Bill Jacklin: The Art of Being There

By Dr. Ihor Holubisky,
Senior Curator at McMaster Museum of Art


A considerable amount of thoughtful and thought-provoking writing has been done about Bill Jacklin and New York – exploring an accidental expatriate who mapped his Englishness onto a city distinct from any in Europe, and which presented (or demanded) a different approach to the relationship of artist to city.

While artists began depicting city life in the late 15th century – Venetian paintings as the prime example – it was primarily illustrative of ceremony and architectural sites of pride and glory. To follow was the picturesque, the “golden age” of Dutch painting. By the 18th century, artists began to express the social, ethical and moral problems of urban environments and industrialization – the plight of the lower classes – as exemplified in the work of William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier in the 19th century. although the two are best known as uncompromising caricature-satirists, in many ways they set the groundwork for the milieu of la vie moderne in the last quarter of the 19th century, Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Eduoard Manet, Edvard Munch, George Seurat, Toulouse Lautrec and many others. The pen-and-brush as sword was in evidence, but a primary impulse was for art itself, to radicalize vision. in other words, art for art’s sake was on the rise.

The story of art and citizen was shaped differently in the United States. as the first postcolonial democratic nation, it has grappled with issues of identity and culture from the outset, and to define terms that also proved its distance from the Old World. While New York is not america, as the first significant new World metropolis – a mythologized point of entry and refuge, harbouring small and real aspirations, and hopes – it became emblematic of the social forces and attitudes in play. Skyscrapers offered symbols of modernity, but the street level opened up the textures and rawness of everyday life. New York is fractional, a quilt of ethnicities and neighbourhoods – celebrated then and now. People are the city; New York is a place for them, and cuts across economic strata. “if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” is the last line from the song New York New York. Penned in 1977, it seems to have been around and forever in the air, and perhaps because it is infectiously carnivalesque and anthemic, ideally suited to the street parade.

Bill Jacklin has asserted that “my paintings have to have a sense of place,” and names localities that attracted him in his adopted environment: the Great Lawn at Central Park, Coney Island and Times Square. The canyon intersections of New York need not be identified specifically, but their “place-ness” is imprinted through the image culture of photo magazines and film. What drew Jacklin into these urban sinews are not so different from the pulses that early modern native born artists felt – Robert Henri and the “group” of Eight that he selected, including William Glackens, George Luks, John Sloan and Everett Shinn – and in turn, a direct lineage to the so-called ashcan and New York scene artists of the 1930s. Jacklin’s project is not wholly linked to this period. The “democratic” objective of early New York artists was unachievable (equally, there was a tendency to dignify the downtrodden), and with a few exceptions, their critical fortunes fell in the post WWII-period. They were seen as parochial when the new american art being promoted and exported was abstract, and hence universal (or so it was said). What I believe that Jacklin has absorbed – more experiential than book-ideological – is the under-pinning for many of the american modernists, the presence and influence of poet, essayist and humanist Walt Whitman (1819-1892). While not cut from the same cloth as the European radical vanguard, Whitman was able to articulate american identity in terms of self-determination – against the grain of the cult of nationalism and its collective symbols – and as historian Matthew Baigell noted, a subversive who was also popular, “a model for those wanting to document the contemporary scene.” Henri leaned heavily on Whitman when, in 1910, he declared that “[The] one and only reason for the development of art in america [is so] that the people of america learn the means of expressing themselves in their own time and in their own land.” Decades later sculptor David Smith uttered a Whitmanism in pronouncing, “i feel no tradition. I feel great space. I feel my own time.” History and its burdens was written out of the equation; what mattered was the here and now (again, from New York, New York, “I want to be a part of it …’)

