Ward Jackson, one of the great, unsung American painters of the last 50 years, was an utterly modest man who received what might be called a classical education in abstract painting. He studied with Hoffman and George L. K. Morris, exhibited with American Abstract Artists group, which Morris co-founded, in 1949 while still a painting student in Richmond, Virginia (Jackson later joined the group himself and served as both its president and archivist). His paintings in the fifties combined post-Cubist geometries with a brushy expressionism. By 1960 he was responding to Mondrian and Albers and he inaugurated a series of startling geometric paintings in a diamond format. The arrangement of flat color in geometric planes was to occupy his work for the rest of his life. This exhibition provides an overdue survey of the major phases of Jackson’s painting, along with a display of pages from the working notebooks he took with him everywhere. What should be immediately apparent is the quality of his work, its combination of rigorous clarity and playfulness.
The earliest work in this show, Composition (1948), reveals a highly ambitious young painter, still in graduate school, working through the post-Cubist vocabularies and the trace of Surrealism that Morris abstracted and which occupied many other American painters during the 30s and 40s, when from a distance it seemed possible to conflate Modern movements that were wildly differentiated on their home soil. There’s a post-War shadow, or duende, in the mask-like center with a broken, upward arc, like a smile curling against the deep red. The Rite of Spring (1951) recall’s Stravinsky’s surging music in a rhythmic, vertical frieze-like composition of black and white zig-zagging and saw-toothed elements buoyed up on field of fierce scarlet over green brushstrokes. The composition and facture of Red Vertical (ca. 1956) is closer to the plush compression of de Kooning’s and Jack Tworkov’s brushwork than to the more diagrammatic Cubist vectors and European influenced ideographs of the earlier paintings.
Red Vertical displays a growing mastery of painterly abstraction, but by the late fifties Jackson was seeking to refine his work into a geometric clarity. He made his first diamond painting in 1960. The diamond shape and fairly modest scale of Jackson’s black and white diamond paintings telegraph the influence of Mondrian. It could be argued that their broad planarity, while breaking from the flexing Neo-Plastic grid were, nevertheless, extensions of Mondrian’s breaking of his own rules in his last great New York paintings, Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie. But other geometric abstract painting had made its present felt as an alternative to the gestural expanses of Abstract Expressionism in the intervening years between Mondrian’s death in 1946 and 1960, including the work of Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, as well as the presence of Joseph Albers. The compositions of Jackson’s diamonds from the early 60s reinforce the cruciform embedded within the diamond shape and the black and white shapes expand beyond the boundaries of the frame, suggesting much larger spaces. The diamond is already an active format, on point and spreading its wings, suggesting the body’s reach. Jackson manages to retain this heightened iconicity while suggesting and loosening an illusionistic space behind it. The active presence of the diamond as an architectural element in a room is immediately apparent. The diamond paintings were first shown in New York in 1964 at the KayMar Gallery in a group show that included Frank Stella, Jo Baer, Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, and his good friend, Dan Flavin. The show heralded the emerging Minimalist sensibility and, perhaps less noticed, the quirkiness of the individual artists.
Jackson abandoned the diamond format for a period beginning in 1968 when he introduced color into his planar geometries in canvases that were three feet square. These paintings are divided by what might be described as extended horizontal diagonals with their meeting points cropped off. By interspersing two colors in the divisions Jackson suggests cropped triangles. He titled the series the Virginia River paintings and one can see the stripped-down zigzag of a riverbank in the compositions. The dazzling light in the orange and pale blue-green Chillohowie (1970) even suggests the reflections off the water at sunset, like an even more streamlined Alex Katz landscape. The sense of a source or referent from the lifeworld in the deep background of Jackson’s abstraction also resonates with Ellsworth Kelly’s refining of the observed world into a sleek, essentialist sign.
When Jackson returned to the diamond in 1978, it was with a refreshed sense of color rising out of his Virginia River squares. Paintings such as St. Martin (1983), and the reverberating Chords (1990) recall the early phase of Color Field painting, when geometry was setting the pulse, but with a compaction of scale that seems more addressed to the individual viewer. A painting like Ladder Series (ca.1996-98) invokes the rhythms and cropped juxtapositions of New York’s skyscrapers, a “theme” that Jackson found himself returning to again and again. There was a temporary chain link fence put up in Central Park near the reservoir, virtually across the street from Guggenheim Museum where Jackson worked for forty years as an archivist and director of the viewing program. He would gaze through the diamond links at the skyline across the park. His notebook drawings show his working through clear outlines of buildings to abstraction in sequences of diamond frames, almost like storyboarding. The diamonds thus have both a historical and local resonance, but there’s also no question they carry the impact of a mind immersed in the immediacy of the geometric image in painting. The care in these paintings is striking up close and they telegraph across a distance. This is first rate abstract painting. - Stephen Westfall
Ward Jackson wore many hats in the field of art; painter, writer, editor, archivist, educator. For more than forty years he worked at the Guggenheim Museum where as archivist he worked closely with numerous writers and scholars, and where as head of the viewing program he considered the work of countless artists, offering informed advice and encouragement. Ward Jackson was closely associated with the creation of two outstanding publications serving as founding editor for both Art Now New York which was published bi-monthly from 1968 through 1972, and the still ongoing and now worldwide Art Now Gallery Guide. Jackson became a member of the American Abstract Artists group in 1976 and served as its recording secretary for many years until his death in early 2004. Throughout this varied and active career Ward Jackson remained first and foremost a painter passionately involved in the creation and development of his work. This exhibition is dedicated to that intense and sustained achievement with a selection of paintings and drawings drawn from his six decades of activity as a working artist chosen to highlight several key periods of his work.