An Artist of the American Century
by Lilly Wei
Ward Jackson (1928-2004) was an exceptionally gifted (if under-recognized) American abstract painter with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the art world. Born and raised in Petersburg, Virginia, he came to New York in 1952 from Richmond, fresh out of graduate school and remained for the rest of his life, like so many other seekers of cultural inspiration and sustenance. Jackson arrived in New York at a historic moment, just as American art began to spread its wings, ready to take flight, his five-decade career spanning the latter half of what has been called the American century. Visual images were his natural language and Jackson drew incessantly, forever sketching his observations in pocket-sized notebooks that he always had on hand. His nephew, the painter Julian Jackson, recounts a visit he made to his uncle in the hospital a few years before he died, when, running out of notebooks, he had inscribed every square inch of his hands with drawings. “It was like watching someone think— they were really his life’s work,” Julian said. And indeed, they were, they threaded his entire oeuvre together—the thousands and thousands of abstractions from the cubist, expressive and planar to the hard-edged geometric; from diamonds to squares; landscapes, the architectural and the figurative; in color and black and white. Jackson had studied with Hans Hofmann for a time who once told him, “too much drawing,” which might have been a further incentive for him to confine his sketches to his notebooks as the repositories for his attentiveness, for his remarkable gift of visual gab. Throughout his life, he also made watercolors of landscapes—what he called his vacation pieces and the other, less public side of his practice—that shifted between degrees of the abstract and representational, enthralled by the vistas of the Outer Banks, of the Tidewater.
Jackson’s 1950s work reflected all the postwar upheavals and iconoclastic excitement in American life and art at mid-century, looking backward to European modernism, to post-Cubism and Surrealism, to the new interest in non-Western imagery at the same time it looked ahead to the disruptive, radically new art of Pollock, de Kooning and Motherwell. Of the several paintings from this period in the exhibition, the earliest is Phoenix, ca 1950, its somewhat awkward, all-over pattern vibrant with dense, repetitive surges of thin black, orange and tan lines that is a study in dissonant, rhythmic movement and wildly energetic, its direction upward, rising like the rush of the fabled bird. Other paintings consist of labyrinths, scaffolds and forms that shape-shift between the figurative and the geometric, the painterly and the hard-edged, the biomorphic and the geometric, some with serrated contours and jaggedly hatched, scarred interiors. As the decade progressed, they became better and better executed and ever more handsome in appearance. The earthy, muted tonalities and expressive brushwork of these early works are far removed from the clarion brightness of Jackson’s later palette and the precision of his geometric forms. A painting from late in the decade, Untitled c. 1958, signals a shift, its stacked, whitened rectangles, more ordered internal divisions and notes of pure color, harbingers of the next phase of his development.
By the 1960s, as his paintings became increasingly spare, Jackson gravitated toward the geometric and flat in response to the color theories of Josef Albers, the paintings of older artists such as Myron Stout and Leon Polk Smith, as well as the example of contemporaries such as Ellsworth Kelly. Jackson made his first diamond painting in 1960 and others quickly followed. In espousing a more concrete, purposively restricted vocabulary, he affirmed his preference for the objectivity of Neo-Plasticism and Mondrian, minimalism, retinal and op art rather than the cult of outsized personality that was associated with Abstract Expressionism. These modestly scaled, sparkling white and black works were the first to earn him acclaim. Imbued with a measured sense of the world, Jackson—whether he knew it or not at the time--had found his lifelong motifs: a few simple geometric shapes, their tautly dynamic figure/ground relationships, black, white, the primaries and secondaries. Reveling in their infinite combinations and permutations, he forged a body of work that consisted of over five hundred paintings, of which more than sixty were diamonds. Whether diamonds or later squares, they hovered in size around three feet and occasionally became as compact as two feet. Like Agnes Martin, he had a personal scale and resisted any pressure to alter it. They appear larger, in any event, and at any scale, they pack a punch.
