Urban Portraits

by Robert Rosenblum


In the 1980s, when most painters are involved with tapping a free-flow of fantasy images, with juggling the multiple facts and fictions of art reproductions and photography, or with maintaining the ivory-tower purities of abstraction, it is something of a jolt to recall that one of the weightiest pressures on the mid-nineteenth century origins of modern painting was a new urban reality. The city then in question was Paris, from the 1860s to the 1880s, and the artists involved in these fresh explorations ranged from Manet, Monet, and Renoir to Degas, Caillebotte, and Seurat. All of them, in different and personal ways, restructured their art to conform to their private vision of the strange new pulsations, both regular and offbeat, that emanated from the modern city, while keeping their eyes attuned to the exciting new facts of a crowded, mechanized world that we can still easily recognize today, on both sides of the Atlantic. Given the reflex that makes most artists continue to flock to urban centres, where they collide constantly with an infinite variety of real art and real life, it is, come to think of it, most peculiar that so few artists today are concerned with the nitty-gritty truths of that urban experience which gave the masters of Impressionism so many challenges of style and subject.

Looked at from this angle, Jacklin's paintings are at once remote and familiar: remote, that is, from most artists' preoccupations of the moment, but familiar in terms of longer-lived dynasties of modern art that seek out a personal confrontation with street life, with cafes, with grand boulevards, with public parks, with buses and railroad stations, with riverside factory views - in short, with what most of us city-dwellers live with the instant we cross our thresholds. Jacklin's urban impulses are both aesthetic and reportorial; and as an Englishman now residing for long periods in New York, both these responses have been rejunevated by what Europeans, at least, have usually considered the most archetypal of modern cities. As for aesthetic matters, New York, of all great metropolises, surely imposes, from surface to skeleton, the most relentless infinity of gridiron patterns, an abstract scaffolding that Mondrian himself echoed vibrantly in the masterpieces he executed in New York during what turned out to be the last four years of his life. In Jacklin's case, that insistent checker-board structure had already been deepJy ingrained in his art through his earlier abstract work which so often used these repetitive, criss-crossing patterns as a system of ideal geometric order; but in New York, these cerebral ground plans could be fleshed out with the pervasive realities of the urban and architectural parallels and perpendiculars that measure and regiment all pedestrian movement. As for reportorial matters, Jacklin, with the fresh eye more familiar to the visitor than to the native, has seen fit, as so few New York artists do, to document passionately and scrupulously the most mundane facts of human order and chaos as they are molded into the city's straitjacketing, right-angled environment. On this wave-length, Jacklin has the eye and spirit of a journalist, and perhaps a foreign one, at that For what New York artist would ever have imagined that a local police precinct, the sleaziest porno parlors of Time Square, or the depressing, derelict community of human flotsam and jetsam found nightly in Grand Central Station's waiting room could possible be the subject of ambitious painting that resonates backwards into the loftiest modern traditions? One is reminded of the way that Degas, visiting New Orleans briefly in 1872-73, selected, as no local painter would have dreamed of doing, an oblique glimpse of the cotton market, where the assembly of individualized portraits and clothing, the routine dialogue of inertia and activity among business men all seemed for a French visitor to be fresh, exotic material from which to make an unprecendented work of art.

For both native New Yorkers and probably outsiders, too, Jacklin's choice of subject comes as a surprise. In general, he is drawn to scenes that involve an almost ceremonial order, which may range from the regimented rings and display rituals of a dog show in Madison Square Garden (where poodles, their masters, and their judges are distributed with a precision worthy of the Rockettes) to the unanticipated and melancholy disclosure, inside a church, of a stranger's funeral, where the living and the dead are all regulated within the modular, axial beat of coffin and altar, pew and cross. Even within Frank's, the noisy, bustling restaurant near Jacklin's West 14th Street studio where salesmen in the meat-packing industry lunch and trade together, a strangely sacramental solemnity restrains these business men, who in real life would be shouting, eating, drinking, smoking and trading all at once. As Jacklin recreates them from life sketches drawn in his neighbourhood restaurant, they seem transported to some mythical table-setting, as if the Supper at Emmaus or Cezanne's card players were casting their long and grave shadows over a Zolaesque slice of the New York meat industry.

