Paintings of Innocence and Experience

by John Lau (1993)

In 1979, Bill Jacklin characterised his preoccupations as "studying the changing nature of light and an interest in geometry." Although more than a decade has passed since he made this statement, its focus on both die phenomenological world and formal issues, and its underlying implication that there are places where these two perceptual realms intersect, remains central to an understanding of his project. Jacklin's work has undergone a number of distinct transformations as he has moved away from the issues of abstraction which preoccupied him from 1968 to 1975, to the dilemmas of representation on which he has worked from 1976 to the present. The problem lie continually addresses is that of the perceptual space between nature and geometry - change and order - which has been superficially categorised in art terms as between representation and abstraction. It could be said that Jacklin's goal is to articulate in paint the places where the self-sufficiency of the natural world (light and shadow) and that of abstraction (geometry) are integrated into a single perceptual possibility. In this integration, particularly notable in his representational paintings of the past decade, the transforming immateriality of light and the changing materiality of the physical world are shown co-existing, colliding and even undermining each other in ways that invite a speculative response.

From the mid to late 1970s Jacklin worked on a series of still life paintings in which he explored the movement of light across specific objects (in particular, lemons and a striped vase). Although these works were seen by many reviewers as a departure from the Minimalist abstractions by which he had become known in the early 1970s, they looked back to his beginnings as an abstract artist whilst forming the foundation of his subsequent investigations as a representational artist. It may be instructive here to recall an early statement by Jacklin: "In 1968 I began a series of drawings to study the structural possibilities inherent in a non-figurative line. As the passage of light across a solid identities that solid, so I try to identify a space on a canvas or a sheet of paper by relating one line to another." Jacklin may have been working in an abstract mode during this period, but the physical world, with its interplay of light and solids, was still verv much on his mind. In his early, obsessive abstractions, Jacklin used lines and linear structures to register change over the surface of the paper or canvas. Yet critics rightfully saw these paintings and drawings as embodying parallels with the phenomenological world. Like any artist committed to pure abstraction, Jacklin assiduously eschewed direct reference to the natural world, but viewers sensed that a teeming, microscopic realm was being examined through an abstract lens and that his seemingly self-sufficient abstractions, in fact, proposed sharp parallels with phenomenological aspects of the natural world.

When Jacklin changed from abstraction to figuration, he moved from one kind of seeing to another, in a move that recalls William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. Like those of his peers in England and America, Jacklin's abstractions were grounded in a belief in an innocent eye, an idea first developed by John Ruskin, who in The Elements of Drawing (1856-57), proposed that:

"The whole technical power of painting depends upon our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a certain childish perception of those flat stains of colour merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, as if a blind man might see them if suddenly gifted with sight."

Whilst Ruskin's remark was intended to direct the reader's attention to the technical prowess of his contemporary J.M.W. Turner - in particular towards his "pictures of nothing" rather than to the inherent drama of his subjects - it also marks the beginning of the separation of paint and subject into different categories and, as such, can be seen as one of the critical underpinnings ot modernist criticism. This separation was subsequently codified by Roger Fry in his response to Cezanne's still-lifes and landscapes, and further developed and codified by Clement Greenberg at the beginning of the American postwar era in his analysis of Jackson Pollock's first poured paintings of 1947.

As a young abstract artist, Jacklin aligned himself with the formalist belief in the innocent eye and the self-sufficient purity of abstraction. It was a world unto itself, a world that existed solely on canvas and paper. In changing from an abstract to a representational artist, Jacklin moved from an exclusionary realm to an inclusionary one, from purity to impurity, from innocence to experience. This is an important but subtle change that occurred in the artist's approach during the seventies. For Jacklin it was not a matter of changing styles, as it was for many other artists whose work changed in the early eighties, due to the pressure of Neo- Expressionism or a new spirit in painting, but of moving from a dominion presided over by formalist criticism (and the paradigm of the innocent eye) to a zone where no single critical view held sway and the world's constant flux and disjunctures became one of the artist's primary concerns.

Jacklin's statement from 1979 synthesises the two parallel strands of thought he expressed at the outset of his career, bringing together geometry, colour, gesture and solid forms with the constant passage of light and shadow. Beyond this synthesis, it proposes that the zones of representation and abstraction, and of subject and paint, need no longer be cordoned off from each other, like speakers at a debate. In suggesting this, Jacklin moved from a closed mode of painting to an an open one, from obsessive abstractions built up by the repetition of a few elements to complex representations embodying a wide range of painterly possibilities.

