Big Ideas: Richard Jackson on His Early Years in Pasadena, 1968–93

Richard Jackson during the installation of ‘Big Ideas (1000 Pictures),’ Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles CA, 1980

  • Apr 17, 2020

Whether smeared on walls or stacked face-to-face, it’s often the backs and sides of paintings that greet the viewer of Richard Jackson’s works. In these ways and many others, the artist has spent the last five decades approaching conventional modes of artistic expression from new directions—exploring the work that goes into the art.

‘Richard Jackson,’ a new monograph from Hauser & Wirth Publishers, investigates the myriad facets of the artist’s practice. Authored by art historian John C. Welchman, the publication combines cutting-edge critical analysis of Jackson’s work with reflections by the artist himself, drawn from an extensive series of interviews and placed alongside newly excavated materials from Jackson’s archive. The book also features an in-depth illustrated chronology by Dagny Janss Corcoran, which provides crucial historical and personal background to Welchman’s interpretive text.

A lifelong resident of California, Jackson has played a key role in the art scene in and around Los Angeles since he moved to the region in the late 1960s. Pulling from the vast trove of material generated and referenced by Welchman and Corcoran, assembled here is a collection of Jackson’s early thoughts on his work, its meanings, and its contexts, in his own words. This collection of quotes and archival material takes as its focus the 25 years he lived in the Pasadena house owned by famed curator Walter Hopps, a period of time where Jackson fleshed out the notion of his art as ‘how much can one person accomplish on their own.’

Born in Sacramento in 1939, Jackson remained in the area through the late 1960s, attending Sacramento State College. There he studied engineering, and began to be interested in art through required classes. Several other artists lived in Sacramento at the time; through Frank Owen—whose studio was near Jackson’s—he was introduced to Bruce Nauman; through an invitation to lecture in Sacramento, Jackson met Edward Keinholz, who connected him with Hopps, then the director of the Pasadena Art Museum. In 1967, Hopps moved to Washington DC, eventually working at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, leaving his house—right down the street from the Pasadena Art Museum—in the care of local artists. In 1968, Jackson moved in to take care of the house.

Jackson with Bruce Nauman, 1971

Jackson in Pasadena CA, ca. 1970

‘Walter gave [Joseph] Cornell his first show and [Marcel] Duchamp his first show . . . probably Duchamp stayed [in the house]. . . . Lloyd Hamrol and Judy Gerowitz, Judy Chicago—they were married and living there; there was a guy [who] worked for Walter eventually, Hal Glicksman . . . who worked at the old Pasadena Art Museum when Walter was there . . . then, all of a sudden, word got out when Bruce [Nauman] moved in. That raised a big flag and then they also realized that there was a lot of cheap space there. Bruce lived there, I lived there, Jason Rhoades lived there, Joe Goode lived there, Larry Bell lived upstairs for a short time, it goes on and on. I don’t know, because I was all part of it, it’s not so exciting for me, but on the other hand, you know, it’s pretty interesting because the whole [art] establishment or whatever you want to call it was on the West side of town.’

‘Mary Heilmann was here one night while Walter [Hopps] was here. We all sat out in the front on the lawn and the gophers—there were tons of gophers out there—and these holes, and we just sat out there and Walter was talking on and on, you know how he did when he was telling stories, and he was chain-smoking, of course, and then Mary said he damned near filled up all the gopher holes with cigarettes he just put down the holes.’ Reflecting on his friendship with Nauman, Jackson says, ‘[Bruce and I] spent a lot of time together, doing other things, you know. Bruce has a lot of other interests, they’re way different than art. In a sense he’s a little bit like me, [but] he didn’t have to work for a living like I did, his job was art. He didn’t have to go out and deal with all these completely different people who didn’t know that I was an artist, or care. He didn’t have to deal with that. But we went hunting together, all kinds of stuff, camping . . . we spent a lot of time together and rarely talked about art.’

Richard Jackson, ‘Untitled (Sketch for Maze),’ 1970 © Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson, ’Untitled (Maze),’ 1970 © Richard Jackson

While living in Pasadena, Jackson made art and supported himself through carpentry, contracting, and art-handling jobs. ‘That’s the side story. . . how many art collectors’ houses and art dealers’ houses Richard built. That’s how Richard got to know everything about everybody,’ reflects Rosamund Felsen. When she met Jackson, she was curator of prints and drawings as the Pasadena Art Museum, and she would ultimately go on to be one of Jackson’s gallerists in Los Angeles from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

Another Los Angeles dealer Jackson knew was Eugenia Butler. Jackson notes ‘we were close friends. And I worked in her house. She got me jobs all along. . . . I helped her install shows and change the gallery. And actually, you know, helped Dieter Roth make the cheese thing.” In 1970, Jackson had a solo exhibition at Eugenia Butler Gallery, constructing ‘Untitled (Maze),’ a free-standing, single-corridor, one-person-wide, square maze. ‘Really, I made that thing all by myself, in the gallery on a weekend with no help. And these things are hard to do in certain environments or situations, because you’re working out of a bathroom sink, to clean things, mix things up, it’s just a nightmare, and then I was working alone on the weekend and it was hard. . . but it came out, and then looking back, over the years, I kind of liked it better when [things] were rough and screwed up. Like they were a bigger challenge in a way, and not only that, they weren’t so perfect or something. They’re temporary anyway, so why would you make them out of really good materials if you’re just going to throw them away.’

