Bill Jacklin: Life as an Intuitive Conceptualist

By Eric Bryant


After a century of abstract art and roughly half a century of conceptualism, a simplistic set of beliefs have taken root in certain corners of the art world. There is the postulate that abstraction is filled with complexity, the corollary idea that figurative art is the easier path for artist and viewer alike, and the de facto demotion of painting on canvas as an outmoded or expired technique. Perhaps most widespread of all, there is the assumption that the attractive lacks intellectual heft.

Bill Jacklin’s work—paintings and prints that charm unabashedly with their light- and energy-filled depictions of contemporary urban life—effectively thwarts these notions. The current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “Bill Jacklin: 1986–2016,” amply demonstrates the art’s seductive side. The artist’s intellectual depth is less overt and therefore all the more rewarding to those who set aside art world prejudices and search it out.

Marlborough is presenting some two dozen canvases from the past three decades of Jacklin’s creative output. The selections focus on two of the artist’s favorite recurring subjects: Gotham’s many guises and groups of anonymous people in motion, including the celebrated ice skaters. In part the metropolis appears so frequently here because the gallery conceived this show as a celebratory return to home turf after last year’s two-fold success in London, where the Royal Academy presented Jacklin’s works on paper while Marlborough London focused on recent canvases. More importantly, the show’s focus makes sense because Jacklin’s ability to distill—and indeed choreograph—the energy of New York into visual form will immediately resonate with visitors who just traversed a bustling 57th Street to enter the hushed gallery space.

Those unfamiliar with Jacklin’s paintings will therefore get an introduction via his treatment of the place that has served as his constant muse since the artist moved to New York in 1985. Those who already know the work are accorded the chance to make informative comparisons.

Despite the show’s concision, the examples on view are remarkably efficient in presenting the artist’s significant styles from this period. At first glance, the major styles seen in the show seem to correlate with the chronology of the selections, implying a predictable career organized around stylistic periods, starting with schematic compositions and moving toward looser pictures. Viewers who search out a wider array of Jacklin’s work, or simply look more closely at these paintings will soon see the lineup of distinct styles dissolve into an intertwined network borrowed and reworked elements. Consider the weighty clouds pushing down on the low-slung buildings in the show’s earliest painting, Meatpackers NYC II, 1986; when strikingly similar white tracks reappear in one of the show’s most recent works, Harbour with Sun and Clouds II, 2016, minor alterations have made them ethereal, helping to draw up the skyscrapers below.

Along with the subject of New York and urban crowds, the most dominant aspect of these canvases is the treatment of light and shadow. By the Seashore Coney Island (Gleaners Meeting Carthage), 1992-99, and Double Illumination, 2011, each show crowds of small barely distinct figures spread across flat spaces below skies that command the picture plane. In the earlier work, Jacklin’s central cloud becomes an exploration of the effects of light emanating from outside the view to the right. In the latter work, the artist deploys a similar cloud shape, but uses it now to depict smoke from what appear to be fireworks, which themselves become the central source of light. It’s brushstroke as brushfire.

This kind of close reading is useful in teasing out the artist’s less obvious aesthetic concerns, which Jacklin himself often refers to in terms of polar opposites. In addition to light and shadow, there is order and chaos, energy stored versus energy being released, and most important of all, representation and abstraction. To understand how these conceptual concerns underpin Jacklin’s lively compositions, it helps to know about the first act of Jacklin’s career.

After completing his studies at the Royal College of Art in the late 1960s, Jacklin quickly forged a promising career with abstractions that paired conceptual and technical precision. Those works spoke to the aesthetic concerns of the day and earned him solo exhibitions at the influential Nigel Greenwood Gallery before he was 30 years old. Then in the late 1970s, just as curators sought him out for more of those conceptual abstractions, Jacklin began exploring the possibilities of figurative imagery. In Anemones, from 1977, seven etchings illustrate the progression as an image of a vase of flowers is broken down into elements defined by light and form that are then assembled into a rigid geometric abstraction. Given that his interests at the time were moving in the other direction, it is tempting to see a critique of art world hierarchies in the ranked order of the prints.

The demands of finding subject matter in the everyday world invigorated Jacklin, but his change in course came at a time when the avant-garde consensus held that representational picturemaking had been played out. The ideological divide became more pronounced as oil on canvas became more important to him in the ensuing years. In 1985 he relocated to New York, which has been Jacklin’s home base and primary source of inspiration ever since.

It is difficult not to see a distinct break separating the periods before and after his embrace of New York as his muse. Yet, when Jacklin discusses works from the three decades of representational art on view in this show, he makes frequent reference to earlier works like Anemones and even an even earlier sculptural study of his father. Listening to Jacklin it becomes clear that the distinctions separating these periods are less important than the abiding concerns with creating balance between the sets of polar opposites that he sees as underlying all forms of picturemaking, and all periods of his work. He isn’t looking to merely find a middle ground between energy and stillness, for example, but rather he strives to find a way to instill each work with a balance of both. Consider this show’s two depictions of urban traffic run amok. In Gridlock Intersection II, 2011-2013, New York feels overloaded, almost ready to snap, with pedestrians speeding up as the vehicles come to a halt. Showing ostensibly similar circumstances, Piccadilly Bottleneck II, 2008, instills London with a low-stress vibe.

The course of Jacklin’s career is not defined by stylistic periods, or by an abrupt change in subjects, but by a continuity of concerns that he has grappled with for so long they have become like second nature to him. At this point Jacklin engages with these concepts—light and dark, chaos and order, energy and stillness—in an almost instinctive level during his long hours in the studio or walking the streets of New York, sketchbook in hand.

The evidence of explorations has simply become harder to see, both because Jacklin’s new works operate on so many levels, and because it is so easy for us to get caught up on the seductive surfaces. Yet within each work we witness an approach to his own intuition and the essence of painting that is as rigorous as it is celebratory.