About half a dozen years ago, while doing research on an exhibition of painting, curator Dennis Szakacs found himself poring through an art storage facility somewhere outside of Zurich. But Szakacs, who is also the director at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), kept getting distracted by the evidence of other works he was encountering in the piles: renderings for massive architectural structures built out of drippy canvases, mechanical sculptures that spewed paint, as well as a full-blown Cessna F150. The plane was designed to be filled with paint and crashed into a wall -- creating a "painting" at the point of impact. "I immediately knew that this was an authentic original voice," he recalls. He inquired as to who'd made the pieces. The answer: an artist from the L.A. area; a guy by the name of Richard Jackson.
Southern California has its artsy household names: conceptualist John Baldessari, the theatrical shoot-me-in-the-arm Chris Burden, and the Eds -- Kienholz and Ruscha. Though Jackson has produced work that pushes the boundaries of painting since the 1960s, he is not one of them. In fact, his name rings few bells in the region he calls home. Szakacs attributes this to a number of things. For one, Jackson lives in Sierra Madre, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, where he maintains a cool distance from art world glad-handing. His day jobs have also kept him away from art world sincecures. Apart from a gig teaching at UCLA in the late '80s and '90s (where he says he taught his students to "raise hell"), Jackson has made his living elsewhere: as a gold miner, a contractor and a Christmas tree cutter. In his spare time, he likes to hunt.
He has also operated at a remove from the commercial art market. For decades, he'd build some elaborate architectonic form out of mountains of painted canvases, only to pry it apart and destroy it as soon as the show was over. In the '70s, he focused on producing paint-smeared wall murals -- the sort of site-specific work that couldn't easily be trotted around or re-sold. Much of what remains of his early work, therefore, consists of a few pictures, a handful of schematic drawings and some very nice memories.
The challenging nature of his pieces means that Jackson has generally enjoyed more popularity abroad than in the United States. "A lot of curators in Europe -- in Germany, France, Switzerland -- are generally more open to the iconoclastic nature of L.A. work," say Szakacs. "They're not as beholden to market pressures." For a time, therefore, it was almost impossible to see Jackson's work in the U.S. Starting in the early 1990s, he went roughly two decades without a single solo gallery show in Los Angeles. Says Szakacs: "I had to go all the way to Zurich to find him."
That is about to change. On Sunday, February 17, OCMA opened the doors on a sprawling survey of Jackson's work -- the first time all of the museum's galleries are devoted to the work of a single living artist. For the Southland, it not only presents a rare opportunity to see some of the painter's more elaborate installations, it presents the rare opportunity to see them at all. "A lot of these pieces simply haven't been seen here," says Szakacs, "and those that have -- well, sometimes it's been since the '80s."
Given the rather extreme nature of his painting -- he'll use a Ford Pinto as a painting tool -- Jackson, is a decidedly low-key guy. He is soft-spoken and clear-eyed, with a penchant for wry jokes. It is the week before the opening of his show at OCMA, only the second museum survey of his work ever held (the first was at the Menil Collection, in Houston, in 1988). But Jackson appears remarkably relaxed, cruising through the galleries in a set of paint-splattered overalls. For an artist who doesn't like to revisit past works, but instead likes to destroy them, the retrospective feels out of character. "Awful," he says with a grin. "It's like going to the dentist."
Jackson didn't set out to be an artist. He doesn't have anecdotes about doodling in math class or creating masterpiece caricatures at the age of six. Even in high school, he didn't particularly enjoy art class. ("It just wasn't any good.") When it came time to go college, at Cal State Sacramento, he chose to study engineering. Ironically, it was engineering that led him to art. "Back then, all engineering drawings were done by hand so it was required to take an art class to learn how to make renderings," he explains "That's how I got interested in art."
While in college, he traveled to New York, where he saw Jasper Johns' "Painting With Two Balls" -- a bleary rainbow-hued painting that is slit at the mid-section, where a pair of ball bearings pry open the canvas. Seeing the work was a transformative moment. Years later, in an interview, he remarked that it "was the greatest painting I had ever seen. I thought it was so strange, and I still do." (Jackson's 1997 installation with the Pinto, in fact, is an homage to Johns: titled "Painting With Two Balls," it consists of a car, which rests on its side, and two large canvas spheres. When the engine is fired up, the balls splatter paint all over the room.)
Jackson didn't complete his university studies. ("I was done," he says matter-of-factly.) Instead, he spent much of the 1960s serving in the Coast Guard. But in that time, his interest in art hadn't waned. After he got out, he ran the art gallery at Cal State Sacramento, where he met figures such as Bruce Nauman and Ed Kienholz. In the late '60s, he left Sacramento (where he'd been born and raised) -- and ended up sharing a house with Nauman in Pasadena. (The house, incidentally, was owned by Walter Hopps, the Ferus Gallery founder and Pasadena Art Museum curator who would later organize Jackson's survey at the Menil.)
Inspired by figures such as Johns, as well as Jackson Pollock -- who had so transformed American painting with his drips and streaks -- Jackson set out to toy with the act of painting itself. "I didn't care what it looked like, I cared about the process," he says. "I can identify with what someone like Yves Klein was trying to do -- even if I don't always like it -- getting nude women and covering them in paint and slopping them around the canvas."
In 1970, Jackson built a large maze at the Eugenia Butler Gallery on La Cienega, and used a large, paint-slathered canvas to douse the insides of the maze in color. During that same decade, he began a series of murals, in which he would use a wet canvas to smear colorful patterns on walls. In the '80s, he began adhering small canvases together like bricks, using paint as mortar -- and built a variety of curious architectonic shapes: from walls to geometric stacks to an inverted inkpot. In the 1990s, he started adding mechanized elements to his installations, employing everything from model airplanes to washing machines to create explosive, splattered environments. He is still on the hunt for a wall that could withstand the crash of his paint-filled Cessna. "He is really working to transform the forms of painting," says Szakacs. "You can't come up with someone who has worked to move painting as far out of the frame as he has."
The OCMA survey will contain recreations and documentation related to many of these historic works, including the stacked pieces and "Painting With Two Balls." There will be new work, too: namely a massive dog sculpture outside the museum that raises a leg to squirt paint on the building (a cheeky statement about Jackson's views on the art world). But there will also be treasures that have survived the artist's predilection for purging. This includes a series of drawings made in the late 1970s that serve as proposals for his wild painting concepts. These act as an interesting guide to his work -- and reflect his sense of humor. Jackson has marked his illustrations with gold stars and letter grades and bits of criticism: "Too scientific, not expensive enough."
In recent years, there has been a rising interest in Jackson's work in the U.S. In 2009, his wall murals were featured in an exhibit called "Target Practice" at the Seattle Art Museum. Two years later, a couple of his pieces made it into a couple of L.A.'s Pacific Standard Time exhibits. For a number of years, he's been represented by the venerable gallery Hauser & Wirth, which has branches in New York, London and Zurich. But at the age of 73, Jackson isn't content to rest on his laurels. After he finishes up at OCMA, he'd like to get to work producing a giant upside-down, inside-out cuckoo clock. "I don't want to keep doing the same thing," he says. "I want to work on things that are interesting -- if I'm learning something, it's interesting."
Richard Jackson: Ain't Painting a Pain, will be on view at the Orange County Museum of Art from Sunday, February 17 to Sunday, May 5.