Ward Jackson at Kay-Mar Gallery, NY, 1964
Transit & Garden 1 (left to right)
Quite simply, you have to know about Ward Jackson and his work — he was an innovative abstract painter, a maverick editor and arts worker, and a key member of New York City’s abstract artist community. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ward’s nephew, artist Julian Jackson, about his uncle’s life and work. Our discussion that follows is published on the occasion of Ward Jackson’s first retrospective exhibition, taking place at Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn, NY, from April 27 – June 2, 2007.
— Matthew Deleget
Matthew Deleget: The first time I learned of Ward Jackson’s work was just a few years ago. I was walking down the ramp at the Guggenheim Museum taking in the Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated) exhibition, seeing all the usual work by all the usual suspects, when I was stopped in my tracks by an incredible lozenge-shaped painting, a small one, installed on a short wall near the elevator bank. It was a work by Ward Jackson and it was slipped into the exhibition by one of the Guggenheim’s curators on account of the fact that Jackson had recently died, age 75. As I poured over his painting, I wondered to myself, who is Ward Jackson? So, Julian, maybe you can help me answer that question, who was he?
Julian Jackson: That’s really a big, if short, question. He was a painter, a writer, an editor, an archivist, an opinionated observer, a passionate viewer, and was deeply engaged, his whole life, with art. Most of all, Ward Jackson was a real New Yorker, the kind who outgrows a small town, and follows his dreams to the big city.
His early interest in art and his restless intellectual curiosity led him, via art magazines, to a precocious interest in abstraction that had to have been pretty rare in his rural hometown of Petersburg, VA, in the 1930s and 40s. While studying painting at the Richmond Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), he began a pivotal correspondence with Hilla Rebay, the curator for the Guggenheim family who had recently launched the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which, of course, later became the Guggenheim Museum. She encouraged him to send sketches, which she would review offering comment. I can imagine him eagerly waiting for the return mail! Her interest in his work, which meant so much to him, fostered both his life-long interest in the complexities of the figure/ground relationship in abstract painting and his scholarly interest in the early development of abstraction. When he neared graduation, she offered him a job at the Guggenheim. After a period of study with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, MA, Ward finally settled in New York and took her up on it.
He started in the mailroom where he worked with Dan Flavin (who later dedicated a light piece that curled down the ramp to him ) before the Frank Lloyd Wright building was completed, and worked through various positions until becoming the archivist in the early 70s. In that position he remained an active part of that institution until his retirement in 1996, though even then he was called upon for projects and maintained desk space in a series of ever smaller nooks of Leiderkranz Hall, the rambling building on 86th Street that housed the archives at that time. For instance, when the cafe was remodeled in the late 90s, Ward curated the photographs that still hang there as a visual history of the museum.
The last time he and I went to the Guggenheim together was in the summer of 2003. Matthew Barney’s vast project was in the rotunda then, but we had come to see the exhibition of Malevich’s brilliant early work that was installed in an upstairs gallery. Ward knew well the intricacies of the building, and led me through a bewildering series of back offices and staircases so as to avoid the Barney. Everyone knew him and he had the run of the place. Before reaching the gallery, we passed an open door, which briefly revealed the rotunda. Ward held his hand beside his face to block out the view and hurried forward to view unsullied the distant idealism of the early Malevich. As a true believer in abstraction, he felt that the Guggenheim had gradually lost its moorings, sense of mission, and drifted far from its founding ethos under Baroness Rebay. This sense of traditionalism set him apart from many of his contemporaries, but was a deep part of him and deeply informed his work. We left the Malevich via another circuitous back way heading to the basement so that Ward could empty his bulging mailbox into his own equally and always bulging shoulder bag. It was the last time that he would visit place he knew and loved so well.
He passed away early in 2004, and Lisa Dennison, who curated Singular Forms, and who had known him at the museum since the 70s, generously included that painting that you saw in the exhibition. At the opening a large group of friends and colleagues gathered there sharing wine and memories. That corner of the ramp that night felt like a crowded opening in a small gallery. I know Ward must have felt right at home.
Well, that’s a long answer to your short question, and it really only touches on one side of him. Ward was certainly passionate about his job, but most of all, thought of himself as a painter and his work will be the focus of the exhibition at Metaphor.
Oil on masonite, 24 x 18 inches
MD: That was an inspired answer. Ward is clearly someone that continues to inspire you and inform your work – both as an artist and director of a gallery. Maybe you can tell me about your experience coming of age as an artist. How and when did you realize your uncle was an artist? How did he impact your world-view and development?