Typically, we sense throughout Jacklin's work the labour and the honesty of the most acutely direct, almost sociological observation, a point substantiated by the many preparatory drawings made on the spot in such unartistic haunts as police stations and sleazy Times Square back rooms at all odd hours of the night and early morning when most sensible people, especially working artists, would never think of gathering source material for their work. But these urban data, which can range from anonymous portraits of the rowdiest or most depressed of city dwellers to the fragmented verbal records of signs (FILMS, EXIT, PRIVATE BOOTHS) that recall the Cubist fascination with the barrage of printed words in the Parisian cafe world, are invariably disciplined by an overriding aesthetic order that transcends these particulars of time and place, of clothing and faces. It is telling that in Jacklin's gloomy view of a waiting room at Grand Central Station as it makes its nightly transition from commuter bustle to hostel for the homeless, the imposing round clock that conventionally symbolizes the ongoing, racing pulse of rail- roadstation activity reads 9:00. 8:42 or 9:11 would have interfered with Jacklin's world of abstract generalization, so that here, even a public time¬ piece is forced to comply, in both minute and hour hand, with the 90- degree spatial clarity Jacklin has imposed, like a perspective net, on this potentially slovenly, loose-jointed composite of urban misery. Similarly, when a crowd of anonymous New Yorkers of the widest ethnic range (including Jamaicans with dreadlocks) congregate in Washington Square around a tight cluster of chess players, everything clicks into place with checker-board regularity, a metaphor that becomes literal in the red-and- black-squared pattern of the shirt worn by the bearded stroller at the left.

As a still more unanticipated departure from the initial data so carefully culled by Jacklin when he dons his documentary hat, his paintings, we realize, can take on not only the unreality of ideal geometry, but another kind of remote, even phantom presence. The constant shifting between sharp and soft focus, while partly corresponding to the continually roving view of the active pedestrian, who alternates rapidly between noticing some things and blurring away others, also gives an oddly veiled, otherworldly ambience to these earthbound scenes, as if they were witnessed through a hazy scrim of memory and might, in fact, be more fiction than fact This uncanny double-take becomes even more disquieting when Jacklin repeats, as he often does, the same figures in what is assumed to be a unique field of snapshot vision. In Incident on 42nd St. for example, the same cast of characters - the hooker in white, the policeman on his horse - seem to pass before our eyes not once, but twice, or even again and again, transporting a prosaic street scene to the poetic fringe of dream or hallucination. The distant ghost of Seurat, often conjured up in discussions ofJacklin's art, is relevant here; for in his work, too, social documentation of Paris at a particular time and place first moves to the eternal, immutable order of an abstract Garden of Eden and then, more stealthily, to a realm of fantasy, where modular figures, against all common sense, are endlessly repeated in imaginary spaces.

Even Jacklin's distant urban views share this mix of on-the-spot truth and unreal reverie. Such is the case in his pair of Hudson River vistas that, from the highest window, sweep us from the long projection of a Manhattan pier far across the water to the ugly utilitarian skyline of New Jersey. These views of urban geometry versus river, light, and cloudy sky might have ended in a tidy, prosaic pattern, but they unexpectedly seethe with an almost apocalyptic energy. Blurred and agitated crowds of Lilliputian urbanites seem imprisoned on the pier's strict rectangle as nature's cosmic luminosity threatens to dissolve the manmade order on earth below. Yet the pairing of these two views also relocates us not in the domain of Romantic drama but of a Monet-like empiricism, in which the luminary and atmospheric changes of different moments of the day, from noon to dusk, are intensely documented.

And lest it be thought that Jacklin can cast his spell only with the help of New York's thrilling mix of the sublime and the gritty, there is strong evidence here that he can transform London as well into this vibrant fusion of fact and fantasy. So it is with the startlingly lofty views of Regent Street, seen in a preparatory drawing and two paintings from the kind of perch few artists, not to mention pedestrians, would choose to settle on for more than seconds. Having secured this place on a balcony at Austin Reed, beside a flagpole that cuts across this sweeping urban vista, Jacklin then proceeded to record these eagle's nest views of the elegant urban arc that John Nash carved from Piccadilly to Oxford Circus. It is the kind of upper-storey city view that recalls, say, Monet's ambition to capture the perpetuum mobile of pedestrians and their transport milling about the grand new boulevards of modern Paris; but here, characteristically, Jacklin has injected into this ordered urban Utopia a sense of uncontrollable drama and mystery that, by strange coincidence, even he could not have predicted. For these views document, with the most regular streaks of torrential rain, the gathering storm that darkened over London on 15 October 1987, just hours before the hurricane which, that very night, would devastate so much of Southern England. In an ironically objective way, these views remind one of that old Romantic lesson about nature's capacity to threaten, at any moment, the regular structure of art and of our manmade environments. And in this, they reverberate within Jacklin's New York views, where, in more sociological terms, we sense, within the insistent grids, the volcanic throb of crowds who seem at once to be shepherded by and to be rebelling against the modern city. Momentarily restrained by the awesome domination of axial rhythms, the strongest pulses of human passion keep beating in these works.

Robert Rosenblum
New York, March 1988
Marlborough, London catalogue