When Jacklin raids the legacies of art, it is for his own time, Seurat for example in Jacklin’s Double Bathers, central Park. There are New York school comparisons, although not by intent; George luks’ monumental smoke plume in Roundhouse at High Bridge c.1910 and Jacklin’s Clouds over the City II; Jacklin’s ice skaters – his Whirling and Swirling titled works – with William Glackens’ Skating Rink c.1906; George Bellows’s Steaming Streets, 1908, and Jacklin’s Snow, 5th Avenue. New York offers eternal returns over a century. Other Jacklin works such as Double Road with Birds and Tree at Night I invoke Whitman’s belief in spirit as nature. We can and should also look further back to consider and compare Jacklin’s rough-stroked articulation of the crowd massed in his Times Square at night paintings with Hogarth’s tumultuous city-crowd compositions, to understand and appreciate the caricature aspect of Jacklin’s work – not as generalizations but for the raw energy of the moment, to grasp the Whitman “totality.” (Several of the Eight had prior professional experience as newspaper illustrators; and what better way training into order to capture street scenes.)

In brief, Jacklin’s language for art is not readily summarized, which is not to say evasive. like any experienced artist, the what and why is in the how, the making – and if the how is borrowed, it is also transformed by the needs of the what. This leads me to one of my cherished quotes about painting. Penned by Walter Sickert c.1924, it appeared in publication by 1940: “Paintings should not be regarded as signs of culture, but as utensils of memory and vicarious experience.” I grasped it at a moment when painting theory was moving away from the artist (and life?), to ultimately unsatisfying and authoritative claims. Rather than advocating a return to connoisseurship, and its attendant superlatives, I wanted to understand what artists thought and did. Being a custodian of Sickert’s work once again has given me the opportunity to examine it closely, and to think over time – literally and figuratively. Rather than to argue for their position in the schemata of art and history, it is to argue through, to understand why these paintings work, and the work they do. if there is no short-track or substitute for time spent with works of art, there is no short track for an artist as observer and witness. The outcomes are not always foreseeable.

These thoughts, in turn, lead me to Sickert’s Dieppe paintings and where he spent considerable time, visiting regularly from 1885-95, living there in 1899-1900, and then again in the early 1920s. There is repeated subject matter and sites – the environs of the cathedral St. Jacques and the cabaret café Vernet on Quai Henri iV – but one early and “atypical” composition, Bathers Dieppe 1902 (collection of the Walker art Gallery, liverpool) presents a perspective into Jacklin’s (non-city) bather works. Beach compositions are common in “impressionist” painting, where sky, water and land converge. We now take this 19th century invention for granted, a depiction of the new leisure time, but Sickert departed from the typical edge composition. Done in portrait format, no sky or sand is seen, only the rhythm of waves and the bathers. The three dominant figures, attired in the striped bathing suits of the time, are “heading out” (it has been proposed they are the same figure repeated). Jacklin’s bathers, like Sickert’s, are shown engaged in a shared experience and communion, and when he shows a horizon, it leads our eye further out from the unseen edge.

There are other instructional comparisons from the near past. although abstract/expressionist painting ruled New York in the 1950s, there were resolute figure painters. One was Lester Johnson (1919-2010), whose Bowery paintings were often composed in the manner Greek vase figure painting, and likewise in Jacklin’s Dervish Dancers 63rd Street series. The critic John Russell wrote of Johnson’s “poetry of congestion”; Harold Rosenberg described the content of his paintings as “human energy.” another is the Montreal city painter Philip Surrey (1910-1990, and underknown even in canada), whose figures leaned toward caricature in order to “know and show” the people and the city. in 1949 Surrey wrote, “Each individual is alone, cut off. Each wonders how others cope with life.” Jacklin gives us unexpected views into coping. He doesn’t need to overstate the muscular grit, over-celebrate or demonize. The scenes and staging he chooses have a dynamic vision-force, and are sometimes expressed in stillness because the most kinetic of city moments can invoke quietude. There are aerial views from impossible vantage points, long views that frame the “stage” of the sky, and street level perspectives where we can feel the distance between the artist-observer and the observed. Jacklin noted that he can enjoy the distance and anonymity, and returning to Sickert’s assertion, a “vicarious experience and the memory that you can draw on forever because it is your own.” in this way Jacklin’s vision offers something universal, and beauty (beyond the pretty), because of america. This too is in the spirit of Whitman. For his album liner notes to John Coltrane’s 1964 live at Birdland (New York), Leroi Jones wrote “One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps [it is] because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist. (As balance?)”