the artist’s physical presence—not to mention the detritus of his studio—is everywhere asserted, in front of Pond we may not even feel certain we are looking at the results of deliberate, conscious human making. Rather, Pond—like all of Barth’s last paintings—appears to be the product of chance operations, perhaps, or even better, some organic, self-perpetuating process like the spreading of a stain, or a complex chemical reaction, the cause of which remains unknown to us. But the longer we regard Pond, the more we begin to notice what could only be the artist’s formal decision-making. We see, for instance, sections where the rhizome-stains are set against a lighter area of color with hard edges that suggest having been cut out. The “cut-out” edge becomes most apparent against another, darker color that seems to be behind the lighter color. For example, we might focus on the two large rhizome-stains that dominate the upper central area of the painting, or the long, attenuated section that runs along the left edge and across the bottom of the painting. The border that this area establishes within the painting also calls into question many of the figure-ground relationships we might have perceived elsewhere in the work: Are the blue-grey areas that envelope nearly all of the root-forms a background, or do those blue-grey areas themselves constitute a figure, standing out against a background? Discerning these ambiguous spatial relationships, one cannot help but feel how Barth understood that when traveling in, or passing through, actual physical landscapes, this confusion occurs often: Is that range of hills in the distance or am I getting closer to it? Is that stand of trees within walking range?
Another of Barth’s last paintings, Ground Fog, with its palette of violets and its orbs of light, conjures up certain pictures we have, within our collective cultural consciousness, inherited from the 19th century origins of modernism. One might well think, for instance, of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which contains its share of Romantic, even Gothic, landscapes. In Act II, Scene ii, the chorus of spirits sings
And each dark tree that ever grew,
Is curtained out from Heaven’s wide blue;
Nor sun, nor moon, nor wind, nor rain,
Can pierce its interwoven bowers,
Nor aught, save where some cloud of dew,
Drifted along the earth-creeping breeze,
Between the trunks of the hoar trees,
Hangs each a pearl in the pale flowers
Of the green laurel, blown anew…
As with the other of Barth’s last paintings, the illusion of depth here is almost vertiginous. Are the rhizomatic forms figures, or are the fissures in the light violet clouds that permeate the painting? Are those green stains on the surface or are they floating in the distance?
Turning to one last painting, Mountain evokes a vertical winter landscape. Indeed, the painting even seems to reference certain of the famous winter scenes by Hiroshige, and in particular the 1857 triptych Kiso Mountains in Snow, one print of which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (perhaps Barth saw it in “in the flesh” once there?). Mountain is one of the only paintings in which the rhizome structures are rendered in whites, though behind these white root structures we glimpse the dark forms that we have seen in other paintings from this final period. It is a testimony to the power and reach of Barth’s last paintings that they resonate with modern and postmodern Western painting no less than with the work of Hiroshige and Brueghel.
Surveying Karen Barth’s last paintings, it is impossible to ignore the way they undermine the formal language of modernism, i.e. the visual vocabulary of straight lines, grids, monochrome fields. Modernism has always been characterized by a clear manifestation of form and structure; Barth’s last paintings clearly call this assertion of form into question (in much the same way that Cendrars, in his poem, makes us wonder what should clear our minds). To return to the rich heritage of Surrealism, Barth’s last paintings might be viewed in relation to Georges Bataille’s influential definition of “the formless.” As Bataille wrote, “[F]ormless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down into the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. [. . .] On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”
We might well see Barth’s late paintings as being, among many other things, an act of resistance against “academic men.” (Barth was, at various points in her career, a more overtly feminist artist than might immediately be apparent in her last paintings.) In opposition to the academicisms of both modernism and postmodernism, Barth’s last paintings present us with the work of a female visual artist working—no less than did John Cage in the realm of sound—with randomized operations and unconscious processes. In these last paintings, I, for one, am utterly convinced that Barth taps into deep and primitive—and indeed perhaps formless—feelings about what it is like to be human in a fractal, dissolving, decaying landscape, whether that landscape be on a microscopic or astronomical scale.
Karen Barth’s last paintings are also full of ironies—not least of which is the fact that they are, in fact, not paintings but very high quality digital reproductions of small-scale paintings made by the artist’s hand. This would take us solidly into the realm of questions posed by Walter Benjamin in his seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
I have, however, chosen not to focus on the ironical, Benjaminian aspect of the last paintings but on what I see to be their lineage within three converging (and rather non-ironic) lines of descent: the modern lineage of Surrealism; the ancient lineage of landscape; and the truly deep lineage of human consciousness, and the human awareness of how everything seems to dissolve and decay into—and also to grow out of-- everything else.
It may well be that my thoughts here represent nothing but the free associations of one viewer who has succumbed with pleasure to the spell of Karen Barth’s last paintings. There are, undoubtedly, many ways of reading these paintings, and of entering into them. In any case, it is, without question, a great tribute to Karen Barth that her final series of paintings carry with them such a rich and varied range of potential, powerful associations. Her last paintings are, indeed, a great tribute to human imagination, to human culture, and to human memory.
Échappées sur la mer
Arbres chevelus moussus
Lourdes feuilles caoutchoutées luisantes
Un vernis de soleil
Une chaleur bien astiquée
Je n’écoute plus la conversation animée de mes amis qui se partagent les nouvelles que j’ai apportees de Paris
Des deux côtés du train toute proche ou alors de l’autre cote de la vallée lointaine
La forêt est là et me regarde et m’inquiète et m’attire comme le masque d’une momie
Pas l’ombre d’une oeil
 “Trouées” Dos Passos translation from The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, Paul Auster, ed., New York: 1982
 Breton, Andre. “First Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism, Seaver and Lane, tranls., University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor: 1972, p9
 Breton, Andre. “Sur la route de San Romano,” (1941) from Auster, op cit., p194
 Freud, Sigmund. The Beginning of Treatment, 1913, Seulin, transl., London: 2012, p135
 Didi-Huberman, Georges. “The Art of Not Describing: Vermeer – the Detail and the Patch,” in History of the Human Sciences, 1989, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp154-164 (italics are Didi-Huberman’s)
 Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. transl. Alan Stoekel, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 1985, p31