Richard Jackson: The Circus in Town
Since the early 1970s, Richard Jackson has expanded the definition and practice of painting more than any other contemporary figure.
Beginning with his large scale site-specific wall paintings and room-size painted environments, and continuing with his monumental stacked canvases and more recent anthropomorphic painting ‘machines,’ Jackson’s wildly inventive, exuberant, and irreverent take on Action Painting has dramatically extended its performative dimensions, merged it with sculpture, and repositioned it as an art of everyday experience rather than one of heroic myth.
Dennis Szakacs: You grew up in Sacramento and after school, why did you go to L.A. instead of San Francisco or New York?
Richard Jackson: I wanted to stay in California because I am very attached to the landscape. My family homesteaded a lot of land in the 1800s and I am very connected to the ranch they established. I didn’t want to move to San Francisco. It was the place where we all went to see art when we were young but I didn’t see any opportunity there. I was curious about Los Angeles.
DS: And what did you do when you got there? What was the art scene like when you arrived in 1968?
RJ: I met Ed Kiemholz and he introduced me to the city. Ed liked to go hunting so we were big friends on another level because, you know, most artist don’t go hunting or want anything to do with it. It took me awhile to figure out the art scene here and what I finally decided, and am still convinced of, it that it’s about decorative painting and minimalism.
DS: But there were artists like Bruce Nauman, Paul Mccarthy, and Al Ruppersberg here then.
RJ: Paul and I were always on the outside looking in. We lived in Pasadena, on the West side, and that was like living behind the wall in Germany. Nobody came, nobody went past downtown LA to go to Pasadena. There was an art scene in LA but we were never included in any of that. But Bruce Nauman was in Pasadena – we lived in the same house for five or six years.
DS: In Walter Hopps’ house, right? What was that like?
RJ: It was a run-down house that Walter bought before he left town. Ed Kienholz had moved into the house as a sort of caretaker, and Bruce and I were friends from Sacramento, so we moved in too. But when i moved to Pasadena there were only a few artists there – including Judy Chicago and Lloyd Hamrol. Then Bruce came, and there was a lot of cheap space, so more artists started coming after they finished graduate school. Almost one hundred artists worked in Pasadena at that time, before downtown was redeveloped.
DS: Was there a lot of dialogue among the artists or were people working more independently?
RJ: I don’t really know because I was older. There was another generation that wasn’t far removed from being students and I think they had a rapport. Bruce and I lived together, one block away from the Pasadena Art Museum, so there were always people coming from New York and a lot of them stayed in our house or came over. Richard Serra, Sol Le Witt, Mark di Suvero, we hung out quite a bit. There was another community that came from out of town and a lot of information was exchanged, which was nice.
DS: Was that the formative moment for your work? The first ten years you were in L.a.?
RJ: I would say so. I was a slow learner. I didn’t have anything going before i got to Los Angeles. There was no peer pressure in Sacramento. It’s a completely different situation when you get in with people who are serious and ambitious, aggressive and competitive.
DS: When did you first decide that painting needed to move beyond the traditional canvas? Can you think back to your thought process at that time and where it led you?
RJ: I saw painting after WWII develop into Abstract Expressionism and then a new generation came along and tried to clean it up, sort of backtrack and make it even more formal. I thought that you could still attempt to expand painting and make it more interesting. The trap with painting is that people get addicted to the material. It almost becomes like craft. It becomes an area described by the material used. There are all these little sub-categories, but really it’s just art. And that’s the problem I have with painting. It looks one way, for example, because acrylic came in the 1980s and we had this decorative abstract painting because the paint dried real fast and had certain properties that oil painting didn’t have. Lyrical abstraction, what was that! It could have been a rug or anything else. Then the minimalists decided to really backtrack and start taking things away. They tried to convince everybody that less is more. I always thought it was ‘You give me all your fucking money and pretend you have more.’
DS: What drove you to turn a painting into a brush and the wall into a canvas? That inversion seems to be a big moment early in your work.
RJ: I needed to expand painting physically. No matter how big the Nolands or Stellas got, whenever you saw them they were the same rectangular format. So I thought that if you use the whole environment that the painting is in, then you could paint around the corners, you could do all kinds of things other than a rectangular format. They were always site-specific so you take into consideration a fire extinguisher here or a door there, and you somehow incorporate that all into the painting. The painter that I really like is Rosenquist. He did that in paintings like ‘F-111.’ I’m always impressed by his work.
My wall paintings were also temporary. They were an experience rather than an object. When they were done, they were done – they were destroyed or disappeared afterwards. When I run into people who saw those paintings they always exaggerate how big they were, how out of control they were, and what an experience they were. They don’t really exist physically. They exist in people’s minds. That’s really important. I wanted them to be like a circus. The circus comes to town and is there for a while, and you go see it or you don’t, but then it’s gone. And you can tell your friends about it but it doesn’t exist in a storage rack. You can’t drag it out later and put it into a different context compared to another picture. We can’t just keep stockpiling art. The best way to preserve it is in people’s memories. Everything has a life and death so at some point it’s all gone.
