Jack Jefferson, Embarcadero #4, oil on canvas, 1962.
TRACKING THE ENIGMATIC JACK JEFFERSON
by Anthony Torres
Jack Jefferson is for the most part a phantom to all but those who knew him personally, and perhaps to many of them as well. Although Jefferson practiced art for fifty years, studied with and was a close associate of Clyfford Still at the California School of Fine Art (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and was a central figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism in the San Francisco Bay Area, his work remains relatively obscure due to a limited exhibition history and art historical neglect, which is usually attributed to his own personality and character.
To the extent that a portrait of Jack Jefferson is discernable from those who knew him and from the very little that has been written about him, it is of a quiet, reserved, honorable person of tremendous integrity, who was notoriously opposed to self-promotion. This characterization, while universally agreed upon and consistent, should be scrutinized as a partial representation, one potentially capable of forming a caricature, which results from both a lack of documentation and the fact that so few family, friends and colleagues remain. The lack of historical materials related to Jack Jefferson not only conditions a particular perception of the person, it additionally can be translated as having contributed to a failure of recognizing the full significance of both the man and his work.
These commonly held observations regarding his character — usually thought of as the basis for his limited exhibition history, and thus the absence of documentation — can easily degenerate into an oversimplification of reasons for Jack Jefferson’s art historical exclusion, his lack of greater recognition, and the failure to fully comprehend the importance of his contribution to Bay Area art. Ironically, the different opinions and experiences of those who knew him, when taken as a whole, make it possible to construct a more complex representation, however problematic.
To grasp who Jack Jefferson was through accounts from various people who were close to him is analogous to the well-known allegory of attempting to describe an elephant based on the isolated encounters of the blind, where the resulting multiple descriptions and interpretations of an enigmatic phenomenon are dependent on varied limited exposures. Yet it is by comparing the similarities and differences in accounts that the possibility emerges of forming a more fully developed image, one accessible through disparate accounts in which the different insights lead to a portrait of a complex, contradictory, and multi-faceted individual — a man at once private and public, conservative and adventurous, serious and irreverent, mentally strong and physically fragile, a hardy and sensitive spirit, who by all accounts was a great educator who had an aversion to teaching.
If anchoring Jefferson’s obscurity in certain limited yet commonly held observations, attributed to his personality and moral character, runs the risk of stunting a more complex reading of his work, care should also be taken to avoid reducing and simplifying his work to an unconscious manifestation of any of a number of personal experiences that marked his life. Among the formative experiences most often cited are: the cultural isolation of growing up in the Midwest; the death of his mother when he was fifteen and of his father when he was seventeen; his exposure to working in the mines of North Dakota; his gruesome experiences at Guadalcanal during World War II; or his love of nature and long walks and voracious reading habits, and his continuing to work with excruciating pain for almost thirty years as the result of physical ailments — all determinants that anchor his artistic practice.
While these factors no doubt constituent elements of his personal formation, they fall short in the attempt to understand him as an individual or an artist, nor do they wholly inform the work, through which we can attempt to read and decipher the legacy he left behind — both as a man and an artist. Indeed, it is only through the work — to which he dedicated his life — that it is possible to see the aesthetic moves and operations that Jefferson made beyond his personal experiences to reveal what he valued, who he was, and who he aspired to be through his artistic agency.
It is in the work that the complexities determined by his personality and a range of life experiences intersects somewhere between and beyond personal and social encounters, through his imaginary voyages evidenced in the site-specific spaces that constitute the work. In Jefferson’s works, the concern with constructing special compositions by negotiating and synthesizing seemingly incongruous visual elements — such as large and small shapes and forms, at once geometric and biomorphic — congeal in an intricate interplay of colors, fields and shifting surface depths, to reveal both a weighty somberness and a hint of whimsy. It is perhaps in these works that the complex character of the artist is articulated through the expressive potential of his chosen materials, the relationships between figurative and abstract non-objective forms in the compositions, and the continuities and disjunctures among a range of works over time.
It is in fact the existence of the work that speaks to Jack Jefferson’s serious ascetic obligation to the integrity of the work, which he pursued tenaciously as a principled program, with dignity and honor. It is thus appropriate and fateful that through his lifelong devotion to the work, that he created resulted from a refusal to pursue artistic celebrity, which he viewed as a demeaning distraction, that the pictures and images that resulted should provide the vehicle for Jack Jefferson to receive, in death, the reappraisal, acclaim, and long-overdue art historical recognition that he was so long denied in life.
This essay first appeared in Northside, December 2003.