Richard Jackson, ‘The Bedroom,’ 1976–82 © Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson, ‘The Bedroom,’ 1976–82 © Richard Jackson

Jackson used his studio at Hopps’ house for experimentation, as seen in his work, ‘The Bedroom.’ Jackson reflects, ‘Oh, [it was] just sort of an experiment. That’s what the studio’s for, to try things out. . . . I wall-papered the walls so there was a pattern there, I set up a bedroom and decided to paint it somehow, or make a painting out of it. A painted environment. And so what it does is it forces you to think differently about things. . . . It was in the spirit of old-fashioned working in the studio, trying to learn something and trying to experiment and learn something.’

‘That’s what the studio’s for, to try things out’ —Richard Jackson

Even so, Jackson recalls not many people saw the work: ‘Walter never saw it. He said he saw it, but he didn’t. . . . Count Panza saw it, and Bob Smith, who he came with. But no, shit, that’s the art world. That’s why the business you’re in, you almost need a lie detector or a detective of some kind to investigate the bullshit that you hear every day. . . . Like I say, nobody saw it, everybody thinks they saw it. . . . I think [that for] a lot of [my work], the word of mouth thing is bigger than the reality of the thing. . . . It’s the same with the Dieter Roth cheese thing. Nobody saw that. Nobody. And [then] they write about it, the ‘experts’ who were never involved in it. And in a short number of generations, all the real information is gone. And maybe nobody ever got it. Because there’s so much bullshit and so much exaggeration that goes on. . . .’

Richard Jackson, No. 6 from 100 Drawings series, 1978 © Richard Jackson. Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana CA. Photo: Chris Bliss Photography

Richard Jackson, No. 16 from 100 Drawings series, 1978 © Richard Jackson. Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana CA. Photo: Chris Bliss Photography

Richard Jackson, No. 63 from 100 Drawings series, 1978 © Richard Jackson. Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana CA. Photo: Chris Bliss Photography

Richard Jackson, No. 71 from 100 Drawings series, 1978 © Richard Jackson. Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana CA. Photo: Chris Bliss Photography

In the late 1970s, Jackson also began working on his 100 Drawings series, each of which presented an idea for a painting that Jackson then assigned a grade. In 1978, Ed Kienholz and his wife Nancy Reddin Kienholz showed these drawings at the Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery, Hope, Idaho. The Kienholzes bought the work from Jackson, and Nancy Reddin Kienholz donated them to the Orange County Museum in 2013.

‘I had about six years of engineering drawing, when people did drawing by hand,’ Jackson recalls. ‘And a lot of building experience, making things, in construction, so these drawings are just strictly about ideas, this is one hundred ideas for a painting. . . . You know, when you do a hundred drawings, you realize. . . ‘I’m running out of ideas here.’ So, some are duplicates and not so interesting. . . . What you do is realize that you can exhaust a project, you know, it’s just like when I did the Stack paintings, it’s really a commentary on a painting, one idea and you make a thousand paintings, it’s what people do. That’s what the art establishment and business part of art looks for. ‘Hey, here’s somebody with a style,’ or, you know, ‘they can serialize their work and we can sell these to everybody.’ So that’s kind of what I learned with this hundred ideas, pretty soon the ideas get real thin because you’ve exhausted the project.’

Jackson in front of ’Big Ideas (1000 Pictures),’ Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles CA, 1980

Jackson during the installation of ‘Big Ideals,’ Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles CA, 1984

In 1979, Jackson began the preliminary conceptual work for his Big Ideas series, which would continue into the 1980s. Big Ideas consisted of several large-scale, freestanding works involving stacks of painted canvases, often generated first as drawings. In 1980, the first ‘Big Ideas’ show was at Galerie Maeght in Paris, followed by ‘Big Ideas (1000 Pictures),’ Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles, later that year. In 1981, Jackson showed ‘Big Ideas 2 (3000 Pictures)’ as part of ‘Museum as Site: Sixteen Projects,’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and ‘Big Idea–800 Pictures,’ Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, Chicago. This was followed by ‘1000 Pictures,’ Daniel Weinberg Gallery, San Francisco, 1983; ‘Big Ideals,’ Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 1984; and ‘Big Ordeals,’ Betsy Rosenfield Gallery, 1986.