DS: There were a lot of different experiments with painting going on during this period and even some precedents in the 1950s in Europe and Japan. Were you aware of this activity?
RJ: For example…
DS: Klein, Tanguy, Niki de Saint Phalle, Gutai…
RJ: Sure, I was aware of all that.
DS: Ok. Getting back to the progression in your work, especially during the first half of your career, there were the wall paintings, the painted environments like the mazes, and the stacked canvasses. Was that a natural progression?
RJ: There were overlaps. The wall paintings and the painted environments were made at the same time and in similar ways. Then I incorporated other materials, like steel. During the 1970s a lot of wall painting was going on. Ryman was painting on the wall and, of course, Sol LeWitt. I was in an exhibition called ‘Wall Painting’ at the MCA Chicago in 1979.
Those kinds of exhibitions don’t make a lot of sense to me. I was in a couple of shows with Ryman and, you know, I don’t know why. I could never figure out why people want to group artists, why they want to show that artists have something in common. What’s most interesting is when nobody has anything in common. That’s when it really gets good. I just see the whole thing as chaos or anarchy. I’m not interested in how things are knit together as much as how something bizarre or crazy comes out.
DS: In the 1970s and 1980s your physical involvement with the work was very important. The work was hard to make. You did everything by yourself without any assistants. Making the frames, stretching the canvas, applying the paint and then stacking 3,000 canvasses to create an amazing form. Can you talk about the performative aspect of your work and your ideas about artistic labor?
RJ: It’s performative or it’s evidence of a performance. But it’s also about how you choose to spend your time. All we have is time. And it’s about independence. It’s an american thing, you know, ‘This whole son-of-a-bitch is mine and i don’t need any help.’ And you’re not going to get any help, which is also very American! This isn’t Europe or graduate school. There ’s no place to go for help. I think it’s also about scale – how much can one person accomplish on their own? The United States can go to the moon but what can an individual do? I’m more interested in the kind of person who wants to go to the moon on their own.
DS: The astronaut-farmer…
RJ: Right! Maybe they can’t do it but maybe they can. But you can’t do anything unless you try. When I was growing up in Sacramento I saw people try to build their own houses. They would start but never finish. The house would sit for months then start to decay over a long period time. I always worried that some of my projects, like ‘1,000 Clocks,’ would never get done because i was on my own. Now a lot of artists don’t make anything themselves and the most useful tool in the studio is not the cordless drill, it’s the cordless phone. They are on the phone all day begging for money or telling people what to do. That’s not the way I choose to spend my time.
DS: Let ’s jump to the mid 1990s, when you made ‘Painting with Two Balls,’ a work where a Ford Pinto is placed on its side, with two large canvas balls that spin when the engine is started, so that they spew paint in every direction when you pour paint from above. This was among the first of the many painting machines you would come to make and also your first recreation or reimagining of a famous work from art history. How did these two ideas come together in one piece?
RJ: in 1960 there was a county music station in Sacramento and the wife of the man who owned the station knew something about art. She took an interest in myself and a friend – thought we were interesting young artists – so she paid for us to visit New York. I saw Jasper Johns’ paintings at the Guggenheim and thought his ‘Painting with Two Balls’ was the greatest painting I had ever seen. I thought it was so strange, and I still do. So later, I paid my respects to the painting. I wanted to expand painting even further and incorporate things that I knew something about – also I had worked on cars when I was younger.
DS: You were replacing your body with machines to make paintings?
RJ: Yes. The thread that runs through all my work is preparation – figuring out how to make it work and imaging what it might look like. Then there is the activity. When the activity starts, all hell breaks loose and it’s completely out of my control. With the wall painting, the more I did them, the more familiar I became with the materials, the nicer they came out. That’s why I lost interest in them. When you take part in an activity or are involved in a process, something can go wrong, and that that’s when it gets interesting. It’s not interesting if everything is going well. It’s only interesting when problems are presented to you and then you have to creatively solve them.
DS: You also studied engineering and it’s so clear to me in your drawings and in the design of your installations that you have technical and analytic ability. Yet all of this careful planning
is oftentimes about making a big mess.