JJ: Well, art must be in the genes because I was drawn to it. I was always drawing from an early age. We had a good small museum in Richmond where I grew up and my parents often took us there after church on Sunday. Maybe that’s why I still think of art as possessing a sort of spiritual component. Anyway, my grandmother lived nearby the museum so we would sometimes swing by her house afterwards for lunch. Her dark old Victorian townhouse house was chock full of Ward’s early work from the late 40s and early 50s. She stored it for him all over her walls. To me, my grandmother’s house felt like an extension of the museum and I loved roaming through the cluttered hallways looking for his paintings.
Among his student works were the paintings he had made while studying with Hans Hofmann, and in them, there is a free, gestural energy added to his interest in figure / ground. I loved those paintings, and to this day, keep my favorite one on a wall in my studio. Of course, I had met Ward at family holiday gatherings, but he was an adult, quiet, and didn’t have much to do with the kids. Still, I loved the idea that we had an artist in the family and felt a real kinship with him just from looking at his paintings.
As I grew older and more serious about art, the idea that art could actually be a career was made more tangible by his example. I was kind of in awe of the fact that he worked at a great museum, painted seriously, and lived in New York. In the early 70s, as I was finishing high school, Ward had a one-man show at the Virginia Museum. It was the first opening I ever went to and it was great. He was showing the bright, reduced abstractions of his Virginia Rivers series, squares of pure color bisected by contrasting colors on active diagonals. These paintings blended tough abstraction with pop color and were very challenging. By this time I felt confident enough to talk to Ward about his paintings and, in a sense, that conversation put me on the road I’m still on as a painter and curator myself.
During that period Ward had also been regularly sending me copies of the publication that he and two partners had started called Art Now New York. It was a three-fold folio containing 8 1/2 x 11 inch reproductions of work recently exhibited in New York, accompanied by statements from the artists. In the four-year run of Art Now (which later morphed into the Gallery Guide), they published everyone from DeKooning and Jasper Johns to Brice Marden and Robert Smithson. It was a window into the art world for me as a young student and a great introduction to a bunch of interesting artists and their thought processes. I would love to see Art Now compiled into a book project because, looking back, the four years of its run (1968–72) were a moment of extraordinary ferment in American art with Pop, Color Field, Minimalist, and Earthwork artists all sharing the stage with an older generation of sculptors and painters. These folios reflect the energy in that mix. In many cases the statements that Ward solicited and edited are absolutely seminal primary statements by some of the really significant artists of that period.
When I began traveling to New York as an art student, Ward would let me stay in his wonderfully cluttered studio on Union Square. He would set me up with a Gallery Guide underlined with his choice of shows that he thought I should see and would usually take me through whatever was showing at the Guggenheim. He was a great source of information and inspiration.
Rite of Spring, 1952
Oil on canvas
MD: I would like to talk a bit more in-depth about Ward’s early years, in particular his time spent with Hans Hofmann. As you know, Hofmann had a reputation for being enormously generous as a teacher and had profound impact on modern art in America. What do you think Ward took away from his studies with Hofmann?
JJ: In order to fully answer that question, I should back up a little bit to Ward’s student years. I mentioned the correspondence with curator and painter Hilla Rebay, which sharpened his interest in figure / ground relationships of the sort found in late Kandinsky. This connection led in 1948 to an invitation by George L.K. Morris to exhibit with the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group in their 11th annual exhibition in New York. This opportunity, coming when Ward was just twenty, led to a lifelong, close, and collegial friendship between the two men. Morris was himself a painter and writer. He was the first art critic for the Partisan Review, a founding member of the AAA, and an outspoken supporter for the development of abstract art in America. Twenty-three years older than my uncle, Morris became something of a mentor to him, encouraging him in his studies and earliest professional opportunities.
Though tempered with his own restless approach to mark-making, this period of Ward’s development clearly shows the influence of his contact with these two powerful advocates for a type of homegrown abstraction employing a shallow cubist division of space and floating isolated shapes that was very much a part of the critical stance of the AAA at that time. In this period he also toyed with Surrealist automatism in a series of small-scaled works in egg tempera on panel.
This tight and cerebral approach to artmaking was given a good shake in the sunshine when he earned the chance to study with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown during the summer of 1952. Hofmann’s insistence on an art based in the study of nature and grounded in exhaustive experience with drawing and composition brought to Ward’s work a looser, organic energy and heightened ambiguity of space. The experience of working outside, close to the sea and the primal landscape of the seashore with its omnipresent horizon obviously touched a nerve with Ward. It was something he returned to again and again, and it informed his work in various ways for years to come. For the rest of the 1950s, Ward turned his back on the earlier Neo-Plastic styles that preoccupied him as an undergraduate student and plunged into the orbits forming around the key gestural painters of the time, particularly Kline and DeKooning. In this way his contact with Hans Hofmann was critical because through his summer of work with him, he was pulled from the one camp, with its foot firmly planted in styles linked to the 1930s and thrust into confrontation with the dominant aesthetics of his own moment.
