Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Richard Jacobs: In the Moment

Richard Jacobs, Summit, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.

By Carl Belz

Author's note: I've followed Richard Jacobs' s painting since the late 1980s when he established a studio in Waltham MA and I was able to include his work in an exhibition at the Rose Art Museum. The following essay was written for the catalog of his forthcoming exhibition at the Jack Geary Gallery (185 Varick Street, NYC), which opens on September 12 and continues through October 11. The full catalog is available online here

As a teenager, after days spent working as a summer guide at Lost River in Lincoln, New Hampshire, I used to jump from a waterfall into the river to cool off. I’d swim behind the waterfall and tread around in a small cave behind the raging downpour. The moments in that cave were amazing sensory experiences that have stayed with me. The water thundered down in deafening torrential sheets, yet it sometimes seemed to stop, as if you could glimpse the absolute present. There was mist all around, which created prisms in the sunlight, and sometimes it appeared as though the water might even be rising. The boulders, trees and sky of the landscape were mostly fuzzy in the background, but sometimes, for an instant, a section of water opened and they became as clear as the day. Deep space shot forward, became momentarily framed, and was then just as quickly lost. Everything was fast and slow at the same time, here and gone, past and present and future were interchangeable.

Richard Jacobs, Putney, Vermont, May 2014 


Richard Jacobs and his generational colleagues were mostly too young to have seen "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970," curator Henry Geldzahler’s canonical exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they’ve likely seen “Painters Painting,” the 1973 documentary classic it inspired, in which director Emile de Antonio interviews many of the artists in the exhibition, notable among them Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. If so, I can imagine the film seeming to them what it has come to seem to me, which is a glimpse of a world on the far side of a cultural divide, a world that for better and worse at times feels inaccessibly distanced by the interventions of the 1970s. And foremost among those I’d cite Postminimalism,* the ground-zero cultural critique that targeted what had gone before in the hope of shaping what was to come, was in large measure identified with the Women’s Movement, and, not least, doomed as blatantly sexist Geldzahler’s 40-member pantheon that had space for only one woman.

Elsewhere in the seventies, we got the one-size-fits-all commonplace of pluralism instead of the panoply of styles we became accustomed to in the sixties, and with it we also got the social history of art instead of formalism, and T. J. Clark instead of Clement Greenberg. In the process, politics, deconstruction and theory supplanted esthetics, connoisseurship and criticism, the reader replaced the writer, and meaning in turn became a function of context rather than individual talent, whose appropriated voice was regularly muffled by quotation marks. Beauty became suspect for its link to commodification, punk instead came to signify sincerity, and objects yielded to ideas via market-resistant conceptual art, while performances and installations both flourished. Realist art experienced a renascence with a boost from photography, yet the death of painting was widely reported. And irony spread everywhere, as postmodernism leveled the playing field and muscled modernism to the margins of the cultural arena it had dominated since the middle of the 1940s. The shifts echoed widely, the divide remains.


