When I visited Bill Jacklin in New York this year, early Spring was stealing through the city. We walked through the sprawl of rapidly changing streets that separate the artist's home from his Chelsea studio and talked about the creative energy that is derived from living and working in an adopted place.
Bill Jacklin's need for imaginative freedom and his questioning attitude are constants that run through the changing phases of his art. He is inspired by the conflicts and contradictions of the city of New York, translating his experiences into a drama of light and shadow which is enacted with renewed vigor in his recent paintings and prints. Looking at the inspired compositions which animate the light-spangled surfaces of Jacklin's monoprints, one is left in no doubt that one is dealing with an artist at the height of his powers.
The conversations I had with Bill Jacklin this Spring reflect, above all, the philosophical core of his art. Increasingly, Jacklin spurns incidental detail to concentrate on the essence of his experiences and memories, and his recent paintings of the Great Lawn in Central Park and the roads with shadows are not just views of New York city but also meditations about the order of things. Bill Jacklin's new paintings are about time passing, life and death and the spectrum of human emotions. They are deeply felt and moving works which hark back to the artist's earliest attempts to record his responses to the world.
Jill Lloyd: I wanted to ask you about the drawings of your father which you must have done in the early sixties. Looking around the studio, I've found myself drawn to them again and again.
Bill Jacklin: I did those drawings when my father was in a mental institution in England and I used to visit every week. Like in most institutions, the patients get tidied away during visiting hours, but if you go at any other time they are running amok, and it was an early experience of mine to see this chaos behind the facade. I drew all the time and filled many sketchbooks, and in a way it was my first real contact with a subject. It had nothing to do with making a good drawing, although some of those drawings of my father as he sat in his bed with his bib... and then gradually slid down the bed... were among the best drawings I ever did. In a funny way many of them are better than the ones I made after I learnt to draw. Later on, when my mother was on her deathbed, I also drew her many times, and in both cases the drawings were just a direct observation of a relationship.
JL: Wasn't there also an installation, a box with soldiers, that was about your father?
BJ: I called it Invitation Card and, yes, it was totally about my father, or about my anger and my reactions to the world. I exhibited it in the London group in 1963, and I still have a piece by John Russell where he said he liked it but thought it went beyond what was considered art. It was the first time that I set up a whole series of obsessional systems. I made all the soldiers and their uniforms and all their shiny buttons, and then I systematically destroyed them in a sequence. I shot them up with a .22 rifle in my bedroom and poured acid on them, and they are actually; still burning away in storage. That idea of setting something up and changing or destroying its nature established the thing I've always had about creating an order and then questioning the nature of that order and its apparent progression towards chaos.
JL: Did that lead into the work you did with abstract systems?
BJ: Not exactly. When you're young and in any way curious you go through all sorts of different things. At the Royal College of Art one of the things I was influenced by was a certain kind of American painting of the fifties by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg. At the time that was something that was not particularly encouraged. I remember seeing a show at the Whitechapel in about 1965 and being blown away by the freshness of the way this work questioned the nature of things. You know, what is reality in some of those early Rauschenberg combines? Here's a real orange, here's a disc of an orange, here's orange paint. That undermined the European sense of the picture plane which I'd been brought up on and it led to a lot of confusion because, on the one hand, it was very fresh to me, but it also set me off on a course that ultimately wasn't that interesting.
JL: Because it was too theoretical?
RJ: Well, I'd always been a draftsman and drawing has always been central to the way I respond to the world, but at college I experimented with photo-silkscreen and all these different media. When the influences dropped away I felt a need to simplify things, and I embarked on a very simple series of pen and ink drawings. These were the first things I'd done which were not representational, but in a sense they were. When I flew over the sea for the first time and looked down on the water I saw the way the waves were hitting the expanse of the ocean and I started a series of drawings based on that impression. I extended these drawings in relation to systems of nature that I was observing and more atmospheric, sense-inspired movements of light across a surface.
JL: So you were responding to the process, not the image?
BJ: Yes, my interest was in the process of the systems. A lot of these drawings got sold to institutions and suddenly that became my identity. I enjoyed the success as a young man, but I didn't really believe in it and I didn't know how to extend it. Eventually I had to stop and destroy that phase, so I did an about turn and started painting anemones. This was the first time in some while that I actually drew something directly. I observed the flowers, and then they died and I drew that, and then all the petals were lying on the surface of the table and I drew that, and then they kind of took on a life. At some point I started imagining these petals as entities in their own right and they started to dance before my eyes. So I drew that, and then they danced into the night and re-formed themselves in systems that I saw as their underlying structure. It wasn't based on any kind of pseudo-scientific knowledge but on my imagination.
JL: Viewed in a linear way then, you started with a recognisable image and subsequently abstracted it. But l don't think that's what the anemones are about. It isn't really a linear sequence at all but rather a cycle of life and death.
