March 16-April 17, 1999
They range from nearly abstract images of an arboretum--dappled sunlight bordered by dark tree trunks (Road with Shadows)--to a Hopper-meets-Seurat vision of a local diner, (Study for Matty's Diner), but Bill Jacklin's finely rendered figurative paintings have one thing in common: he's obsessed with the choreography of the moment; its blurred geometry of motion, its fleeting waltz of time. There are some painters who are driven to constantly reinvent themselves, others whose creative energy derives from a single defining vision. For Jacklin, who began as a Systems wunderkind back in England's heady avant-garde/Carnaby Street days, (he actually worked for Yoko Ono at one point) that vision first asserted itself with his Anemone series, (1977) in which he boldly worked his way back from fashionable abstraction to the classical still life of a vase of flowers, completing a contrarian arc that is the diametric opposite of Mondrian's seminal boogie woogie from convention to invention.
Although within the anemone series itself, the trajectory is not quite so linear (the last flowers depicted are arguably the most abstract), the entire series was a radical departure from the black-and-white geometric patterns of the work he was known for in the late sixties and early seventies, which were actually based on studies of objects and their shadows but looked like a cross between op-art eye games and symmetrical odes to Escher. "The group I was with was a very cool school," he says. "They were absolutely horrified by my new work. It was a funny feeling of being dismissed as a result of not adhering to the philosophy of the time." Having taken the brazen and politically incorrect step of exposing himself as a figurative painter in the mid-1970s, Jacklin has never looked back.
In its most basic form, Jacklin's focus is the refraction of light itself. "Even my original abstractions arose from the image I saw when I flew aver the sea for the first time," Jacklin says. And in many ways his paintings--even those of such gritty subjects as the pre-Disney Times Square complete with cops and hookers and the Gansevort Street Meat Market are not so much images as after-images--the immediate impression left on the retina after glimpsing something vivid. In a way, he is still preoccupied by objects and their shadows, although his vocabulary has expanded to encompass a rich palette of tints and a distinctive method of diffusing--rather than shading--light.
Jacklin's artistic impulse is to follow E.M. Forster's famous imperative, "Only Connect." His images are his way of connecting to the moment. Although his subject is the transitory nature of experience, and his paintings are filled with a pervasive sense of Tempus Fugit, Jacklin slows the individual moment to down to a virtual standstill in the act of meticulously observing--and thus preserving--it. There is something quintessentially Proustian in this almost oxymoronic endeavor to concretize memory, although Jacklin is quick to insist that his work is not a painterly lament for le Temps Perdu.
"My paintings are all about things in flux," he says. "When I was a student I wrote my thesis on Rauschenberg because I was interested in the fragmentary nature of the phenomenological world as it comes at you, and how can you make sense of that," Jacklin explains. "ln that respect, it's about an interest in the questioning of the nature of what is real. I'm specifically interested in rhythm and motion. How do you paint motion? How do you paint flux, change and transition?"
As a student at the Royal College of art in the early 1960s Jacklin studied philosophy with lris Murdoch. "I remember I had to write an essay on Kant's Metaphysics of Morals, so I attempted to interpret what he was saying. lris Murdoch read the paper and said it was an intelligent assessment of Kant, but at the bottom of it, she wrote, "What about love?" and she meant Love with the big L., love as a philosophical concept. So I think I am interested in trying to place myself in a world where I am open to possibilities, so I don't lock into one ideology which I identify with."
He is often grouped with the School of London, which includes most famously Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj, but Jacklin is really sui generis. His work, with its stubbornly pre-modernist technique coupled with an unabashedly post-modernist interest in fragmentation and deconstruction, could be called Existential Impressionism; both in the sense that the work is impressionistic rather than expressionistic, and that it is concerned with the existential nature of experience, which in its most literal form consists of a series of visceral impressions. Indeed, Jacklin often uses a single impression as a departure point for an entire series, as in Great Lawn, Cherry Tree, and Walking Down Broadway.
Not as morbid as Bacon, whose sense of corporeal decadence is palpable, nor as romantically sensual as R.J. Kitaj, Jacklin's work is lyrical without being sentimental; he makes the ephemeral substantive. Walking Down Broadway, with the flower-like nebuli of its surging crowd, has a lush Renoirish feel. The sprightly studies of the New York Stock Exchange transform the banal into theater, a sort of executive day at the races. The compact, delicate, Saluting Policeman is balletic rather than belligerent; the white-uniformed cadets could just as well be a dancers' corps. (Both paintings recall Degas.)
Think of the photographer snapping through a vaseline lens, but subtract the pornography and substitute poetry. By keeping his images not quite in focus, Jacklin forces you to reconsider the composition of each painting and in a certain way to re-experience the moment as he has experienced it--as if seeing it for the first time. The eye imposes order on the chaos, searching out the zebra stripe of the crosswalk, the checkerboard of the floor, the repetitive pattern of heads in an audience, without judging it. Jacklin is unique among his peers in that his paintings remain objective observations--he never editorializes. As one of the few modern painters who can rely on his skill as a draughtsman to underpin his work, he ultimately lets the image speak for itself. "I start from being there. It's about the experience of it all happening around you," he says. "I think a lot of painters start from some idea of 'What am I going to say?' and that's never held any real interest for me."