Jackson also titled his paintings, unconcerned that at times these titles were referential, violating the rules of formal purity that governed much of the non-objective art of the period but are now matter-of-course, narrative and formalism acknowledged co-dependents. Homage to JFK, 1963, for instance, consists of a sequence of receding white squares within a black diamond (as one way to interpret the overall image that also evokes a Rudolf Arnheim diagram demonstrating the multiple readings of visual cues) that becomes increasingly telescoped and vertiginous, strongly conjuring a target. The paintings are sometimes given place names, as in Taos, which adds to its geometric neutrality the idea of an architectural plan, a city square, a specific place. Many of the paintings’ images are squares, rectangles and triangles but the shapes are transitive, expansive. Cut off by the diagonals of the diamond support, itself mobile, they appear to invade real space. Parsed as perspectival renderings, not merely frontally, as in Parallel Point #1, the squares of the grid become rectangles as they descend the surface, the grid seeming to tilt away from us. Other paintings are given titles that describe a process, such as Interchange V (1963) Reversal, Interchange VII, 1964, and Point and Line to Plane (Black and White #9), 1963, the title of the latter from Kandinsky’s well-known treatise that analyzes non-objective art, which in fact is what Jackson so obsessively, so ingeniously does.
By 1970, another significant decade for him, he returned to color, never to abandon it again and rotated the diamond into a square. The works of this and subsequent periods all glow with sharp planes of pure, uninflected color, an American idiom, it might be said, fresh, frank and immediate as if they had just been made. In the Virginia River series, the notebook sketches and watercolors of landscapes became luminous abstractions, named after the lilting Indian names given to the rivers that cut through his beloved terrain--Chincoteague, Chincoteague/Matoala, Powhatan--invoking the history and mystique of the primeval South. The tension between the abstract and the real are much more evident in these paintings, and the introduction of the diagonal into his lexicon in a starring role adds a new level of internal dynamism that can also be read as the zigzags of shorelines, the bends of rivers. Jackson was, of course, also an urbanist. Fascinated by the void between the two towers of the World Trade Center, by the mid-70s he began to focus on the architectural, on the high skyline of New York, with its insistent verticality and proximate structures intercut with slivers of space.
Jackson worked incrementally, systematically, with the meticulousness of a fiercely possessive artist in love with his métier, a connoisseur who wants to savor each detail, to know it thoroughly without rush in order to prolong the pleasure. And it is about pleasure, a civilized, balanced pleasure that is both analytical and sensuous. In the 1980s, after returning to the diamond, often reduced to 24” x 24”, he experimented with the diagonal, the horizontal and the vertical in a careful, steady expansion of his selected repertoire of forms, his orchestrations increasing in resonance and assurance, the baroque phase of his reductivism. His Cross Series: Orange over Blue, c. 1981; Green over Violet, 1981, both over a white field that holds its own as a charged, positive field, simply reverses the placement and direction of the upright diagonal and changes the color, but it is sufficient to create a wholly different painting. Passage Series #4, 1986-88, might be a classic study for the psychology of perception, a modernist heraldic shield. One reading might be of two blue squares pushed into the diamond’s lateral corners facing each other on a red ground speared in the middle, top to bottom, by a downward pointing yellow triangle, the tension palpable as all movement, up, down, sideways, is held in check by Jackson’s version of dynamic equilibrium. Other works; St. Martin (for Jasper Johns), 1983, commemorating a visit to John’s St. Martin residence, is an orange shape that bisects the diamond, opposed by the same shape divided into alternating bands of green and violets, his favorite color scheme. Transit, 1983-1985, two sets of aligned, truncated chevrons which Julian Jackson conjectures is either based on the New York City subway map or the colors of the German flag since his uncle exhibited frequently in Germany, spending much time there and would continue to do so, through the 1990s. The last painting in the show, Chord, 1990, two sets of vertical bands of diminishing lengths, one a sequence of primaries, the other secondaries, their ends angled, are placed in reverse order to each other, its rhythms his response to Mondrian’s. Adopting the diamond in homage to his illustrious predecessor, Jackson, during his last days, claimed that he had made more diamonds than Mondrian and planned to make even more. A painter to the end, there were still unfinished paintings on his easel when he died.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who contributes to many publications in the United States and abroad. She has written regularly for Art in America since 1982 and is a contributing editor at ARTnews
