Recent Work: New York Paintings, Pastels and Drawings
Marlborough Gallery, New York, 1987

by John Russell Taylor


A number of prominent pictures in each show Bill Jacklin has had since he forsook abstraction in 1976 might well give colour to the idea that he is a happy hedonist. And indeed, what is wrong with that? No one has complained -- or not too much -- that Matisse was throughout his life unaffectedly delighted with the shapes and textures, and above all the colours, of the world around him, and hardly aimed in his painting at a deeper meaning than that; he would, no doubt have felt that such was the deepest meaning painting could be expected to bear. In any case, does not that seem logical as a development from abstraction, of a minimal variety! From the cool, zen elegance of Jacklin's abstract works to the sensuous repose of his later nudes and still-lifes does not seem like so big a jump.

And yet...Not that there ought to be a problem in such a simple diagnosis; but there is. More and more the feeling creeps up on one that, though Jacklin appears to be painting the rose, he always has a haunting awareness that deep inside it is the invisible worm. Some of Jacklin's paintings are truly comfortable. But not many. Even when he was living and working primarily in Chelsea, there was usually a vague sense of unease underlying the work. Not only in the pictures of old people in hospitals (Jacklin's own mother and father, as it happens), but very distinctly in the series of studio pictures, the most indicative of which is called Man and Monster, and the later series of pictures of people in a room, particularly a woman in a chair, about to rise from it, or risen and lurching (menacingly?) forward. This latter group always suggests the plays of Harold Pinter to me -- not because of an intention (as far as I know) on Jacklin's part to illustrate, but simply because the atmosphere created between people by something that lies unspoken, the undefined sense of menace, are so extraordinarily akin to Pinter's theatre.

By talking of the moment when Jacklin "forsook" abstraction, inevitably one makes it sound as though he has somehow been politically involved in the latest round of the "war" between abstraction and representation. To a certain extent he has, willy-nilly: though in the sober British art scene it is hardly likely that he would find, as Arikha did in Paris in similar circumstances, irate abstractionists spitting at him in the street, there have certainly been a few cold shoulders from the new middle-aged Establishment, who mostly got to their present eminence by way of movements fashionable in the Seventies like Conceptualism and Minimalism. In consequence, it is important to remember that Jacklin was not born a minimalist: indeed, looking at some of his prints of the early Sixties, one is struck by the very clear continuity between them and the latest work.

In fact, he was a rigorous minimalist for only about seven years, the result, it seems, of an imperative need at a certain point to explore more intensely the architecture which underlies all his work, early and recent. In the classic Mondrian fashion, images were gradually denuded of their connotation, until only the bare skeleton survived, and then even that was bleached and blanched almost out of existence. But that, it now seems, was only a period of holding breath, until relaxation was achieved and a whole world of shapes and colours could come flooding back. If, in the earliest of the new figurative canvases, Jacklin seems to revel in colour for the sake of colour, who shall blame him for thus celebrating the end of his self-denying ordinance?

He certainly still appreciates colour, but not just for its own sake. The rich reds and yellows and greens of the still lifes gradually take on an added complexity, a smoky, smouldering quality which also implies that something not quite so palatable may be lurking in the shadows, behind the easel, in the corner, masked by the potted plants. Whether this betokens some kind of existential discomfort in the artist one would hesitate to guess -- and in any case he would probably feel no more qualified to answer than anyone else. (Pinter also disclaims symbolic intention and refuses to pose as an authority on his own psyche.) But Jacklin's visits to New York and, more recently, his year-or-so's residence there has certainly brought something new and exciting to the surface in his work.

The first New York-inspired pictures were a series suggested by some fascinated/repulsed visits to Forty-Second Street peep-shows. When Jacklin moved his painting operations to New York he took with him a couple of unfinished canvases, to work on while getting acclimatised, but found that was quite impossible, as they seemed to belong to a different world. Instead, he took to painting what he saw around him, in his usual fashion of making a lot of sketches and studies from life, then elaborating the finished pictures at leisure in his studio. It was no doubt partly by chance that his studio happened to be right above the meat packers towards the westward end of Fourteenth Street. But the bizarre images there on offer at once seized his imagination, and led to a series, some from high above, some from close in, of men and carcasses -- and sometimes, hardly less bizzare, the packers eating and drinking in the local cafe.

These first images have the sharp excitement one often encounters when an artist suddenly finds himself reacting to an unfamiliar environment: he somehow re-invests it with a sense of wonder which locals have lost from long habitude. The same implies equally to the later groups of New York paintings. There are several extraordinary pictures based on a march along Sixth Avenue glimpsed from the window of Jacklin's first New York apartment: the small, ant-like figures bombarded by
sunlight, making their way, as it appears by a curious trick of perspective, up and over a great bulge in the earth, as though part of some contemporary equivalent to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. There are pictures of the Fourth of July celebrations in 1986, the year of the Statue of Liberty celebrations, as experienced from a balcony high above the Hudson -- again, the superficial jubilation undercut by the slightly threatening glare of the lights on a hot summer night.

And, perhaps most remarkable of all, there are the pictures inspired by Washington Square, seen in one sequence by night, and in the other wrapped in the intense shade of a summer afternoon under the trees, where the chess-players go intensely about their business, watched with no less intensity by a heterogeneous group of onlookers. These last in particular give a clear indication of where Jacklin is coming from, or, more precisely, where he fits in. There is in the monumental immobility of these large figures, and the way they are disposed about the pictorial space, more than a hint of Seurat and La Grande Jatte. Movement in Jacklin's paintings always seems to be frozen or implicit, rather as though he sought -- like Seurat -- to capture and preserve for ever the fleeting moment in the amber of memory.

In the principal triptych of this series movement is even suggested by the duplication of some peripheral figures, as though by some sort of stop-motion photography. But that only emphasizes the drowsy stillness of the scene. In his work, at least, Jacklin has reached a position of equipoise. But it seems unlikely that he, or we, will have too much time to get used to it before his demon drives him on to some fresh and probably disturbing experience, and brings us some finely challenging, richly satisfying expression of it from this most painterly of today's painters. The art, as it always should, carries us further than we mean to go, and leaves us loving the experience, ready for more.


- John Russell Taylor (December 1986)