There is a churlishness about Richard Jackson that hasn’t diminished with age. One of America’s most radical artists, he has expanded the definition and practice of painting, taking it into previously unthought-of dimensions. His wildly inventive, exuberant, and irreverent takes on “action” painting have dramatically extended its performative and spatial reach, merging it with sculpture and repositioning it as an art of everyday experience. A veteran of the West Coast art scene, the Los Angeles-based Jackson is frequently considered in tandem with Bruce Nauman, as well as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, and Ed Ruscha, but he has never been interested in belonging to a group. For him, working alone proved decisive—everything he wanted to do required doing it by himself.
Jackson’s current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich features a survey of neon works, as well as 1000 Pictures and Shooting Gallery, two new works that collapse distinctions between painting, sculpture, installation, and performance. Jackson believes that the purpose of art lies in the act of making something happen—whether it succeeds or fails doesn’t matter. Though his performances are without audiences, he wants us to see something of what occurred, in the way we might slow down to look at the aftermath of a collision on the freeway.
Rajesh Punj: Why do you have such a focus on process and activation?
Richard Jackson: It goes back to my interest in Jackson Pollock when I was growing up. I was probably still a teenager when I saw a video of Pollock making a painting. There was a particular pair of shoes that he wore when he was painting, and as I remember it, one shoe (for whatever reason) had a door knob inside it, and he took it out, put the shoes on, and started painting. Fifty years on, I thought maybe the door knob part didn’t happen, but it did.
RP: Has your audience changed over the years?
RJ: My audience is still the same; it is, for the most part, young people. I think there is a time in your life when you want to be daring, or whatever you want to call it, and that’s what they identify with. But in the end, it’s hard to be that way when you are 83 years old.
RP: But you still are.
RJ: That’s the thing. I think young people want to be like me, but not really. I supported myself by working in construction for 40 years, and not until I started showing with this gallery was I able to make any money at all.
RP: When I interviewed you in London in 2015, I wondered then if anything would sell.
RJ: I sold one work, and the gallery discounted it. But the press that year was amazing. The exposure, the media interest, and the audience for that show were successful by my standards; but commercially nothing happened.
RP: Is that still the case?
RJ: It is different in Zurich because I have been showing here since 1979, and I have a following.
RP: You recently had a big show at S.M.A.K. in Ghent, Belgium.
RJ: I wish I had a gallery in Belgium; the show at S.M.A.K. was really successful. When I did “Car Wash” (2014), a show at Fondation CAB in Brussels, collectors bought 16 cars, and I destroyed them with a painting machine that I made. Then I worked with a theater group and did a set for them. Nobody supports contemporary art like the Belgians. They are not afraid of art changing, and they are genuinely curious, which I think is in part because of S.M.A.K. It is probably one of the best places I have ever shown.
RP: Looking at the “Stacked Paintings,” obviously you were never afraid of scale. They go back to 1979, and there’s a new one you made for this show.
RJ: The first one was also called 1000 Pictures, and I made every single stretcher, stretched every single canvas, and painted everything of the work.
RP: So, there was never a moment when you thought to stop at 500, even after having decided on 1,000?
RJ: No, because 1,000 is a number that has a real scale to it, like a human accomplishment. I also made 1,000 clocks. I am interested, and it has changed a lot over the years, in what one person can accomplish on their own.
RP: How do you continue to sustain such an endeavor? How do you feel about it, in a moment when everyone requires “support systems?” Most artists would have an army of assistants.
RJ: It’s a different moment now. I quit a school where I realized pretty quickly that the teachers were not the artists that I was interested in. A woman in the town where I lived had sent me to New York because she thought I had some promise. I looked at everything that was happening there at the time—a moment when you had Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and all of those artists—and it made me think that the artists teaching me were not the kinds of artists I wanted to work with. I thought that there had to be more to it than that. One of the artists who taught me was Wayne Thiebaud. He was a great artist, but I quit school.
RP: Possibly the problem today is that everything in an artist’s life is already decided. You leave art school and are already flirting with blue-chip galleries, as if the goal is the gallery, and it has nothing to do with the endeavor or deciding something for oneself. There is no real need to fail, to take risks.
RJ: There was no interest in my work for eight or 10 years. I had a gallery, and the gallery couldn’t make it; nobody came to my studio, nobody saw it or cared to see it, and I was fine with that. I think it is much harder now because everything is so different. The students coming out of art school are not like me; they come out more alike than different. They start school at five years of age, and some of them leave at 30 with a master’s degree. I taught at a major university, and believe me, getting a master’s degree is one of the easiest accomplishments in academic history—everyone has one, so there is a sameness about this generation.
In Los Angeles, nobody wants to challenge or change anything. They come because of me and Paul McCarthy, and they are just happy to be part of it, without risking anything; they make paintings that look like they were made in the 1950s. They are making work with a career in mind.
RP: Which defies what art is about.
RJ: We are in a very conservative time right now.
RP: What about the politics and social conditions in America? When I saw you last, the world wasn’t dealing with the consequences and collateral damage of Donald Trump.
RJ: The people who buy art voted for him. In my view, what has happened—and I could be wrong—is that the collectors and galleries have changed the artists, which is where things become a little dangerous. The artists are easily influenced by what is selling, and they want to be part of it. I don’t give a damn about what sells, I really don’t, because what I am trying to do is to get audiences to change their mind about what painting is, and not only that, I also want them to come to an exhibition for the experience rather than just to look. People don’t have to come to galleries, they have everything on their iPads. People have told me that they thought one of my shows was great, and I would ask, “How did you see it, were you in Europe?” And they would reply, “No, we looked online.” It is not the same experience.
RP: It’s not an experience at all.
RJ: It is about a generation of people who grew up with this technology. Five-year-olds have mobile phones now where they get their information, and that’s everything they believe. So, mind control has become something more accepted because everyone believes what they read, which isn’t always true. Every day, I receive a message from something called “the Daily Rothko,” and essentially it is a daily reproduction of a Rothko painting, which could go on indefinitely because he made the same paintings forever. But that is the art business—have a product, everybody knows what it is, and just keep changing the colors and making it. Having a style helps.
RP: And is that why with so many of your works, you have kept moving on, continued to reinvent yourself?
RJ: I reinvent everything for my own interest. I get up in the morning thinking, “I can learn something today,” but I can’t learn anything if I am doing the same thing all the time. So, I am always consciously trying to do something different, meeting new people, and interacting with those who can help me with the idea for a new work.
RP: With that in mind, what you understand as success and failure within your work? Is there is a measure of one over the other? For instance, does it matter what happens in the Shooting Gallery installation, your newest “painting machine”?
RJ: I don’t know. When I activate Shooting Gallery, I don’t know if it is going to work or not, and equally, I don’t know what it will look like after I have shot at it. There is the preparation; then there is the fantasy of what you think you would like it to look like; and then, of course, there is what it looks like. I think having people observe failure is okay as well.
I am pretty optimistic. I am still convinced that I can change the way people think about painting, but in the back of my mind, I also know I can’t, that I am pushing uphill. But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, because some great things happen when I keep with something. On a selfish level, it inspires me to keep on trying, and as I said, I have an audience of young people with no money, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t ever want to say, “Okay, okay, I give up.” I could do it, too—make a product that people want to buy—but I don’t want to do that.
“RICHARD JACKSON WORKS” is on view at Hauser & Wirth Zurich through December 23, 2022.