In 1985 Jacklin moved from London to New York. The change in scenery precipitated an immediate change in subject matter. Whereas formerly Jacklin had painted still-lifes and intimate, light filled interiors, he now began to paint crowded interior and exterior public spaces. The constant collision of disparate individuals and groups and the fast-changing geography of New York provided a visual challenge. He transformed the changing line and combination of systems that his abstract paintings had once embodied into tools with which he could investigate the urban milieu which he now inhabited. He invited the gritty light of New York into his studio, whilst taking himself deeper and deeper into the city and its environs.

Among the paintings Jacklin completed after moving to New York there are a number of aerial views of meat packers unloading trucks on West 14th street near the Hudson River, where his first studio was located. This area, at once familiar and remote to most New Yorkers, is the entrance point for much of the meat and produce trucked into New York. During the day it is a bustling street full of warehouses, trucks and white-coated and aproned workers; at night, it is largely empty, patrolled by scantily dressed prostitutes and transvestites. Like many streets in New York, its visible life changes according to the time of day.

Accompanying the paintings of daytime aerial views are a group of interior scenes of uniformed, helmeted workers, eating lunch in local restaurants and cafeterias. In these works one can sense Jacklin beginning to explore New York, looking out of his window and walking the streets around his studio. Like any explorer, his eyes were attentive to the overall scene as well as to particular and, for him, unfamiliar details. In both groups of work, the relationship of the part to the whole, something which had preoccupied him during his years as an abstract artist, is given a different and unpredictable twist.

In The Meatpackers II (1986) Jacklin distinguishes several figures within the group gathered on the street. Whilst they may appear to be abstract shapes delineated by colour and light, they can also be read as individuals going about their different tasks. We may not be able to see who they are, but we can see what they are doing. The group, a distinct flow of marks across the surface of the painting, never becomes merely a gathering of indistinguishable abstract signs. The flow suggests the sense of movement and power associated with large groups of people, or of communities of insects.

Jacklin's aerial view employs an economy of means in which an implicit sense of order articulates both the gestures and movements of the workers and the underlying geometry of the composition. The counterpoint established between the interlocking planes of street, trucks, buildings, rooftops and sky and the implied movement of the marks across the surface (suggesting the ant-like workers) evokes both containment and a kind of Brownian movement implying stasis and restlessness.

Beyond questions of abstraction and representation, the difference between Jacklin's previous abstractions and The Meatpackers II lies in his interest in charting a light that is both actual and imaginary, particularly as it moves from left to right across the changing, largely geometric terrain. The workers, depicted both as individuals and as an asymmetrical group, populate different points within this movement of light, whilst the yellowish light and the abstract passages of colour give the painting its detached yet emotional tone. The repetition of marks underscores the forceful power of the uniformed men and suggests that a dark side is always lurking in the corners of individual behaviour.

The palette used in The Meatpackers II is largely composed of yellow ochre and shades of white, brown and red. The notched city skyline along the top edge of the composition evokes the shape of an immense castle from which there is seemingly no escape. Through colour and geometry, Jacklin's sense of placement registers his sensitivity to some of the most distinct features of New York City: the changing scale and disjunctive distances which form an integral aspect of almost every view. New York seems at once near and far away, chaotic and ordered, frenzied and calm. These disturbing disjunctures reflect the attitude of New Yorkers themselves, who regard the frenzied action of New York as the norm and view moments of calm with disquiet. The Meatpackers II embodies these two disparate states in its composition. Its tonal shifts and tilting planes, the juxtaposition of geometry, figuration, flat areas of colour and a busy visual field full of precise painterly instances all work together to capture the frenetic movement of the city.

The aerial scenes form part of a larger group of paintings completed during the mid to late 1980s. In The Sandwich Eaters (1986) and Howley's (1986), Jacklin depicts workers during their lunch-hour. In these paintings, the view is close-up and intimate. Yet like the aerial scenes these paintings appear to be documentary, reporting what is seen with a detached gaze. As when gazing at a crowded scene, some parts appear to be more clearly focused than others. The composition of Howley's combines repetitive and disjunctive shifts with generalised forms and specific details. Jacklin's investigation is focused on three men seated around the table, each wearing a different kind of hat. All three are depicted as individual geometric shapes (two semi-circles with a circle in the middle), arranged horizontally across the upper middle section of the painting. The two men sitting opposite each other are in conversation, whilst the man between them silently eats his sandwich, head bowed. Another man is about to sit down and join them, but has stopped momentarily to turn and stare at the viewer and, presumably, at where Jacklin himself was seated when he made a preliminary sketch of this scene. Sitting to the left of the seated men is a more loosely defined figure in a yellow uniform and hat, who merges into the general atmosphere of the painting.