The Geometry of Expansion
by Stephen Westfall
Ward Jackson’s geometric abstract paintings constitute one of the great under-known bodies of work in post-War American art. He rarely worked big, but his severe and wonderful paintings can deliver vast spaces and horizons to the mind. If this implies landscape, so be it. Jackson saw abstract geometry in the world and it should come as no surprise that the series of three foot square paintings he titled Virginia River Series (1968-72) should remind us of roads, light reflected on water, and shadowy river banks and hills. He grew up in Virginia and his essentialization of such suggestive imagery may have something to do with the fact these are remembered landscape references. In fact, abstraction and life-world reference are so braided together in the Virginia River paintings, that the question of which comes first winds up being a chicken and egg proposition. I’m using the term “reference” rather than “representation “ because I want to distinguish between the mimetic efforts of realist illusionism and an abstraction that either starts in or curls back towards something seen and remembered. Jackson made sketches of the New York panorama or more focused fragments of something closely observed even as he was reconfiguring “pure” geometry in rectangles in other sketches. As the initial optical impact of his mature painting is resolutely abstract, Jackson resists being doctrinaire about banishing any referent to the world at large. Besides, geometry, architecture, and even abstract painting itself are all referents. Jackson’s work engages both the concrete and referential and packs it all into a tight compact frame with elegant concision.
Concomitant with those features of a remembered landscape that are discernable in the Virginia River paintings there is also a dialogue that Jackson is engaging in with a progression through landscape and cityscape towards abstraction by American painters not affiliated with Abstract Expressionism, such as Ralston Crawford, Ellsworth Kelly, and Stuart Davis. Furthering a movement from mimetic representation to planar “signs” for actual things that really got underway with Davis and Crawford and Jackson’s mentor George L. K. Morris. These signs exist in Cubism, of course, but in American hands they tended to be bolder and simpler, projecting across space like actual signage.
The simultaneously flat and luminous triangles and trapezoids in Jackson’s paintings read as signs for landscape, but they also read as signs for space in the purist sense. He makes sure we are set up to see each trapezoid as a truncated triangle reaching to pictorial vanishing points beyond the side boundaries of the square canvas. At the same time each angular shape seems to push against the borders of the canvas in concrete space, the space in front of the picture shared by the viewer and the room they share. There is a swelling effect, a subtle optical bowing, which seems a slightly delayed reaction to the perception of the trapezoids being cropped triangles combined with the resonance of chroma and value in the two colors assigned to each painting. Ultimately, each Virginia River painting seems bigger than it actually is. Part of the pleasure of living with such paintings, or experiencing them in the architectural setting of a gallery is that we feel them nearly as much as we see them.
After the Virginia River Series Jackson began to develop compositions within the same square format and scale that used vertical bands, often with an oblique angle at one end. They could recall a skyline or the edges of letters from a large sign. Again, their sense of cropping and perfectly laid down, vibrating color together contribute to an expanded feeling of size. Jackson’s expansive geometry can be followed back through his amazingly taut diamond paintings from the early 1960s, but it is an especially impressive achievement to destabilize a square with locked-in geometric planar divisions, since the square format is so “fixed” in the mind’s eye.
In a 1973 statement for the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum in Duisberg, Germany that accompanied an exhibition of drawings that relate to his square paintings, Jackson made a parenthetical remark that says worlds, “(There is an indefinable psychological element in abstract art.)” Jackson’s geometry is clear and expansive, his color is both vibrant and controlled, his touch, like Mondrian’s is exacting while remaining doggedly self-effacing. The psychological element that Jackson speaks of resides in multiple apprehensions of austerity, serenity, and bristling energy. Without religious symbolism or exceptionalism, the best abstract art alerts us to a powerful Otherness that otherwise courses unseen through forms. It is also human: a material shadow of a Platonic, immaterial ideal. Its potency and poignancy lies in the scope of its reach while remaining earthbound. Jackson’s paintings are made things. Yet they reward us in a glance and over prolonged looking. Try to see the way they affect the space around them even as you gaze into their hearts.