Bill Jacklin

by Anthony O'Hear

Modern Painters
Winter 1992


Written on the occasion of Bill Jacklin, Urban Portraits 1986-1992 1 November-10 January 1993, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford; touring to Auditorio de Gallicia, Santiago de Compostella, Spain


I first came across Bill Jacklin's work fifteen years ago in a small gallery just off Long Acre in London. Inside there were very intense, rather beautiful still lives, mostly of a vase of flowers on the top of a table. In some there were egg-shaped stones and a box with a diagonal criss-cross pattern. Most were painted in black and white - sometimes the same scene at different times of day, studies of the different effects light had on the same object. Some of the paintings were coloured, though in subdued tones. The head of a Buddha was the centre-piece of some of the coloured paintings, dark, still and slightly glowing.

I was told at the time that these paintings represented a transformation in Jacklin's work, that he had previously been an abstract painter, of a minimalist type, carefully working small surfaces with precise and repeated geometrical patterns, and that the still lives represented his first attempt to apply to the real world what he had.learned in the meticulous working of abstract form. This, I now learn from Jacklin himself, is something of a half-truth. In the 1970s he had, indeed, painted abstract paintings, and had gained some reputation as a 'systems' artist. But his interest in form was not purely formal, nor was he preoccupied with the systems of painting for their own sake. His early abstract drawings derived from the experience of flying over the sea, and were an attempt to capture something of the repetitive forms he saw below him. He was also interested in the way light and shadow fell across a lemon, and he had had the idea of doing a series of paintings capturing stages in the life history of an anemone, its transformation into a flower and its eventual depositing of leaves and flowers around it.

Not surprisingly, these realistic preoccupations were not evident to many who first saw Jacklin as an abstract painter. From his own point of view, though, while critical success attended his minimalist phase, he began to feel that the essential dialogue between the artist and what he saw of the world had begun to die. His art had become preoccupied with the language of expression, cut off from contact with the visual impressions which should be painting's essential food. The fashionable art world, over the past 30 years or so, has been bent on denying artists a dialogue between what they see and what they paint. In this situation, artists are left empty philosophical husks of form without content (conceptual art) or the equally flatulent fare of the career of artist as self-advertising personality (Beuys, Warhol, Koons). Jacklin, though, in the mid-1970s decided to commit what he himself has described somewhat hyperbolically as artistic suicide. He began to paint impressions.

These impressions began with the small, table-top still lives already mentioned. They continued with rather larger and more colourful still lives and interiors, sometimes with one or more figures. There were also some, to my mind, less successful exteriors of gardens and the like. In these the close grasp of geometrical order evident in the interiors was not so apparent; the preoccupation with light here made for a rather unfocused effect. At the time, Jacklin wrote that his two main interests had always been the changing nature of light and geometry. If, in his abstract works, geometry could overpower life, the opposite risk is that light can obliterate form, producing another sort of emptiness.

In 1975, Jacklin went to live and work in New York City, and his work has subsequently been correspondingly large and ambitious. His oeuvre since 1975 comprises a portrait of parts of New York and some of its more run-down areas and inhabitants: the meat market below his studio on 14th Street, 42nd Street, the dog show at Madison Square Garden, salesmen's cafés, Washington Square, the 35th Precinct police station, Grand Central Station, the Hudson River, Sheep Meadow, Tomkins Square (complete with full dress urban riot), and, most recently, a large series of paintings, drawings, prints and etchings of Coney Island, a rough, proletarian, seaside resort long past its prime.

Given the combination of his aesthetic and his urban subject matter, the comparison between Jacklin and the nineteenth-century Impressionists becomes un-avoidable. The comparison can, indeed, be made more precise than hitherto. Jacklin's cityscapes are often an intriguing combination of hard and soft-focus passages, which create an impressionistic effect of figures moving or half-glimpsed. These effects are sometimes worked up from hard-edged preparatory sketches, but in the final versions even the apparently hard-focused figures are actually formed by roughly edged expanses of colour rather than by line. More intriguingly, there are passages in some of the paintings of marching crowds which, taken out of the whole painting, could stand as early abstract Jacklins. Sometimes, too, Jacklin paints or draws the same scene over and over again, as it appears at slightly different moments.

While Jacklin's methods in the New York paintings are not those of the Impressionists, the upshot is often rather similar, of figures half-seen and moving in and out of focus, of light and movements caught at one fraction of a moment. Above all, there is an impressionistic detachment about much of the work, a detachment often emphasised by back-lighting (as in Towards the Sun, Broadwalk III, Coney Island, 1992), or by unusual viewpoints, high (as in the 'Bathers' series or The Meat Packers II, 1986) or low (as in The Bar, Coney Island or in Incident on 42nd Street, 1988).

The sense of the artist as a detached see-er of what he is painting, of his impressions, is, if anything, heightened by Jacklin's use of filmic techniques in some of his paintings, of the doubling up of some figures in The Chess Players, 1986, of the swirling vortex as of a running film in The Rink I, 1990. At times, indeed, Jacklin's concentration on the process of seeing gives his paintings a dream-like, hallucinatory quality, which is not, I think, unintended.