RJ: I did an installation in Innsbruck called ‘Who’s Afraid of Barnett Newman,’ after his painting ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue.’ I built a circular platform and then rode a motorcycle around the platform while red, yellow, and blue paint were pumped onto its surface. Everyone gathered around to watch, maybe a hundred people. One of the pumps failed and no yellow paint came out. I could tell people were nervous because it wasn’t working and that it might turn into a disaster. Not me. I felt like ‘oh boy now the fun starts.’ So I was completely covered in paint trying to solve this problem which took me 10 or 15 minutes to fix. I had take things apart and change parts. Then it worked. Most painters, you know, they put a little blue over here, and a little yellow over there, then they sit back and have a cigarette before they decide where to put the red. That’s not for me. At some point it doesn’t matter where you put the red or the blue. That’s what the stacked paintings are about – having a style and making the same thing over and over. The first stacked painting I did was made with 1,000 pictures. That’s about a painter with one idea that makes a 1,000 paintings. Well, let’s get over that and move on to the next thing. I read an article about Mark Rothko, how he killed himself in the studio and they found 750 paintings in the in racks. Shit, when I read that I wanted to kill myself because they were all the same! There ’s no doubt in my mind. It’s one idea and you keep making it, and making it, and making it, and pretty soon you just come to the end of the line. That’s the problem with minimalism. You take away everything and then you don’t have anything. You don’t have anything to do. At least you can respect Barnett Newman for that – he knew that he didn’t have anything else to do. That’s what makes him a great artist. He didn’t just turn it into a style.
DS: In addition to Johns’ ‘Painting With Two Balls’ and Newman’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue,’ you’ve also recreated Jacques Louis David’s ‘Death of Marat’ as a sculptural tableau, turned Edgar Degas’ bronze ballerinas upside down and poured paint through their bodies, remade Georges Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’ by using a rifle to fire pellets dipped into paint at the canvas, and transformed Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Étant donnés’ into a maid’s room. Why these artists and these particular works?
RJ: The Seurat painting is about process and evidence of how you pass your time. It took so long to get it to where it is now, but it will never be finished.
DS: So you finally found a way to make a painting that’s impossible to finish. An infinity painting?
RJ: Maybe it could go on. Other people could shoot at it. They would need to have good aim. The Duchamp recreation is really site-specific. It was made for an exhibition in France. In remaking it – I even did a reproduction of Duchamp’s instruction manual for the piece – I realized just how smart he was, the illusion, and the intelligent choices that he made. Anything that you can’t see through the hole doesn’t exist; which is pretty nice because you have to imagine it. What that piece does is what i’d like my paintings to do. They’re all finished, nobody saw how you did them, so they have to imagine what the process was. ‘Étant donnés’ is really just a pile of junk, about how this pile of junk turned into a beautiful environment. It’s really crudely made and Duchamp invented the whole process. In remaking it, I turned it into a maid’s room, with a French maid. and instead of looking through holes in the door like in the original, you look through a window that is down low so you feel like a little kid peeking into the maid’s room. It’s kind of a joke.
DS: How about Marat? What’s the attraction there?
RJ: I’ve always liked that painting. Certain artists’ work is just etched into my memory. I’m doing a piece called ‘Blue Room’ now. It has a blue figure and a blue turntable that spins while I pour blue paint onto it. I copied the figure out of Picasso’s ‘Blue Room.’ So maybe it’s my Blue Period. We’ll see how that turns out.
DS: Degas was a copyist. He would go to the Louvre and copy paintings, and he was equally at ease with painting, sculpture, and drawing. You are too, so I was wondering if you were attracted to him for this reason.
RJ: No. I built crates for a company that stored a lot of art work for the Norton Simon Museum and the Hammer. I actually handled a Degas ballerina. i thought it was the weirdest, kinkiest thing I’d ever seen. This little shrunken girl and you could lift up her skirt. The ballerinas were all dressed-up, with a bow, but deformed. I have to say, I never liked Degas’ work.
DS: So it’s more spoof than homage?
RJ: In that case, yes. I don’t like to make fun of people’s work but I do like to take classic things and screw them up.
DS: What about Seurat’s interest in science and the physics of light?
RJ: Artists often have these theories about things they don’t understand at all. They work a lifetime on it and in the end none of it is true. There ’s no physics or science involved. There’s just nothing there, which is pretty good.
DS: In 2005, you began a series of installations based on rooms. You had already made ‘The Bedroom’ back in 1976, but now you’ve made ‘The War Room,’ ‘The Dining Room,’ ‘The Maid’s Room,’ ‘The Laundry Room,’ and ‘The Delivery Room.’ What’s the concept for this series?
RJ: It’s a device to trigger new works without them all being the same. It depends on what your fantasies are.
DS: Speaking of fantasies, in almost all these installations, paint stands for something else – body fluids, oil, food, etc. Is paint for you a kind of life force or magical material? You said earlier that painters can fall into the trap of loving paint too much but it seems like you love it more than anybody I know.
RJ: I do. I buy more of it than anybody i know! And while i make some things that are purely sculptural, I’m committed primarily to painting. I’m bound and determined to expand the medium. What makes my work interesting it that i don’t have the same background as other people…
DS: You’ve been a gold miner…
RJ: I cut christmas trees; I had a franchise with the New York Times Western Edition; I did all kinds of things. I was in the military. How many artists do that these days? These experiences all go into my work. I’ve had a job since I was nine years old and I’ve never been out of work. Now it seems like people who are artists have more or less similar backgrounds and training. What made Abstract Expressionism interesting was all those crazy people doing it.