Indeed, Jacklin's starting point is often a drawing done in situ; he spends hours in a single place, like Grand Central or Central Park, making studies that may later populate a whole series of paintings. His partner in these field trips is the photographer Abe Frajndlich, whose candid shots of peepshows, say, as the two artists wandered through Times Square, are themselves blurred--not unlike the subsequent Jacklin paintings. "Drawing is my conduit, my link to the experiencing the world, whether it's a face or a street, and one of the crucial energizing aspects of my work," says Jacklin. "lt allows you to be awake to the moment."
Jacklin can work up to a year or more on a single canvas, painstakingly scraping it out, or painting over it until he recaptures the relationship he had with the subject. "I don't have one neat way of working. Often when I start a painting having no idea of which direction I'm going in. I invariably know what relationship I had to the subject, but I don't know how that is going to manifest itself. So in a way the painting is an arena in which anything can happen."
It is that sense of potential drama that Jacklin expresses in his work, that "Something's Coming" sense of the city that Leonard Bernstein captured in West Side Story. Jacklin is adept at conveying a sort of charged atmosphere, and indeed one of his themes has been weather itself; the eerie calm before a storm, (Before the Rains, Central Park) the slicing of raindrops through a crowd scene. (Study for the Meeting, Great Lawn.)
The disquiet in Jacklin's work dates back to his earliest drawings of his father in a mental hospital. Jacklin would sit for hours by his father's bedside, contemplating this elusive shadow of a man. A war baby, Jacklin never strays far from his awareness of the impermanence of all things; one of his very first pieces, and one to which he refers often, was a series of decomposing soldiers in a box. (Invitation Card, 1963.) "I made this literal piece of setting up a structure and then knocked it down. I saw my father involved in being in the First World War and being totally destroyed. So I systematically destroyed these soldiers. I poured acid over them and the piece is still disintegrating."
For the last decade or so, Jacklin's specific topic has been his adopted home: Manhattan. Much as Toulouse Lautrec found in the Moulin Rouge an endlessly fascinating microcosm, Jacklin has embarked on an urban odyssey in which he zooms in on specific facets of the cityscape, yet maintains a singularly detached perspective--the genteel yet slyly subversive view of an Englishman in New York.
"When I first got off the plane I was struck by that underriding belly of energy," he says. "lt's like the city is pulsating. There's all kinds of cliched ways of describing it, but it's not about being comfortable, it's about being energized." Jacklin finds a myriad of forms to express that energy.
Take the two different images of a cherry tree in Central Park. "That's an explosion," says Jacklin of Beneath the Cherry Tree, a painting with the cloud/bouquet of a pink tree blossoming in its center. Beneath the tree are a circle of figures. The painting is a kind of Dionysian rite of spring which evokes the image of a May pole, yet is never that explicit. "l'm playing with a lot of elements. I'm not as interested in the personalities of the people as their energizing forces. Sometimes that sounds cold, but I don't feel it that way. I'm not interested in the illustration of the figures, I'm interested in finding a plastic equivalent of that experience of being there," says Jacklin. In the second version of the Chekhovian tree, (Cherry Tree with Dog) the humans have been replaced by a dog, and the tree's shadow spreads on the grass like a lace doily awaiting a picnic. Jacklin treats exteriors with the same restrained intimacy as interiors.
In Gridlock, NYC, Jacklin's framed the flow of traffic in a pattern as formal as that of a Delaunay textile. Once again his underlying interest in geometry is evident; the arcs of the street lamps anchor down a Gershwin-like rhapsody of visual elements--the cuneiforms of people and their shadows, the striped street crossings, the solid squares of cars. The painting is similar to one done in 1986, Double Crossing, Sixth Avenue, just as the Stock Market Studies revisit elements of The Promenade, Fifth Avenue, (1986), which is reminiscent of Walking Down Broadway. Since arriving in New York, Jacklin has frequently returned to certain subjects; typical New York scenes such as street traffic and crowds provide him with a physical manifestation of the idea of flux. His continuing fascination with dancers, whether its the Flamenco Dancer of 1986, or the more recent Dhervish Dancers, and Washington Square, reiterate this theme, what he calls the "swirl of motion."
"I move between conflicts-on the one hand being interested in the sort of transitory nature of things and at the same time wanting to establish something concrete. But it's that conflict that interests me," he says. "Making the mark on the canvas is a way of experiencing the moment. I can give you all kinds of formulistic reasons for why I do what I do. But I think it's truthfully about a certain feeling, not exactly poignancy, but for want of a better phrase, that sense of rushing through your life and time passing and experiencing the moment and then that moment is gone. It's that constant state of contradictory elements that finally leaves a residue and I am that. That's how I see myself anyway, and the painting is merely a manifestation of who I am."
-Phoebe Hoban, 1999
photo: © Abe Frajndlich 1999