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Death On The Range

February 2024
3min read

Harry Jackson's painting gives the canvas a voice.

“I want my work to talk to the ordinary cowhand, as well as to experts who know a good deal about painting, in the same way that art of the Italian Renaissance talks to everyone.” If Harry Jackson, the painter of pictures of life on the range, had been shown this statement a dozen years ago and told that he himself would utter it in 1967, he would undoubtedly have laughed derisively. His reaction would not have been surprising, for in the late nineteen forties and early fifties, Harry Jackson was a member of that most un-Italian-Renaissance school of painting, Abstract Expressionism. Like many artists in the immediate postwar years, he had found traditional American painting dull and uninteresting and had turned elsewhere for inspiration, particularly to the French painter Matisse and the American drip-and-dribble master Jackson Pollock. His own work, brightly colored and fashionably abstract, had earned him two important exhibitions in New York and a leading critic’s encomium: “most talented young painter in America.” Yet as soon as success as a modernist was his, Harry Jackson rejected it and sought other paths. The paintings reproduced in AMERICAN HERITAGE are the result.

Jackson has always loved to draw. As a child in Chicago, where he was born in 1924, he spent hours sketching soldiers and animals, and while still in his teens he began to study painting at Chicago’s Art Institute. But in 1938, at the age of fourteen, he did something dramatic, something perhaps as important for the future direction of his art as that later decision to abandon abstract painting: he ran away from home and became a ranch hand in Wyoming. After that the memories of the West—the vast open spaces, the cattle, and the loneliness of the cowboy—would always be vivid in his imagination. When Harry Jackson said later that he gave up abstraction because he felt that it was too limiting, that he wanted “to paint everything from satin to saddles,” the saddles go back to those early days in Wyoming.

In 1942, after the United States had entered the Second World War, Jackson joined the Marines, and in the course of making reconnaissance sketches, was wounded on Tarawa and Saipan. Sent back to Los Angeles as an official Marine artist, he discovered modern art; and like most young American painters of the period, when the war ended he headed for New York to study. It was there during the next decade that his abstract paintings won him high recognition.

His dissatisfaction with the canvases he was producing is best explained by Jackson himself in an interview he gave in 1956, two years after he had quit the modernists: “I began to realize that there was more to art than just letting yourself go with paint. I felt like a traveller who had followed a road as far as it could take him in his direction. Now I was at the fork and had to let that road go on while I branched off my way.” His decision to try to find another way of painting was greeted with dismay by friends. “You’re on the wrong track, Harry; this is the most talented waste of time in America,” one said. But in 1954 he sailed for Europe to study the old masters.

During the next few years, through studying in museums abroad and then returning to the United States to steep himself in such American artists as Remington, Homer, Eakins, Russell, and Hopper, Harry Jackson transformed himself into a traditional painter and sculptor. Today in his studios in Italy, Wyoming, and New York the products of his work come to life. The warning from his friend that “you’re on the wrong track” has not been borne out, for not only has Jackson’s own undoubted talent been recognized, but his shift from abstract to traditional art came just before the wind of public interest began to shift in the same direction. Painting and sculpture based on western American themes, such as those that form an important part of Harry Jackson’s work, have profited particularly by this shift. A Charles Russell painting, for example, recently brought $100,000, and a cast of Frederic Remington’s Bronco Buster , which went for $1,100 in 1957, sold less than ten years later for $7,500. Jackson has had shows at important galleries and at major museums including the Amon Carter in Fort Worth and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. But perhaps the finest recognition of all has come from a fellow western artist, Peter Hurd: “He is a man with a mission. Both as a painter and a sculptor he is equipped with the driving force and self-discipline so necessary to an artist. His mission is to communicate.”

This desire to communicate is superbly illustrated by the two paintings in this issue. The first to be completed was The Range Burial, a ten by twenty-one foot work commissioned in 1958 by the Coe Foundation of New York for the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming. It represents six years of work: “I wanted to express,” Jackson says, “how deep and authentic the respect for the dead can be on the part of ordinary men, with no trappings, and how nothing more than that is required. I was not interested in illustrating the specifics, so I didn’t show the cuts and bruises on the dead man’s body.” The second canvas, The Stampede, some nine and a half feet by almost twenty-one, was completed in 1960 and actually comes first in the story-telling sequence, for it shows how the dead man in the earlier picture was killed. “It was the overall pervading state I was trying to express,” Jackson explains, “absolute chaos, hell-for-leather chaos. The death of the man was incidental—though not unimportant. Chaos, when all hell breaks loose—that was the important thing.”

After seeing these two paintings, one understands fully what Peter Hurd meant when he called Jackson a man whose “mission is to communicate.” Jackson himself has said that he wanted his paintings to “talk”; no one can doubt that in these two works he has given to canvas a tongue.

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