Richard Jackson, ‘Eight Projects for Filling a Room,’ 1980 © Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson, ‘Untitled (Fill a Room 1/2 Full III),’ 1981 © Richard Jackson

‘I guess the Big Ideas are all big . . . it’s about scale, human scale, about what one person can accomplish on their own. I made all these stretcher bars, I painted them all, this is all a one-man deal here. . . . What’s great about that is, it gets to be a bigger idea because people exaggerate the truth. So then a big idea becomes a great big idea, like when I hear people talk about my work, it’s always much bigger than the actual event or the actual piece, you know. . . . And the titles go that way too, you know, like the Big Ordeals and the Big Ideals, Ordeals, it’s like, hard to do the work, realize the work on the spot, Ideals, it’s . . . [basically] back to my, family and populist connections.’

Richard Jackson, ‘Big Ideas 2 (3000 Pictures),’ installation view, ‘Museum as Site: Sixteen Projects,’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981 © Richard Jackson

Reflecting on ‘Big Ideas 2 (3000 Pictures),’ Jackson says, ‘I made all the canvases at home. From the original one at Rosamund’s, I stripped the canvas off and re-stretched them, so I didn’t have to make all the stretcher bars. I recycled them but put new canvas on and primed them. . . . Well, the inspiration for this whole idea is that there was this guy, I think he was a mail carrier, in the Midwest somewhere, and when he retired he thought he’d make a ball of yarn, and he just kept going and going and going and this thing just got huge, in the front yard. He and his wife just kept going and going. So that’s kind of the inspiration, that’s why that looks like string. . . . It was one of those works that was right at the entry to the exhibition, and because—that’s what’s interesting about it—because it was so monumental, that kind of rubbed off. It was evident, even to somebody who didn’t like my work. So in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times it was on the cover, and you know because nothing else would have looked better [laughs], you know what I mean? Or, nothing else would have looked anything different from art, so here’s this great big thing, and in the review, the Times critic wrote that it was an exercise in wretched excess and didn’t like it at all. . . . But it’s better now because so many people do installations now and didn’t in the past, [critics] understand more how to write about installations. . . . They didn’t know how to describe what things were made out of, they had no mechanical aptitude, so they didn’t know how to relate to something that’s not a painting.’

Installation view, ’Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles CA, 1992. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Jackson working on ‘1000 Clocks,’ 1992

In the late 1980s, there was a shift in Jackson’s practice away from making paintings himself to creating painting machines and other mechanical devices. In 1987, Jackson began works on ‘1000 Clocks,’ a room-sized installation featuring the eponymous number of clocks, all built by Jackson by hand, set to keep time together.  The piece was in progress for five years, until it was finally shown in ‘Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992.

‘I figured out how to put the room together with a configuration so it turned out to be exactly a thousand, which is a lot of manipulating, and you know, I just made everything, it took five years, I drilled all the holes, drilled thousands of holes, and then put it all together, I had somebody design the clock, how it works, and help me with the parts and everything, but I fabricated every clock, every [piece], everything. And it took five years to do all that and the piece is about time so it’s evidence of how I spent my time, it’s about time, about turning fifty years old, it’s about a lot of things.’

‘That’s basically what my work is about, how much can one person accomplish on their own.’—Richard Jackson

‘The greatest thing I’ve accomplished is one other guy and I, we dug a trench that was eight feet deep and it was half a mile long, in three months. We didn’t take one day off, we worked daylight to dark. We ran out of water, so we dug two feet deep to drain water into it. We worked our asses off, the thing about it is . . . that’s interesting to me . . . I didn’t care about the gold. It was the process that I cared about. I cared about working my ass off in a really beautiful place and learning about mining and how that worked. It was amazing, what it taught me was—[this was] later reflected in my work—how much one person can accomplish without any help. People dug holes in the ground that went down thirty feet, didn’t shore them up, and they just drifted out from that hole. They would take a lighted thing in there, and if the oxygen gave out they’d go dig somewhere else. Things were caving-in in that area. There was a place a mile long where they hollowed out logs to make a pipe, a trough, I mean people don’t have to sit on their ass and watch football, you know, they can participate, it’s amazing. You know, that’s basically what my work is about, how much can one person accomplish on their own. I made ‘1000 Clocks’ by myself, 3,000 paintings, 5,000 paintings, it’s different from the kind of corporate thing that goes on now, here’s some production money, they hire this guy and that guy, the most important tool in the studio is the telephone.’

In 1993, Jackson moved out of the house in Pasadena to nearby Sierra Madre. In a letter to Hopps the previous year, Jackson wrote that during his time at the house, he developed the ‘unusual idea’ that ‘paintings should be like the circus, they go away and live only in our minds,’ and that because of his and Hopps ‘unusual relationship,’ Jackson was able to develop his ‘unusual behavior,’ that of ‘painting as performance; painting as experience; trying to redefine modern.’

Hauser & Wirth Publishers new release ‘Richard Jackson’ is a critical biography of the artist authored by art historian John C. Welchman and featuring an in-depth illustrated chronology Dagny Janss Corcoran. The monograph combines cutting-edge critical analysis of Jackson’s work with reflections by the artist himself, drawn from an extensive series of interviews and placed alongside new materials from Jackson’s archive.