Red Vertical, c. 1956-57
Oil on canvas, 57 x 49 inches
MD: As a young artist, Ward had a number of ongoing “mentor” relationships with established individuals, such as Rebay, Morris, and Hofmann, and he participated in an exhibition with the members of AAA, most of whom I assume were older and more well-known in the artist community. You did say, however, that it was Hoffman who pushed Ward into the “aesthetics of his own moment.” I would like to know a more about this. Who were some of the younger artists, with whom Ward developed friendships at this time, the artists of his generation?
JJ: To tell you the truth, I know less about this period of his life partly because I was barely walking at the time and partly because Ward talked about that time in his life less than others. At this point I’m very sorry that I didn’t sit down with him sometime specifically to learn more about that important juncture in his life. Like most artists, Ward was more interested in the present than the past and, by the time the two of us were starting to become close, more than twenty years had passed since he had studied with Hofmann.
What I do know is that he moved to New York in 1952, and began his life as an artist in earnest. Over the next ten years, he explored and expanded upon the gestural style of land / cityscape based abstraction that he had first dug into with Hofmann. He was part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists and, like so many other of his peers, he began his exhibiting career in New York as part of the 10th Street scene of cooperative galleries that grew up around Irving Sandler’s pioneering Tanager Gallery. The tenth street co-ops provided important alternative exhibition opportunities for the flock of younger artists who, like Ward, were drawn to New York in the post-WWII period.
Most of these artists were working in some variation of the abstract and semi-abstract styles one associates with that period. The big players of that moment like Pollock, Kline, Newman, Rothko, and DeKooning were dominating both the scene and the uptown galleries so the downtown co-ops, many of which were artist-run, played an important role in nurturing younger artists. Artists as diverse as Allan Kaprow and Philip Pearlstein, Mark di Suvero and Alice Neel, Al Held and Yayoi Kusama, and hundreds of others all benefited from the support and early exposure provided by these rough and tumble, do-it-yourself spaces.
New York in the 50s must have been a great place to be a young painter with its heated air of intense debate and discussion and Ward was there. He had his first solo exhibitions in the mid 50s at the Fleischman Gallery, just around the corner on 9th Street. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out much about that gallery. If anyone reading this could give me more information about it, I’d be grateful. I have no doubt that Ward was a keen observer of the scene, as well as participant, and made many acquaintances there that followed him through his long tenure in the art world. One friend from those years that he often mentioned was Judith Rothschild.
MD: Judith Rothschild was an abstract painter and active in the artist community. She was also a member and later President of American Abstract Artists. Tell me more about his relationship with her.
JJ: Well, this brings us to some of the interesting contradictions of Ward’s life. Judith Rothschild was indeed a serious artist, a good one, and was very involved as a supporter in the 10th Street scene and, as you said, the American Abstract Artists. She was also a wealthy heiress, well able to support her art life. Ward, whose salary at the Guggenheim was modest at best, and whose lifestyle was always marked by utter frugality, was, throughout his life, fascinated by and drawn to the wealthy. George L.K. Morris, his wife artist Suzy Frelinghuysen, and Judith Rothschild were longtime friends and colleagues with whom Ward spent a great deal of time through the years in mutual critique and discussion of both their own works and larger movements in the artworld.
Oil on canvas, 34 x 34 inches
MD: This background information, particularly about an artist’s formative years, is always so critical in terms of understanding where an artist is coming from, his/her point of view, and overall value system. It is a great segue into the work he was making in the 1960s, the work that first brought him to the broader attention of his peers and the greater art world. How did Ward arrive at making hard-edge geometric abstraction in the early 1960s and what territory did he specifically stake out for himself?
JJ: Like many members of his generation, Ward was also struggling to find his own voice. The fevered energies of Abstract Expressionism were beginning to sputter by the late 50s. Rauschenberg and John’s were already, by the mid-50s, pushing back against the overheated dominance of gestural painting by infusing its tropes with ironic detachment. Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers were looking for new ways to bring imagery back into painting. Ellsworth Kelly had recently returned from Paris charged with a freshened approach to pure color abstraction and Al Held had embarked on his series of huge paintings based on simplified letter forms. Ad Reinhardt was deeply engaged in the process of clearing his work of the marking and emotionalism that colored so much work of the later 1950s, and the ground-clearing work of Barnett Newman was also becoming better understood. These streams of activity were clearly informed by a heightened criticality in pointing the way toward the developments of the 60s and the cooler sensibilities that came into play in that period.
