Harriet Bernstein’s ‘Celebrating Color’


Harriet Bernstein’s exhibition “Celebrating Color” is a joyous affair. Her vibrant acrylics dance on the surface of the work. “I strive for calm, but they end up being a party and a celebration. That’s more who I am,” Bernstein admits.

Her aptly titled show in the Feldman Family Artspace, curated by Featherstone Center for the Arts at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, celebrates color through vigorous abstraction that hits us on a visceral level.

Although always drawn to art, Bernstein notes, “In the 1980s, I lived in SoHo, New York. It was the big art boom that launched David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and others into fame and fortune. It was a heady time, and though I had moved to New York for improvisational dance, I saturated my eyes with art.” Interestingly, it was minimalist painter Agnes Martin’s large, meditative, subdued pastel-colored abstractions that really caught her attention: “Those canvases stole my heart with their soft, feminine expression, like the ocean itself. And with that, a seed was planted to someday paint.”

However, when Bernstein took brush in hand at the tail end of the pandemic, what happened was something totally different. She believes her art has a high-intensity, New York City energy. “I sat down to paint my homages to Agnes Martin, but these wild, colorful works came out instead. The paintings don’t descend from the Puritans. I might think of myself more as a mediator, yogi, and Buddhist, but this,” Bernstein explains, pointing to her art, ”is who I am.”

Looking across the exhibition, what strikes you is color, and not just any color, but exuberant, bright, bold hues. Bernstein says of the dominant one, “I thought pink was all I wanted to deliver to the world. Different shades of pink, different ways of expressing it.” 

A fluorescent pink ignites “Cherry Tree in the Rain.” In the gorgeous triptych “Blue Wave,” a singular undulating aquatic blue streak dips and swells across the three panels, carving its way through a myriad of pink hues that vibrate with their intensity. 

“There is a lot of pink in my work, but there is so much else. I was kind of surprised,” Bernstein admits. Her other colors are no less striking. She loves using complementary hues to create notable contrasts. We see this in “Red, Blue … Pink,” and the explosive yellow pushing up into the rumbling blue in “Cat’s Cradle.” A dab of hot orange ignites within the torrent of blue in a piece with the straightforward title “Orange Bleu.”

“I don’t know why I picked abstract art,” says Bernstein. “But I looked at much more of it than anything representational. One thing is that it deals with the surface, and I wanted to paint flat. I tried, but I don’t think they all do.” 

In fact, many of Bernstein’s paintings contain a duality. The active brushwork emphasizes their two-dimensionality while sometimes ever so subtly defying it. For instance, the thick acrylic paint that creates the abstract birds referred to in “Day of the Swans” creates a raised texture in the composition.

By its nature, collage, too, breaks a piece’s smooth surface, as seen with the different materials Bernstein added on top of her painted, rotating red circle in “Joalheria.” She shares, “Collage is more about shapes than about color. I have movement and color in my paintings, but I had to learn about shapes.”

Bernstein says that, at times, titles reveal themselves to her. “Halfway through the painting, it’s like, OK, this is the title. Then it can give me direction for the rest of the painting.” More often than not, the name, whether solely identifying the artwork’s colors, or with something like “Dancing Near the Edge,” leaves space for our unique response: “I want people to enjoy a direct experience with the piece.”

Bernstein works instinctually. “This painting had a lot of incarnations to it,” she explains about “Nous Deux.” “I’ll start one way and then go another. I’m not so interested in people understanding the process. I don’t think that’s interesting. Either you like it, or you don’t. With abstract art, in general, a lot of people think they don’t understand it, and that’s the end of it.”

She continues, “The aim of abstract art is to convey an essence, as opposed to an object. An abstract painting can evoke feelings, emotions, sensations. It can be peaceful or energetic, angry, or happy. It can be soothing, or sensual, inspiring. But at its best, it can lead you to the ‘art’ inside you.”

Bernstein’s work is aesthetically very different from that of her idol. Yet her paintings are the very embodiment of Agnes Martin’s belief that the attractiveness of artwork is that it be “adventurous, strenuous, and joyful.”

“Celebrating Color” is on view at the M.V. Film Center through July 7. Artist reception on June 30, from 1 to 3 pm.