S otheby’s is delighted to partner with artist Bo Bartlett in presenting our first installment of Form as Foundation, a special section of our flagship American Art sale that seeks to examine the concept of figuration and its central role in American Art from the 19th century through the present. From Winslow Homer’s depictions of the Civil War and John Singer Sargent’s stately portraits to Edward Hopper’s interrogations of solitary city life and Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Helga Pictures, generations of American artists have relied on figuration to capture the world as they observed it. Though diverse in style, technique and cultural context, these artists are inextricably linked through their commitment to form. Form as Foundation seeks to recontextualize their work by examining the enduring importance of figuration in visual discourse today.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, Bartlett received his Certificate of Fine Arts in 1981 from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and received a certificate in filmmaking from New York University in 1986. As observed by Tom Butler, “Bartlett is an American realist with a modernist vision. His paintings are well within the tradition of American realism as defined by artists such as Thomas Eakins and Andrew Wyeth. Like these artists, Bartlett looks at America’s heart – its land and its people – and describes the beauty he finds in everyday life. His paintings celebrate the underlying epic nature of the commonplace and the personal significance of the extraordinary.” We are honored to have Bartlett serve as the inaugural voice for Form as Foundation, drawing connections between the works on offer in our May 2021 American Art auction with the art he is creating today.
IN BO'S OWN WORDS
“The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread, and easel, and all the rest God gives in abundance. The artist must live to paint and not paint to live.”
I feast on a daily diet of American paintings. When I’m in the full throes of creation my studio floor is littered with art history books turned to pertinent pages as I seek inspiration from this or that particular artist.
The menu of American paintings might look like this... an aperitif of Avery... a starter of Cassatt or Parrish... a main course of Eakins, Homer or Sargent... finished off with a dessert of Rockwell or Wyeth... then all washed down with a digestif of Hartley or O’Keeffe!
Yes, the proteins can be switched out depending on your mood or tastes... whether you are fashionably favoring a meat or vegetarian diet. But this is all the nutrition and nourishment an artist needs... delivering the sustenance and energy required to get one through any painting day.
I have chosen a delectable selection of parings. This body of work reflects my own peculiar tastes and proclivities. I grew up loving Norman Rockwell. His work for The Saturday Evening Post and Look magazine was some of the only “art” I experienced growing up in a small rural Georgia town in the fifties and sixties. Saying Grace was more than just a painting... it was a way of life. We said the blessing before every meal, whether it was fried chicken on Sundays or a bologna sandwich midweek. Similarly, Freedom of Worship... growing up Southern Baptist, this work was actually mind altering for a preteen like me. Seeing different faith traditions in the same picture affected my worldview. My grandmother had a Maxfield Parrish print which I’d feel certain she purchased at the local department store. I didn’t know about Eakins or Sargent or Henri until I moved to Philadelphia when I was 19. I recall seeing an old Eakins exhibition catalogue from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from his memorial exhibition after he’d passed (there were no monographs on Eakins in the 70’s.) I felt like I’d found my artistic home. The ghost of Eakins still haunted the hallowed halls of the Furness Building at Broad and Cherry. Henri’s The Art Spirit was preached like the gospel, and teachers at PAFA repeated Sargent’s name as if he were a Saint. Their work was a part of the heritage of the place and it got in my bones. The annual exhibitions at PAFA were legendary, bringing all of the greatest American work of the day together in one place... the locals, Eakins and Henry O. Tanner, the expatriates, the American Impressionists, the Hudson River painters, the Luminists, Bierstadt, Moran and Church, all in the galleries. As students we were well schooled in the history of those annual exhibitions, and the permanent collection is a veritable who’s who of American art.
I curated this grouping carefully to reflect my own personal history. Even though much of the work moved me, some artists I was inclined to include were weeded out simply because I didn’t have the deep psychic connection or history that I did with those who had influenced my formative years. So the lovely Harriet Whitney Frishmuth sculpture Play Days, Burchfield’s gorgeous March Sunlight watercolor and Sheeler’s mannered Farm Buildings, among others, have been edited out. But painters and paintings that I am intimate with and have history with have been highlighted.
Andrew Wyeth and I were best friends for the last fifteen years of his life. Once we took the train together to DC to see a Winslow Homer exhibition. Andy was wild about Homer’s freer watercolors and I was enthralled with the scale and subjects of Homer’s oils. Here, a gouache (which has been my quick medium of choice over the years) has been selected to represent Homer’s intimate sensibility. The opacity adding a weight sometimes lacking in pure watercolor. Of course, his Maine Coast scenes serve as connective tissue. Andy loved everything and he mentioned to me more than once how he’d been influenced by John Marin’s watercolors of coastal Maine. Marin was famous for his geometric cubist interpretations of the North Atlantic. West Point Maine by Marin is exemplative of how his work was the natural precursor to Wyeth’s early explorations (which won Andy much praise when exhibited at MacBeth Gallery when he was still a teenager). Bruce and His Punt is a mature example of Wyeth’s facileness with watercolor. The economy of means, where the white of the paper reads as deep space and reflection, reveals a painter at the top of their game. The daily repetition of en plein air painting produces nothing short of sleight of hand where the magic of air, time and memory are incapsulated in water and pigment and blank white paper. Delicious! We’ll end with Milton Avery’s Blue Gulls - Blue Sea a quiet, minimal piece, charged with the simple flavor of an afternoon in the sunlight, wind and changing tides along the coast of the pristine North Atlantic.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sated.
– Bo Bartlett
Bo Bartlett on Painting the Modern American Life
Bo's Selections from American Art | May 2021
HERO IMAGE: BO BARTLETT IN HIS COLUMBUS, GEORGIA STUDIO. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE ARTIST.