Ward responded to this crux moment with a body of work, the black and white diamonds, that marked the arrival of his mature style and laid out certain themes and approaches that would engage him for the rest of his life. Beginning in 1959 or so, his notebook drawings show him experimenting with the diamond as a framing device for calligraphic linear abstractions. Over the next couple of years in dozens of drawings, he begins to respond more directly to the tough formal and symmetrical imperatives of the diamond format itself, gradually developing a set of tightly balanced compositions that utilize its radial stability and echo its prominent diagonals. Transit, the painting that you mentioned at the very beginning of our talk and that was included in the Singular Forms show at the Guggenheim, is a good example of his breakthrough work. The diamond-shaped, ‘square on end’ canvas is first divided by a broad central white vertical band that overlaps, or cuts through, two centrally-stacked black diamonds. At the left and right hand corners of this shaped canvas, smaller diamonds in black are separated from the core by white outlines the same thickness as the ‘spine’. The result, though starkly graphic, is a subtle and ambiguous play of overlapping planes in a relatively small and tightly compacted space.
Ward first showed these pieces in an exhibition at the Kay-Mar Gallery in 1964, in which he shared the walls with a remarkable group of artists — Dan Flavin, Jo Baer, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt. The hierarchic and emblematic inner geometries contained in this and the other paintings of this series set Ward’s work slightly at odds with the heightened material concerns of many of his peers in the exhibition. In a sense he was looking back to earlier, more pictoral iterations of abstraction while his fellows were busily staking out the more reductive strategies of Minimalism. Ward’s sense of scholarship and painterly lineage ran deep, and throughout his subsequent career, he honored them with his own personal, sometimes idiosyncratic approach to pictorial space and the problems posed by figure / ground relationships. He would often tell me in later years, “Mondrian only painted 13 diamonds.” Clearly he felt that the great master of Neo-Plastic painting had only scratched the surface of the possibilities contained within the prismatic confines of that difficult format.
Ward was devoted to the ideals of Mondrian, though his own work for the most part eschewed rigorous Neo-Plastic conventions. And like Mondrian, whose early works in particular showed the influence of his spiritual engagement with Theosophy, Ward’s work was to some extent colored by his own spiritual studies. Ward practiced Kriya yoga, a meditation technique focused on the transformation of physical energy to spiritual energy by visualizing its movement up the spine and outward. From the earliest black and white diamonds, Ward was interested in the primary vertical structure of the form, and its reinforced cruciform symmetry lent itself to the punchy diagrammatic nature of some of his more mandala-like paintings, especially in later diamond works from the 80s and 90s.
Virginia Rivers Series: Winona, 1972
Acrylic on canvas
MD: To continue that train of thought, how did Ward’s work change and develop into the 80s and 90s? For instance, I’ve heard he was constantly making drawings on index cards, a couple of which I’ve seen recently in American Abstract Artist exhibitions. How would you characterize his late work?
JJ: Beginning in the 50s, Ward established the practice of his ‘drawing books’ as he called them, small 4 x 6 inch pads that he always carried in his jacket pockets. On each page he would line off six squares or diamonds and, in these little spaces barely more than a square inch or two in size, work out in serial fashion the ideas that would later become paintings. In this way he could work whenever he wanted and wherever he was. These sketchbooks were an important part of his process and it has been fascinating for me to go through them as I have become more familiar with his linear development. I’ve been able to see how he would gnaw on an idea sometimes over a span of years, before committing it to canvas. This helps explain the fully resolved constructions of the paintings, as well as sheds some light on the sometimes-hermetic nature of his imagery.
As I described earlier, Ward’s work throughout his life swung on a pendulum from inner concerns to outward observation resolved in formal terms and back again. There was always a tension between the seen and the imagined, but as he moved into the 80s and 90s, the free play of ideas, as evidenced in the pages of the drawing books, became more personal and less programmatic. He developed various series simultaneously and within the self-imposed confines of his chosen format was able to engage a wide range of thematic material. One key theme that I have touched on are the group of mandala-like diamonds. Ward was plagued with various health problems during those years and his inherently spiritual approach to artmaking found a deepened release in these paintings, which often featured a rising central axis that, widening as it rose, emulated his positive meditations. This impulse was also at the core of his ‘ladder’ series, which actually began with a group of studies of his view of the World Trade Towers. Those iconic towers, which he could see from the window of his studio, fascinated him with their soaring verticals framing a clear center shaft of sky. At night he was interested in the rung–like arrangements of lit and unlit floors against the darkened night sky. The metaphor of ascendance was an important one in his work, the yearning to transcend the physical. The ‘ladder’ pieces sort of reconciled his key interests as they were based on his close observation and experience of the city, and yet, were also expressive of his personal brand of spirituality.
