Last fall I went to see a show by Jake Berthot at the Betty Cunningham Gallery. Jake and I had friends in common and we'd once shared a marvelous Thanksgiving about five years ago at the house of two of them, the painters John Lee and Ruth Leonard. I noticed that day that Jake's right hand was wrapped in a black brace from a fall he'd taken while reaching out on a ladder to prune a tree. He complained about it not at all but pointed out that it made painting more challenging by limiting his dexterity. Jake paints with his right hand. When I saw him next in the summer of 2012 at a Ruth Leonard opening he had lost weight and color. He was battling a particularly virulent form of leukemia. Again, not a peep of complaint.
So last October when I saw his show it overpowered me. It was the best show I'd seen in four decades of going to openings. It so moved me that seven hours later I got out of bed and wrote Jake a letter. I told him he'd achieved complete command as a painter and had produced a thanatopsis for the ages, a fancy Greek word for a meditation on death. In that show, composed of about twenty-five paintings and drawings, Jake had stared the Grim Reaper down and put him in his place. He had reconciled life and death and embodied and projected their proper, totally natural relation to each other.
He had pulled this off by painting free of doubt, strain, or self-consciousness. At the same time he had battled death to a standstill. He had merged artist with artwork and attained an aesthetic stasis in the finished work that transfixed the viewer and suffused him or her with tranquil ecstasy. It was magical.
Jake wrote back and asked that I come visit him in his studio in the woods. Then the snowy winter intervened, the roads were difficult, and Jake went up and down the scale of vitality depending on the effects of chemo. Spring came. Dates were set, dates were canceled. For long stretches the cancer prevailed. Then Jake called and said he felt good. I drove down on July 3 and he gave me the greatest artistic gift I've ever received. After an hour of tea, conversation, and perky visits from his gorgeous Russian Blue, named She-Gray, he put me in his studio in front of a track-lit single painting on an off-white wall. Called Night, Wood, and Rock, the painting apprehended me, not I it. It pinned me to the tall director's chair Jake had put me in. I studied the painting for twenty minutes.
Jake returned and sat in a matching chair in silence for another ten minutes. Then I told him he had taken the spirit imbuing the paintings in the show last fall another step: he had simplified further. That's when my negative capability as someone hideously literal kicked in. I recounted what the painting imparted to me allegorically, a quality that the paintings in the show had radiated effortlessly, subtly, magisterially. Suddenly Jake said, "Don't tell me anymore."
He put up another painting called Coming Morning. As with Night, Wood, and Rock, this one had a severely limited color range: muted blacks and shaded grays with a silver slash of light entering from the upper left corner and penetrating to the center before trailing off toward the lower right corner. After twenty minutes of staring in silence, I said, "Jake, this one achieves total static equilibrium. You've refined the creator out of a separate existence from the creation. The sensibility of the artist is one with the artwork. You've disappeared into your work. There's no allegory either, just this sensation of detached engagement and icy benevolence."
He said, "There's a narrative but it's in the service of nature, not me." We went back to the house and had more tea and conversation and more perky antics from She-Gray before going out to dinner.
Two weeks later Jake called and invited me back. When I got there we repeated the previous pattern of tea and conversation, though She-Gray was out in the yard and refused to come in. Then Jake put me in the studio again. Out came Night, Wood, and Rock. I studied it alone for twenty minutes before Jake joined me. I told him he had transformed and refined it. Like Coming Morning, it was now pure essence, stripped of all inessentials. Studying it my heartbeat had nearly disappeared. Its effect was total relaxation, like acupuncture. The masterwork on the wall banished anxiety and infused me with a serene acceptance of life's glory, suspended always above death, no matter death's imminence or seeming finality.
I said, "Don't touch this, Jake."
He said, "I won't. The dialogue with this painting is complete."
I witnessed a second masterwork when Jake again put up Coming Morning. Mortality had died as a possibility for Jake in the eternal genius he'd invested in these two masterworks. He had told me of his admiration for poet William Packard's remark that "art had to fill you up." I was filled up with a sensation of acceptance, a serene wisdom about life and death and the high calling of art when purged of ego and fully vested in spirit, which means in Latin the ability to breathe.
These two paintings were going to breathe for all eternity. I wish everyone could see them as I had seen them: off-white wall, track lighting, two tall director's chairs, one in front of each painting. I wish the Kleinert Center in Woodstock or the Dorsky Gallery in New Paltz would mount a two-painting showcase before the paintings are shipped permanently to the Phillips Collection in Washington.
As I left Jake's studio I looked up on the wall and saw, in Jake's handwriting, these words from Chumang-Tzu, the Taoist: "In the state of pure experience, we have no intellectual knowledge of any kind."
Jake Berthot lives in Krumville. Ed Breslin, former publisher and VP at HarperCollins, is the author of Drinking With Miss Dutchie and The Divine Nature of Basketball: My Season Inside the Ivy League.