Richard Jacobs’ paintings acknowledge the far side of the divide without fretting about its distance, and they position themselves firmly in the present while doing so. Like much current abstraction, the paintings are visibly intelligent and informed, they know the past whence they came, along with the wide range of techniques that enabled their construction. They know, for instance, how paint can be brushed on thick or thin, troweled in wet-on-wet or textured into layers, poured or dripped or stained, even sprayed or feathered into misty veils, their techniques together comprising a brimming arsenal of options developed in response to their maker’s evolving vision and ever-focusing yet intuitive urge to meaning.
Storm, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
Their abstractness is likewise purposeful in being stripped of narrative and figuration with the aim of having them stand on their own, not in the name of any theoretical goal of purity--a recurrent misconception about modernist abstraction--but as an affirmation of their autonomy, which is synonymous with their modern condition, as it is with ours as well. Which is in turn to say their abstractness is a matter not of stylistic tropes or nostalgic appropriations, both common in our time, but a way of being in the world--as the best abstraction, past and present, has always been.
Loon Lake, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
In referring to the paintings’ abstractness, I mean to distinguish them from nature, whose look they resolutely avoid imaging but whose animus they regularly and respectfully evoke – its visual richness and complexity, for instance, but also the diversity of its shapes and lines and spaces and colors, its ubiquitous and relentless presence, its resilience, its rhythms, its seemingly infinite ability to inspire awe and wonder, its magic.
Landscape, Figure, Portrait, Skull, 2013, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches
And each evocation is in turn attended by a capacious range of feeling unguarded by irony or quotes or conceptual gambits, feeling tendered instead with candor and generosity. Wholly present to us, the pictures in turn offer face-to-face, give-and-take encounters unencumbered by postmodern artifice, encounters absorbing us, and thereby affording us, an exhilarating glimpse of freedom from the confines of separateness that in modern experience routinely distance us from ourselves as well as from one another--and a glimpse, too, of how the divide may be narrowed.
Odalisque, 2002-2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 36 x 28 inches.
The pictures comprising the current exhibition were completed during the past two or three years, but it’s hard to tell when they were begun or in what sequence they became resolved. Jacobs typically works on many pictures at the same time and sometimes allows a decade or more to elapse between starting and finishing them. Process-based, he is a patient painter, willing to allow each picture to develop and assert its character independent of any overarching formal or conceptual program. He edits deliberately, often by masking and repainting existing shapes and areas, but however extensively they are revised or amended, the paintings throughout remain open with breathing light and color, eliciting the impression that they’re animated as much from within as they’re guided from without.
Soul Delay, 1997-2013, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 52 x 48 inches.
For the Anniversary of My Death, Homage to WS Merwin, 2005-2014, oil and dye on paper, 24 x 18 inches.
Their patient gestation, moreover, can be felt in the measured pace with which they yield their content. Measured, for instance, by the number and diversity of their parts and the formal complexity of their assembly. These are not the one-shot paintings of Abstract Expressionism in the fifties, the gestural paintings that appeared to have been accomplished in a single creative assault;; nor do they reflect the sixties version of the one-shot theme, the riveting Color Field arcs and bands meant to be knowable in the instant of our encountering them. Instead, the Jacobs paintings ask to be experienced slowly, allowing each shape and space and color and mark to be absorbed with the same patience that informed the creation and placement of that pictorial unit in the first place. In thus responding to them, we’re in turn able to empathize with and know them deeply in the way they know themselves, an epiphanous experience in which time seems to pause while past and future become interchangeable in an ongoing present, and their autonomy becomes mutual, theirs and ours alike.


I got to know Richard Jacobs in the late 1980s after he’d completed his MFA at Yale and set up a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts, home to Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum where I was at that time the director. In 1989 I included his work in the group exhibition of area artists we annually mounted--which led to the acquisition of a picture for the Rose permanent collection--and I continued to follow his early development via the regular solo exhibitions he enjoyed at the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston through the first half of the 1990s. After moving to Putney, Vermont, he was honored with an important show at The Cooper Union that was curated by Dore Ashton in 1997, but we were by then on separate paths and didn’t reconnect until the early 2010s, when he brought recent pictures for me to see while he was visiting family in nearby Lincoln, New Hampshire.

As if time had stopped, I was as flattened by them as I’d been with each new exhibition I saw back in the nineties, and I was in turn impressed to learn he hadn’t shown his work at all for over a decade following a firm but risky decision to put that part of his career on hold while focusing his energy on domestic priorities and the studio--the studio where, from the evidence of the pictures before me, the decision paid off where it artistically mattered most, which was by enabling him to bring them to full maturity. In response to their depth and character, I want first to suggest they make the margins of today’s cultural arena--where they can metaphorically be said to have been made--look like abundantly fertile territory for nurturing quality art, maybe more fertile, even, than the spotlighted center of the arena that is so regularly celebrated by our entertainment-driven media. And I will in addition say they demonstrate convincingly how such an art effectively spans any real or imaginary divide between the present and the past, while at the same time extending vital traditions of that past unequivocally into the here and now.
Malachite, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 22 x 18 inches.
Wind, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on silkscreen, 48 x 72 inches.
Epiphany, 2014, oil, acrylic and dye on canvas, 40 x 30 inches.
*For postminimalism, see Susan Stoops et al, “More Than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the ‘70s,” Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, April 21-June 30, 1996.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. 

1 comment:

Anders Knutsson said...

This is a great presentation of Richard Jacob's painting! The introduction sets the stage of how many of the older generation, of which I am also one, experienced late modernism vs. "current affairs" in visual arts, or post-modernism. I wonder what perspective later generations of painters have. I mean the ones who, seems to me, throw out the old with irony, appropriation, and other disguises of some rolling Oedipus "kill the bastard" phenomena, instead of build on the old ?