Jacklin says that when he paints an object, place or person, his intention is not to possess, but to experience the relationship between himself and what he sees. This is correct, provided that it is understood that the relationship in question is one of seeing by the artist. Jacklin's figures are, on the whole, not engaging with the spectator, but absorbed in their own activities or worlds. Some, indeed, are involved in strange, even menacing incidents, not entirely clear to the viewer (Coney Island Incident). Jacklin says that 'the function of the artist is to act as a conduit through which the processes of seeing and responding may take place'. This is a valid interpretation of his work, so long as we remember that the response sought is the response of the viewer to what is strictly and narrowly seen, rather than to what the figures in the paintings are intentionally or directly saying to the viewer: for mostly they are unaware of being seen or uninterested in saying anything to anyone outside their world. Nor is Jacklin interested in the inner psychology or individuality of the figures he depicts, beyond the appearance they momentarily present.

Jacklin, then, is pursuing the vocation of painting as the articulation in static form of the experience of seeing. He is aware of the twin dangers of illustration and of what he refers to as mannerism - illustration being when a painting degenerates into photographic reportage, mannerism being when concentration of the technique of applying paint to canvas overpowers the subject matter represented (if any). In his work he attempts to make the spectator aware both of object represented and of the process of representation, without either side of the duality overwhelming the other. When successful, his paintings are neither straightforward representations nor exercises in the abstract deployment of colour and light. A sense of the way the light is falling on the subject matter is in fact Jacklin's preferred way of drawing the spectator's attention to the fact that he, the spectator, is looking at a painting of a scene which is itself a way of capturing and evoking a particular perceptual experience.

There is in Jacklin's work another duality somewhat orthogonal to that of object represented and process of representation. It is that of order and disorder, of disorder-in-order and order-in-disorder. If this theme recalls his early attempts to find the geometry within the motion of the waves, it is something for which representations of the city of New York can be seen as a marvellous vehicle. Within the tight rectangular grids formed by the streets and buildings of the city, more or less disorderly groups of people gather, constrained by the geometry of the city, but breathing life into it too. Jacklin's penchant for the more disreputable elements of the city is noticeable, and not I think just because the unemployed, vagrants, hookers and rough trade generally happen to be around more than the smart and the well dressed. There are paintings with strong undertows of menace, and also ones in which the forces of order are attempting in one way or another to constrain disorder in the form of rioters and criminals. It is as if Jacklin is attempting to find visible, external metaphors for the dialectic within each one of us of formless, aimless, wasteful life and the need for curbs and disciplines to control one's own existence.

Jacklin told me that two themes characterised his early abstract work, one he called 'Carthage' and the other 'Gleaners'. Carthage, following Turner, was the city formed of concentric circles bathed in and dissolving in light. Gleaners represented the tidying-up operation of geometrical forms. In his early work Jacklin had been particularly influenced by Jasper Johns and Rauchenberg, not so much by their deployment of Pop symbols and imagery, but by what he saw as their paring off of elements of visual experience, which was itself a type of gleaning, a discernment of sets of orderly elements underlying the apparently diffuse and complicated experience of perception. Elements from both 'Carthage' and 'Gleaning' can be seen synthesised in Jacklin's recent paintings, both in terms of subject matter and technique. All Jacklin's concerns come together in his The Fourth of July, 1986 - geometry, light, whirling human forces constrained by the city, under a sky of lurid theatricality.

The Fourth of July, 1986, oil on canvas


I said that Jacklin is interested in order and disorder, both in vision and also in human affairs. Although one might surmise that the artist is temperamentally on the side of those who stay outside the repressions of order, and that he is aware of the sufferings and the occasional nobility of those on the margins of society, it has to be said that there is nothing judgemental or moralistic about his work. I am reminded of the smiling Buddha of the early still lives, the Buddha for whom order and disorder, good and evil, suffering and pleasure are all parts of existence, and all to be accepted in their own way, as fleeting appearances. Taking and accepting the life of the city as it appears to us is another way in which Jacklin's work recalls that of the nineteenth-century Impressionists. And, as with the Impressionists, it is precisely concentration on the visual process and experience which transforms what is seen into paintings of ephemeral poetic reveries. And yet, for me, the artist whom Jacklin conjures up most of all is Seurat. At times Jacklin's palette seems uncertain, at times oppressive, at times over-theatrical. But there are paintings of urban people relaxing, enjoying themselves, such as The Chess Players and, particularly, The Sheep Meadow llI, 1969 which evoke Seurat not just in their subject matter and ambition, but even more in their poetry: in the liquid yellows and greens of the sun light and the grass and the trees. and in the way the light transforms the figures depicted. The onetime minimalist Jacklin may turn out to be doing for our time and for New York City something of what Seurat and the Impressionists did for the Paris of the late nineteenth century.

-Anthony O'Hear, 1992