Jennifer Bartlett Builds a Hot Career Out of Ship Shapes and House Work

updated 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At first glance the plain boxy houses and simple sailboats in Jennifer Bartlett's paintings and sculptures seem designed to elicit the classic reaction that museumgoers of the hard-edge-philistine school often have to modern art: "My 6-year-old could have done that." But those basic boats and houses are what make Bartlett, 44, one of the hottest artists of 1985 with both critics and the public. Using a multitude of colors, sizes, styles and materials (from oil to wood and cement) to paint or sculpt, she transforms mundane objects into art that is fresh, easy to understand and deeply symbolic. "Her works are about something fundamental to life," says New York Times critic John Russell. "When you see her ships, you think of going somewhere, having adventures. When you see her houses, you think of feeling safe."

With a retrospective exhibit that recently left Minneapolis on a year-long, four-city U.S. museum tour—it will open in Kansas City on September 19th and then go to Brooklyn and La Jolla, Calif.—Bartlett is one of the few females at the top of the male-dominated art world. Collectors pay up to six figures for her works, and untrained eyes marvel at her ability to find infinite variety in the commonplace. In 1978, for example, she decided to paint a rather uninspiring garden outside a house she was renting in Nice. A year later she exhibited 200 versions of the garden—all varied, all inspired—in styles from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism.

Dressed in plaid sneakers, blue overalls and red-framed glasses as she works in her New York City studio, Bartlett looks as upbeat and down-to-earth as her artwork. Yet she talks of herself as an urban bumbler, almost a female Woody Allen. How come she regularly puts in furiously productive 12-hour days? "I've always thought of myself as incredibly lazy," she says lightly. "I think all this is an effort to compensate." Where does her energy come from? "I think I tap a large vein of obsession," she says. About her house paintings, she says, "I think they're dumb shapes. I use them mainly because they're easy to draw." Of her tendency toward repetition—one work 153 feet long and titled Rhapsody includes 987 separate tiles showing variations of four different images—she explains, "Instead of refining things, I just do more. I can't seem to do one of something." And when House and Garden praised Bartlett's stylish Paris apartment, she couldn't imagine what they saw in it. "I really have hopeless taste," she says.

Despite such flippancy, Bartlett is known for her intelligence and wit and has always put art above everything. At 5, she claims she informed her construction-company-owner father and her mother, a former fashion illustrator, that she was ready to leave their Long Beach, Calif. home to be an artist in New York City. "I really didn't like being a child," she says. "New York was thought of as very weird and quite sinister by Californians. For that reason, it interested me deeply." One of her first efforts came after seeing a Walt Disney movie: She went to her room and painted 500 Cinderellas ("Each had different colored hair"). None of this sat well at home. "I think my mother would have liked for me to have gotten a job at Hallmark cards, done some painting on the side, gotten happily married, had some children and lived in Long Beach," she says. She did make a stab at conformity by being a high school cheerleader, but basically Bartlett saw herself as a bookish loner until she came into her own as a painting student at Mills College. While getting a Master's in fine art from Yale in the mid-60s, she married medical student Edward Bartlett, but the marriage ended eight years later in 1972. In 1974, her career blossomed with a major exhibit at New York's Paula Cooper Gallery. Since then she's had 42 solo shows.

She married German film actor Mathieu (Ways in the Night) Carrière, 34, in 1983 and they now share a Paris apartment ("It's just awful to work in that city—people don't get things done on time") as well as a Soho loft. There on Bartlett's favorite nights, she paints as he plays a solo chess game or kibitzes. "Sometimes I enjoy watching her do anything," says Carrière. "It's a little bit like being in a zoo and watching a very exotic animal." Three or four nights a week they go out, mainly to please night owl Mathieu. "I find nighttime depressing and sort of sinister," says Bartlett.

The last few months have been more tame for Bartlett, who is eight months pregnant: "I'm thrilled," she says. But she doesn't expect her life to change as a result of her child or her growing fame. "I learned very early that if I made any attempt to please people, I would always fail madly," she says. "So my only alternative was to just go ahead with what I feel like doing." And doing and doing.

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