Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536

Jennifer Bartlett American

Not on view

Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536 is a remarkable example of Bartlett’s early work, possessed of both conceptual rigor and visual presence, representing a breakthrough period of her career. The plate pieces—examples of which were included in Bartlett’s first solo show at Reese Palley Gallery in 1972, in her earliest solo exhibitions at Paula Cooper Gallery in the late 1970s, and in the 1972 Whitney Annual—established her reputation in the art world. Like all of her early plate pieces, Squaring was created during the heyday of Minimal and Conceptual art, which emerged in the mid to late 1960s and whose most important practitioners belonged to Bartlett’s immediate peer group. In its reductive geometry and its reliance on idea-based systems like seriality, Squaring represents the most important aspects of Minimalism and Conceptualism, standing at the crossroads of these two influential movements. Squaring consists of thirty-three 16-gauge, one-foot square, cold-rolled steel plates made by Gerson Feiner in a metal fabrication shop in New Jersey. Each plate has deburred edges, an appliance-white baked enamel surface, and a small hole in each of its four corners. Bartlett began using metal plates such as these in 1968, after noticing the metal signs used in New York City’s subways. They answered her need for a material that was durable, portable, and flexible, what she called "hard paper that could be cleaned and reworked. I wanted a unit that could go around corners on the wall [and] stack for shipping." As in all such works, the plates that comprise Squaring are silkscreened with mechanical precision and epoxied with a light-gray, quarter-inch grid of 48 by 48 squares that mimics the graph paper utilized by Bartlett and other artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Joe Watanabe, introduced to Bartlett by her friend Sol LeWitt, was responsible for the silkscreening. Into the grid of each plate Bartlett placed a precisely calibrated number of dots, painted by hand with Testor enamels, a medium associated with hobby painting. (Bartlett’s decision to use dots may have been inspired by an encounter with Georges Seurat’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1963.) The number of dots on each plate is dictated by a pre-determined plan: that is, by a generative scheme that guides the creation of the work. This plan involved executing a relatively straightforward calculation, one reflected in Squaring’s full title. Progressively squaring the number two, Bartlett applied two dots to one plate, four to a second, sixteen to a third, 256 to a fourth, and 65,535 to the remaining twenty-nine: that is, to as many plates as she needed to complete the calculation and translate its results into dots. The plates are unframed and secured flush to the wall with thin carpenter nails. Spaced at one-inch intervals, they are arranged sequentially, in a row, with the twenty-nine plates covered in 65,535 dots arranged into a grid of five columns. The work unfolds vertically and horizontally, as a result. When seen from a distance, the plates tend to disappear into the wall, while the black dots, which seem unmoored from a support, swell in number, eventually massing into a swarm at the right, suggesting the activity of labor and the passing of time. The dots are each painted by hand with a small brush whose bristles leave subtle tracks in the paint. These are distinctive, autographic marks, varying with the amount of pressure Bartlett applied and the minute adjustments to direction she made while working. Overall, Squaring marries the mechanical and the handmade, the organic and inorganic, the methodical and the dynamic, the conceptual and the perceptual. For such a precise, systematic work, Squaring is lively and vigorous. So important did Bartlett consider Squaring, she kept it in her personal collection until 2018.

Squaring: 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536, Jennifer Bartlett (American, Long Beach, California 1941–2022 Amagansett, New York), Enamel over silkscreen grid on 33 baked enamel on steel plates

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.