Both the man about to sit down and the man seated closest to him are wearing yellow helmets. The repetition of this yellow semi-circle opens up the scene, whilst reinforcing the emotional distance between the observer and the observed. At the same time it underscores the inviolability of the picture plane, cutting off the viewer from the physical space inhabited by the men . Through this formal repetition, Jacklin is able to acknowledge his own sense of being an outsider, an observer rather than a participant. In making his estrangement palpable in paint, he also allows us to see ourselves looking at the painting. The helmeted man turns to look at us with a hostile glare. We feel self-conscious; who are we to pry into this world, to be so curious? But Jacklin might respond that painting is above all an act of looking, an investigation of something which prefers to remain closed and unto itself. It is this which provides the friction which is embodied in Jacklin's representational paintings. Whilst his abstract paintings set one system against another, they did not address the conflicts between seeing and looking and between participation and exclusion which are the central features of this more recent work.

Jacklin's paintings divide into two distinct groups: aerial or distanced views of large crowds of people, and more intimate, close-up views of individuals and social types gathered within a specific milieu: inside a police station, in the waiting room of Grand Central Station, or in Washington Square Park. In the aerial views, the surging power of the movement of large groups of ant-like individuals across the composition evokes a potential for chaos and disorder contained in all large gatherings of people. In his paint strokes, Jacklin transfers this sense of impending chaos to his paintings without reducing them to mere signs and abstract marks. In Crossing Sixth Avenue (1986), he conveys a range of gestures and poses. Here, as in his other aerial scenes, there is a tension between the abstraction of the painted marks and the figurative depiction of individuals. As the marks become individuals and the individuals become marks, accents of colour and gestures, a dialogue is maintained. The more intimate, street level scenes, such as the triptych The Chess Players (1986), depict a centrally-located drama, around which various individuals and urban types are gathered. As in the aerial scenes, Jacklin uses repetition and pattern to set up rhythms within the composition.

These two kinds of scene have in common their use of either calm or a centrifugal force. In the aerial views, the crowd seems as though it could fly apart at any minute, like matter exploding, whilst in the street scenes and interiors, it is as though the outer edges might break loose from the stabilised centre of the painting. This underlying structure helps both to focus the composition and to indicate the kinds of abstract patterning Jacklin uses throughout his paintings.

A closer examination of the formal aspects of his paintings reveals a subtle integration of different, often antagonistic patterns. In The Chess Players for- example, our eyes move from the horizontally-striped pattern of the American flag, depicted as a diptych-like patch sewn onto the central figure's hat, to both outer edges; on the left, the checkerboard pattern of a shirt is repeated rather like stills from a film, whilst on the right, two standing figures in white t-shirts echo each other. These patterns and repetitions lead the eye to move both outwards to the edges and back in towards the centre of the painting. This inward-outward movement suggests the motion of breathing, and underscores the restlessness of looking. At the same time, repetition of colour and pattern gives the painting an overall stillness, as if time had been slowed down. This combination of movement and stillness echoes both the rhythm of a chess game and the way we view the painting. Our eyes move, pause and move on, always returning to the central, seated figure.

The relationship between geometry and chaos is not simply a formal lens through which Jacklin sees the world. In The Battle of Tompkins Square (1990), he utilises a wide knowledge of history paintings (Delacroix and Gericault amongst others) to depict a clash between the police and members of the various groups - residents, the homeless and transient people - that inhabit New York's Lower East Side (or Loisada as it is also known). Here, Jacklin's formal means - the use of geometry, disjuncture, pattern and chaos - are used to investigate a social situation in which the forces of order and chaos confront each other. Jacklin takes no sides in this argument, but through attention to detail and the use of multiple focal points he conveys the emotional impact of the situation on individuals, and the observation that society hovers in a balance between order and disorder. In The Battle of Tompkins Square these two forces reach fever pitch. It is this extreme moment that Jacklin addresses. The instances of threatened stillness within the painting are disquieting reminders of the fragility of both individuals and society.

