It’s hard to be objective about Robert Jacks who passed away in August at the untimely age of 71. Jacks once told me he couldn’t say whether his paintings were any good or not, but he always knew how to put together a good exhibition. It’s pleasing that the National Gallery of Victoria have done justice to the artist’s own high standards with the retrospective, Robert Jacks: Order and Variation, which captures the consistency and variety of his work over a fifty year period.
Jacks was an amiable and generous man – one of the rare figures who seemed to be universally well liked in a factionalised artworld. He debuted in 1966 with a solo exhibition at Melbourne’s Gallery A that established him as the hottest young artist in Australia. The catalogue quotes Patrick McCaughey, who reviewed that show, saying this was the moment when the 1960s arrived in the city. It was “a distinctively new voice to assuage the antipodean hangover”.
The ‘antipodean hangover’ was a reference to art historian Bernard Smith’s short-lived movement and manifesto of 1959 in defence of ‘the image’, which he saw as being threatened by the worldwide advance of abstract art. The Antipodeans’ only show promoted the misleading impression that Melbourne was a haven for figurative art while Sydney had gone over to the devil of trendy abstraction. In fact, as writers such as Christopher Heathcote have demonstrated, Melbourne had a thriving community of abstract artists.
It was from this milieu that Jacks emerged, as a dedicated student of Modernism. The earliest pieces in this show owe a debt to Braque and Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism, and to the geometric abstractions of Ben Nicholson. At the very beginning of Jacks’s career we can already see two characteristics that would become trademarks: a taste for formal elegance of composition, and a willingness to wear his influences upon his sleeve.
As opposed to the murky Abstract Expressionist painting that was being made in Melbourne at that time, Jacks drew inspiration from artists such as Brancusi and Picasso, and soon from Miró and Arp. The centerpiece of his first show was the painting, Timbrel and harp soothe (1965), which took its title from James Joyce’s Ulysses; and its visual echoes from Brancusi’s studio, which the sculptor was constantly rearranging and photographing.
In this painting, which was acquired for the NGV collection, we can see all of Jacks’ preoccupations in embryonic form. Precise geometry and flat planes of colour are offset by areas of vigorous freehand drawing, with curved, biomorphic forms suggesting a human presence in an architectural framework. The neutral grey backdrop adds vivacity to tones of pink, brown, black and white.
A young artist had demonstrated that abstract art need not be burdened with tragic overtones: it could be light and free, full of dancing rhythms. All at once, artists were allowed to stop dwelling on the mid-century horrors of the Holocaust, and revisit the Belle Époque.
Throughout his career Jacks lined up instinctively with an artist such as Matisse, who believed that a painting should give pleasure rather than serve as a document of social injustice. He understood that colour can make a powerful impression on the viewer, stimulating a range of instinctive, emotional responses.
In 1968 Jacks’ Red painting, was included in The Field, the seminal exhibition that opened the NGV’s new building on St. Kilda Road. It features five vertical planes of red bordered by double lines of gridded ribboning that shift through a range of tones from brown to pale gold. This minimal painting has a surprising degree of intensity and spatial complexity. It was the artist’s parting gift to Melbourne before he left for Toronto, Canada, in February 1968.
Jacks didn’t want to follow the exodus of Australian artists to London that took place in the early 1960s. New York was his preferred destination, with Canada as a stepping-stone. He would eventually spend a year up north, making friends and contacts, and becoming part of a busy local art scene.
It was in Toronto that Jacks came under the spell of emerging movements such as Minimalism, serial and process art. By the time he moved to New York he had made modular paintings such as Four strips (1968-69); numerous works on paper that explored variations on the grid; and a series of innovative cut-paper pieces. He also worked in three dimensions, a habit he would maintain for the rest of his life; and began creating artists’ books. Although most pieces were based on the simplest visual ideas it was a time of constant exploration. One can feel Jacks’ excitement as he runs through one variation after another, producing a stream of small experiments that add up to a vast, fizzing, popping body of work.
These exercises paid off when, shortly after moving to New York, Jacks’ efforts caught the eye of leading Minimalist, Sol LeWitt, who selected him for a show at the New York Cultural Centre. He would remain in the city until 1978, becoming part of the artistic community, while keeping afloat by working at the Broome St. Bar. The bar-tending job turned out be an excellent way of meeting leading artists, dealers and collectors. During the 1970s he was also a first port-of-call for many Australian artists who needed a contact in New York. It was a role that became wearisome as the trickle of visitors turned into a torrent, putting Jacks’ good manners to the test.
After almost a decade in New York, and endless variations on the Minimalist grid, Jacks undertook a residency in Austin, Texas, and had the sudden revelation that it was possible to make art in other parts of the world apart from Manhattan. He began drawing and painting in the landscape, creating jagged forms that looked like the fronds of palm trees.
In 1978 he accepted an invitation for a residency at Melbourne University, and his years of self-imposed exile were over. The return to his roots meant a return to painting, which had become a dormant part of Jacks’ repertoire in New York, without ever being extinguished. The catalogue quotes fellow Australian expatriate, Ian Burn, who felt that Jacks could never be classified as a true Conceptualist. No matter how minimal his forms he remained wedded to perceptual experience.
Back in Melbourne, the first work Jacks produced was a new version of Timbrel and harps soothe. This was another habit – returning to his earlier work with the benefit of experience. Throughout this exhibition we see the same recurring forms and motifs put through adjustments and transformations that might have been extended indefinitely.
The works of the 1980s, made while Jacks lived in Sydney and Melbourne, are those of a mature, self-confident artist who has come back to the easel with renewed enthusiasm. The Metropolis paintings took their title, and perhaps their black, white and grey tonality, from Fritz Lang’s famous science fiction film. They are geometric fantasias – all sharp angles and zig-zags with a surface crafted by the palette knife. If the Russian Futurists had made linoleum designs, this is how they might have looked.
In the early 1990s Jacks and his wife, Julienne, moved to a property near Bendigo. It was a luxury to have separate studios for painting, sculpture and works on paper, and he produced a steady stream of exhibitions. Large paintings such as Kentish fire and heavy boots (1982), revisited the Metropolis theme, but in dazzling colour. Other works used the shape of a guitar, in homage to the Cubists; or divided the canvas into grids of closely modulated tones.
The last paintings in the show are on a grand scale, as if Jacks were trying to make a final heroic show of strength in defiance of his deteriorating health. To the casual observer they will come across as pure decoration – harmonious arrangements of shape and colour with no underlying messages. But Jacks was never simply a decorator. In the sensuous silhouette of a guitar or the subtle juxtapositions of colour in a grid, he was revisiting his life’s work, constructing a summa and testament for a career in which the analytical impulse strove for dominance with an irrepressible sense of beauty.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
until 15 February 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 8th November, 2014