In his last works, the ‘opening space’ group, Ward returned to more strictly formal concerns exploring once again the unique particularities of space within the diamond format. These are among the most rigorous and successful of his works in this form, I think, reflective of his years of wrangling with it. On their face these final drawings, and the one painting that was their result (Homage to Mondrian, 2001 – 2003), are composed of just two broad bars of color, one an elongate rectangle hugging the lower left edge of the canvas, the other swung upward as if hinged to form a raised horizontal axis bisecting the canvas left to right slightly above center. These bars carve the space and seem to push it to the right creating tension within the diamond while dividing it into four separate and discrete areas of color, each with a different shape and volume. The result has a tough, elegant pictoral logic that pays a final debt to his brilliant precursor.
Homage to Mondrian, 2001-03
Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 34 inches
MD: During Ward’s last twenty years, you clearly shared an increasingly close relationship with him, which was precisely the same time you came of age as an abstract painter. You were undoubtedly well-versed in his ideas, process, and practice. So, on a more personal note Julian, what was Ward’s influence on your own work as a emerging painter? I think it is also worth mentioning here that you are currently the Secretary of American Abstract Artists, a position long occupied by your uncle.
JJ: Growing up in the suburbs of Richmond, VA, where all adults seemed to be either moms or insurance men, it was tremendously liberating to know that such a thing as ‘artist living in New York’ was actually a career option. I learned a great deal from him and have been inspired through the years by the toughness of his conviction and the purity of his persistence. Ward never achieved fame or great fortune, but his work as a painter and participant in the artworld was a source of intense search, discovery, and joy for him. It framed his life and filled it with meaning. What more can any artist ask?
I am also an abstract painter and inherited his interest in the lineage, development, and potential of abstraction as a mode of discourse. My own work and sensibility, though, has always had a softer focus. As a painter I’ve been more interested in atmosphere than edge. Ward never quite approved of what he considered my romantic tendencies and frequently accused me of being “too Turneresque”. He was a tough critic with a tightly-focused perspective, still, as Pollock said, having a strong point of view to push against is tonic for an artist. Gradually though, Ward accepted the seriousness of my own work as a painter, and later sponsored me for membership in the AAA. I think in the back of his mind he was always hoping to protect his legacy in the group, and sure enough, he put me right to work as his typist for the minutes. Deciphering his handwritten notes was always an interesting perceptual challenge.
Oil on panel, 36 x 32 inches
MD: And finally, let’s talk for a moment about the exhibition of Ward’s work you are currently organizing. You are mounting the first retrospective of Ward’s work at your gallery — Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn, NY — which you founded in 2001 with your wife, artist Rene Lynch. This must be a labor of love for you. How are you approaching his exhibition and what would you like the audience to walk away with?
JJ: Running Metaphor is itself a labor of love, but this show is special for me. I’m seeing it as the culmination of my long and fascinating relationship with Ward. We’ll be exhibiting a small group of key pieces from each decade of his active working life from the late 40s until he stopped working due to health problems in 2003. Southerners like Ward and myself are made keenly aware of heritage and ancestry and, with this exhibition, I’m paying homage both to my uncle and to a member of the family of artists. I’m very pleased to be able to present a small selection of his life’s work, to frame a sense of the scope of that life, to honor it, and to bring it back into the light. Obviously, I’m very close to the subject of this show, which makes it impossible to be as objective and critical about the work as I might normally be when presenting an exhibition, but I do think the work speaks for itself. I’ll be very interested to learn how a contemporary audience sees and responds to his work.
Those of us involved in the artworld and artmaking to whatever degree are always most alert to the smoke of today’s fire, burning in the moment. Retrospectives are a chance to step out of time and take a longer view. Artists are made up of many things and context is one of them. Each artists’ contribution helps define and frame his or her moment. With hindsight we can see who was in the middle of the frame and who was out at the edges, but in a very real sense, the edges themselves play a constant and critical role in the definition of the center. I would like the audience to walk away from this show with a heightened appreciation of the flow of time that we’re all a part of, a renewed appreciation of the interesting contributions of my uncle, Ward Jackson, and a greater appreciation of the many fires that burn with heat at the edges.
Matthew Deleget is a Brooklyn-based artist and co-founder of MINUS SPACE.