BJ: I think that's what I'm interested in. I'm often moving in a series through different emotional states. In that instance I was also trying to free myself from a kind of constraint about how I might see the world, not just intellectually but emotionally. Where am I in relation to the world? That's always been something I've wanted to explore. There are times when you find that you've painted yourself into a corner and that's when you have to break it up.
JL: And is this what happened at the end of the systems phase?
BJ: Well, I made a resolution never to allow language to take over again. When my mother gave me a paint box and I went to Hampstead Heath as a child, I remember going with a full heart and a full response to the world. You just wanted to take it all in, and that seemed to me to be a wonderful place to be. Then you get caught up in the art world with all its dos and don'ts and you realize that the avant-garde is very conservative in many ways, and it has all these associations and social structures, which are fine in their place. But as an artist you have to see your way through all that and I decided I wasn't going to edit the world.
JL: You wanted to stay open?
BJ: Yes, just to stay open and then allow the language to be a manifestation of that experience rather than to adapt experience to language. To allow myself to respond naturally and intelligently, that's all.
JL: But there must also have been certain precedents in art.
BJ: Well, if there were, I always responded to artists who are involved in the movement of light and shadow. You ask what turns someone on, there's usually something, and in my case I'm a light and dark man. So, obviously, when I was very young, Rembrandt and Turner were big influences. Later on the conceptual and intellectual concerns of the day were tied up with people like Johns and Rauschenberg, and I became involved in that because I wanted to be part of my own generation. How do you find a balance between extremes like that? And how do you find a language which allows you to be living in your own age, but at the same time to pursue things that feed you emotionally? That's a personal journey.
JL: When you came to America in the mid-eighties, were you aware that you were looking at New York through a European tradition of city painting?
BJ: Very much so. I thought then about
the possibility of spending time in Paris, but the city was too
well-covered by the European artists I'm interested in, like
Caillebotte and Seurat. The thing about New York is that since
the Second World War it really hasn't been painted that much
in a boisterous and full-blooded way. Before the war, in the
forties, wonderful artists like Edward Hopper and George Bellows
painted it, but after the war photography became the means of
depicting and describing the city. When I arrived here, it was
almost the first time that I found subjects that were fully there
waiting for me, that were entirely my own. Whether it was looking
out of the
JL: Are your recent paintings like 'The Great Lawn' and 'Into the Wood' still based on that experience of turning a corner and seeing something that excites you?
BJ: Yes and no. The paintings are still based on the drawings and pastels I make in the city, because for me drawing is a way to see. Sometimes you're drawing and you're looking, and then there's a moment of connection which is charged. It's like when you turn on the light - something suddenly happens and the space between you and your subject is electrified as you begin to see. In that sense, I wasn't ever interested in the image so much as in the experience of relating, and for me making that contact has always been an organic process of moving through time and space in terms of one's changing perceptions. The subject of my paintings is becoming that, and over and above everything else I'm affirming a sense of life. I start maybe with a hundred drawings, and out of this sense of the particular I aspire towards something more universal. I'm a reporter up to a point, and it's great being in a place and meeting people. I was drawing a man in Grand Central once who was being pretty threatening and it transpired he was an art student twenty-five years ago. We got talking and in the end he did a drawing. We got this thing- going at one o'clock in the morning. Normally that doesn't happen, it isn't like photography, people don't notice you so much .
JL: So you like the sense that anything can happen?
BJ: Well, I like the reality of it. But the difference in what I'm doing as opposed to a photographer is that I'm making equivalent marks for something I've experienced. It's an equivalent of something seen, not a record.
JL: I remember you saying once that each mark is a response to reality but that it also potentially touches a metaphysical realm. It's not just about the world you see.
BJ: Well, I'm trying to break down certain restrictions or barriers in space to create an arena where anything can happen. For me Great Lawn is one of these places. I go there, but when it's on my canvas that arena is my space and anyone can come into it or leave it, and I have control over the lighting. I'm making my own movie, if you like, except I want to make a painting and not a movie. In that arena I get closer to certain feelings about what I might want to paint about, things that have a resonance for me. In a sense, the last group of paintings have moved away from a site-specific place. The buildings are still the same buildings I've drawn endlessly in sketchbooks, but in New York buildings are going up all the time and when you go back the next week there are maybe three new buildings and one's been knocked down. Nothing stays the same.
JL: The rendition of light and shadow in the paintings and prints also creates a sensation of something fugitive, like time on the wing.
