When Rhapsody was first shown, in 1976, it occupied the entirety of the art dealer Paula Cooper’s Manhattan gallery space. Consisting of 987 one-foot-square steel panels covering an expanse of more than 150 feet, the work has an overall monumentality, but its small panels invite intimate interaction. Together they represent Bartlett’s attempt to create a painting “that had everything in it,” she has said. As the work is read from left to right, the seven thematic sections—Introduction, Mountain, Line, House, Tree, Shape, and Ocean—appear. As these monikers suggest, the panels include both representational and nonrepresentational images, some confined to one square only and others that stretch over several units.
Each of Rhapsody’s steel panels was baked with white enamel, silkscreened, and then painted. Its range of imagery—from photographic images to abstract shapes—presents a variety that undermines any sense of stylistic unity. “It was supposed to be like a conversation,” the artist has explained, “in which people digress from one thing and maybe come back to the subject, then do the same with the next thing.” Looking at Rhapsody is like listening in on this conversation. A viewer can step back and see the ebbs and flows, or come in close and engage deeply with a single topic, sentence, or line.