By the late 1980s, Jacklin was moving in two seemingly opposite directions. His aerial scenes became all-over compositions, whilst the central figure or figures of his street scenes and interiors became part of a larger drama. This drama was often one of isolation, as in Sheep Meadow III (1990), where each of the figures in the foreground inhabits his or her own private world. The scene Jacklin depicts is contemporary, and familiar to New Yorkers, yet its composition recalls Seurat's Une baignade, Asnieres (1883). In both paintings, the artists utilise clear outlines of diagonally placed figures in profile to set up internal rhythms within the composition.

Facing towards the sunlight, the woman in the yellow bathing suit is one of the primary focal points in Sheep Meadow. Her diagonal form is echoed by a man on the right, another on the left and a woman stretching and bending on the right, further away from us. The sexuality of the sun-bathing woman's pose is at once immediate and distanced. This tension recalls not only Seurat but also the paintings of Balthus, particularly Les Beaux Jours (1944-45) or La Partly de Cartes (1948-1950). The woman's angular, protective posture conveys an air of languid abandonment, which the others around her seem not to notice.

Jacklin's allusions are not appropriations and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he does not raid history for style and subject matter in the postmodern sense. Yet, as he has further explored the diverse neighbourhoods and gathering places of New York, he appears to have found it necessary to enter deeper into the history of painting in order to find useful compositional models. Both Seurat and Balthus made ambitious and innovative urban compositions which conveyed something of the intractability and mystery of the city and its inhabitants. Jacklin may similarly document moments and passages of time, but he does not claim to know everything there is to know about subjects. They are at once both physically present and emotionally detached, a state of being any city-dweller knows only too well. His figures are contemplative, cocky, fearful, hostile, withdrawn, or busy with their own impenetrable dramas. They are familiar types which we often overlook as we move through the city, in a hurry to reach our destination.

In Grand Central Station (1988), Jacklin depicts the waiting-room in which New York's homeless gather. The dusty amber light freezes their hunched and forlorn poses in their silence. We see them at an emotional distance, as we usually do in life, even as we recognise that the painting's viewpoint places us both in proximity with these people and outside the area of benches they occupy. As in The Meatpackers II, one of the figures stares out at us, this time with a benign rather than hostile look. Jacklin makes us question our own feelings towards the homeless. There is no attempt on his part to elicit sympathy for them; that would be too easy and sentimental. Rather, he compels us to examine the way we look at them, and makes us conscious of how often we think of this group of people as "them."

In Audience I (1990) and Audience III (1993), which depicts a cheering crowd gathered at a rock concert, the paradigm of "them" becomes something more than a group of people from which we are estranged. It becomes a kind of abstract, energised and energising force which the artist has translated into paint. Here, the aerial view suggests that we are on stage being looked at, and that looking is a kind of public performance. Amongst the most abstract of Jacklin's representational compositions, these paintings utilise an all-over, grid- like composition to depict the rows of individuals crowded into an immense auditorium. Within this implied grid, Jacklin has distinguished faces and gestures to the point where we imagine that everything is about to fall into sharp focus. That they do not is a concession not to abstraction, but to the act of looking - the movement of our eyes when confronted by a large mass of gesturing, excited people. Focusing, the painting suggests, is an act of exclusion. We must see them all, even if it means we can barely see any single one clearly.

In Jacklin's paintings the viewer can encounter workers, celebrants, the homeless, enthusiastic audiences, policemen, topless dancers, gypsy fortune tellers, sunbathers and chess players. Various racial and ethnic groups are represented. The melting pot that is New York has become a collection of evocative marks and passages of colour, light, solids and silhouettes. Looking is both a physical fact and a social action, both a public and private gesture. It reminds us that we are always looking at and thinking about other inhabitants of the city, and that only a certain privileged or insular person would act as if looking wasn't in the slightest bit necessary.

Jacklin may still be an outsider, not as yet a true "New Yorker." As someone who has lived in the city for more than fifteen years, I am not sure when final transformation occurs and one becomes an "insider" in this vast, complex city which has no centre, no dominant focus and no over-riding theme. Yet it is this very state of being an outsider thatJacklin uses to such full and disquieting advantage. It is ironic that New York, which attracts artists from all over to the world is rarely depicted by contemporary representational painters. By alludmgj to artists such as Seurat, Balthus and Gericault as well as by utilising abstract patterning and a knowledge of both gestural and all-over abstraction, Jacklin is able to convey the variety of New York, a teeming metropolis undergoing both decay and renewal. The different compositional modes in his work convey a restless, ambitious spirit. Whether in the aerial scenes or the street level views, the common, everyday, yet complex act of looking becomes a worthy subject once more.

- John Yau, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, retrospective catalogue