BJ: That's probably because I feel it is. I'm trying to get closer to my observations, and when you get to a certain age that's how it appears to be. I think that the paintings are also starting to represent other experiences that I've had, because I can't contain my emotional life in just one place. Where that's leading me I don't know... I was with my sister's husband, who was a physicist, a few weeks before he died and we took this trip in a car into the woods looking for black holes, which was a fun thing to do. As we went in and out of the woods we actually found white holes and it became a kind of metaphysical place, in a way, which connected us. So even though I've linked lnto the Wood or Road to the Sky to those side roads around Central Park with all the dappling light, nothing is exactly what it seems. I couldn't say they are just about that because I also did a lot of drawings of the road with shadows on the way to Arles in France, and of the road close to our house in upstate Connecticut. If I was doing a plein air painting of a road then that would be one thing, but these paintings are much more of an abstraction or a parallel world of more than one experience.
JL: In pictorial terms they also hold a precarious balance between figuration and abstraction.
BJ: I think that any good painting is an abstraction because, in the end, the negative and the positive spaces are all there is. That's the surface. In my case, it's the light and the object, and one is interacting against the other. In the monoprints that is really all it is--the essence of the movement of the forms against the lightness of the paper, against the darkness of the ink, and the engagement of those two forces. Then it's over, whatever the figuration.
JL: Why do you so often choose to depict the moment before or after an event?
BJ: I suppose it is a wry observation of this city in the sense that there's always something going on and it's a very contradictory kind of place. If there's one group marching over there, there's another group doing something over here and, as an observer, you often don't know exactly what's happening. I'm interested in the phenomenon, but not just from a detached point of view. The feeling that I have is quite full... the kind of feeling that you have when you look up at the night sky about the fullness of time and life passing. I think in these paintings there's a certain element of that. Everyone's racing around, whether its the shadows, the people or the clouds. They are like a frieze of something that I've seen in the city.
JL: But aren't they also a metaphor for something?
BJ: I haven't consciously; started out that way. It began with the Grand Central, with the figures coming up the steps...
JL: And the Skating Rinks...
BJ: One of the instigating forces of all that was the flow of the geometry. It is my world and within that the limits of my imagination can soar or not. I remember some years ago I had a dream where I was hopping along the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; I don't know if you ever have flying dreams, but you hop about twenty feet in the air, then you come down again. Everyone was looking at me, which was a great feeling, but it was frustrating because I couldn't really fly that well. In this particular case something in me looked over the bridge down at the water, which was several hundred feet below; and I thought, "Fuck it, I'm out of here." I didn't give a damn about pleasing the crowd and I just went. As I flew I had this extraordinary feeling in my chest like it was bursting. I did a complete arc, flying in a circle backwards, up into the sky and down in a perfect loop. As I came down I was soaring along the coastline and suddenly I could go wherever I wanted to. I was completely free.
JL: Is this the place that you are trying to create in your paintings?
BJ: Well, I'm at a certain point. I've been painting thirty years and I've paid my dues - you do all this and you do all that - and suddenly something snaps inside you and you're just off. Whether that's true or not has to be seen and believed, but you've got a certain amount of time left to do whatever you feel you have that freedom for. Sometimes I'm working and I get too involved, say in the figuration of a head, and I think, "I don't want to do that, I don't really care about that." So you get your brush out and paint it out and you flow the feeling through again and the light comes rushing in.
JL: The crowd scene in the 'Great Lawn' paintings remind me of when you were talking about the hospital where your father was with these sick people running around and the sense of chaos in the situation. The paintings are based on an experience of the city but they reverberate with lots of other experiences. And that's your imaginative world, it not a particular place...
BJ: I would like to find an equivalent in painting that would have that breadth. I think I'm getting closer to it. Having a sense of place, having a sense of yourself in relation to something is crucial. But I also see it as a lifting off ground, a jumpboard, a platform to then fly. Why did you say last night that Road to the Sky was a tragic painting? I hadn't told you anything about my brother-in-law when you said that.
JL: It had that effect on me. Looking around the studio I had a very strong sense of the paintings being meditations about states of being and emotions rather than being views of New York. They seem to me to be paintings about time and about life and death...
BJ: All those things are implied. I think all good artists would want to transcend their subject matter and I gravitate towards arenas which allow me a greater freedom. In this particular series I've been stabbing away at the canvas, so that the images are becoming the by-product of the process. Particularly in the monoprints, I don't start off with a composition. I have a black plate and I just flood in the light and then I find a figure and a space, or a horse. In the paintings too, if I try to lock in a composition before I start, I'm bored before the thing has ended. There's no reason to do it other than just to make a painting. It's got to be a discovery and you pit your talent against that elusive thing. I'm not talking about facility. I've always had a lot of facility and sometimes it's got in the way. As you get older and you get more critical of your own limitations and weaknesses you try to head yourself off. But I'm getting to a point where, if I can just allow my natural talent to flow and hold a question against that: what is the nature of things?
JL: Then you can fly.
This interview was conducted for the catalogue for the 2000 Marlborough Fine Art (London) exhibition Silhouettes and Shadows: New York City.