The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

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FEB 2011 Issue

GILLIAN JAGGER’s Reality—and Welcome to It

Gillian Jagger, “Unfolding” (2007). Found tree trunks (pine), steel braces, metal chains, oil-based paint. Photo by Edward M. Gómez.
Gillian Jagger, “Unfolding” (2007). Found tree trunks (pine), steel braces, metal chains, oil-based paint. Photo by Edward M. Gómez.

At the age of 80, there are few places Gillian Jagger would rather be than in the seat of a Kubota L245 or a Massey Ferguson 135, two kinds of rugged tractors that can push or pull thousands of pounds of rock, dirt, debris, or lumber as easily as a determined frat boy can lift a 140-pound keg of beer. Equipped with such powerful tools, along with an arsenal of chainsaws and chain hoists, the artist’s preferred undertaking is the removal of massive tree trunks or thickets of branches of fallen trees from her 20-acre property in the Hudson Valley. It is an arduous task that requires an assistant, who often takes over steering the tractor while Jagger, standing nearby, shouting instructions, oversees the extraction of a recalcitrant piece of the landscape for which she has better plans than merely leaving it to be pounded by rain and snow, and scraped at by animals or infested by bugs, haplessly commending its spirit to the inevitable forces of decay.

Once she has identified her bounty, Jagger becomes as dead-set on hauling it away as the fragment itself, which, seemingly abandoned by the more benevolent powers of nature, often appears determined not to budge. Ultimately, though, after a struggle, she normally manages to deliver her prize to her studio. There, where a certain kind of soulful communion with her materials is part of her modus operandi, Jagger will bring her latest find into one of her large, precariously balanced, strange mixed-media sculptures, preserving and showcasing its spirit in a new, unexpected context, and subtly calling attention to this process of capture and reinvention through the ineffable language of her art.

For Jagger, the payback from the life of an artist lies in the art-making process itself—in the demands and the adventure of finding ways to give tangible form to uncertain emotions and quiet storms of overlapping, free-floating thoughts. Creating art, she says, has turned out to be a satisfying—and necessary—mode of responding to some of life’s biggest challenges and mysteries. Among the most daunting, she notes, have been the deaths of certain loved ones and the soul-crushing sense of loss she felt after they were gone.

Gillian Jagger was born in London in 1930. Her father, the sculptor Charles Sergeant Jagger (1885–1934), who had studied at the Royal College of Art, won the Prix de Rome and, later, a hero’s medal for his service in World War I. After the war, he created memorials, in which he depicted soldiers heroically, in a realist style. His best-known work is the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, in London.

When Charles Jagger died, he left an emotionally fragile wife and two young daughters. Gillian Jagger was very close to her older sister, and both girls deeply felt the loss of their father. “Three years after he died,” Gillian recalls, “my mother remarried or, more accurately, my father’s patrons married her off to a rich American from Buffalo who owned a coal company.” The marriage was not a happy one. Jagger remembers: “My mother was in her late 20s, her groom in his 50s. Within minutes of getting married and then heading with us girls to the States, it was clear that there was no understanding between them.”

Gillian’s mother and stepfather settled in Buffalo, and sent the girls to a boarding school in Toronto. There, at the age of 12, Gillian’s sister died of spinal meningitis. Gillian, who already had demonstrated a precocious talent for drawing, was devastated. She recalls: “I went dead for a year after my sister died. I didn’t speak. They sent me back to Buffalo, but I refused to go to school. I was forced to go back.”

When she was 12 years old, a clay figure she had made was included in an exhibition at Buffalo’s Twentieth-Century Club (the nation’s first women’s social club, founded in 1894), but Jagger remembers going to see the show of figurative sculpture and being discouraged by what she saw. Jagger says: “The statues were all of men. They all looked like the statues on my father’s war memorials. They just didn’t have the guns and uniforms.” At that moment, she recalls, she panicked and thought that, if she ever became an artist, it might be very hard to shed her father’s artistic influence. (Later in life, she would refer to her father’s oeuvre as an “anti-influence” on her own work).

After studying painting at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Jagger moved to New York to pursue a master’s degree in painting at New York University. In Manhattan, Andy Warhol, an older Carnegie Tech alum, was one of her supportive pals. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jagger brought sculptural elements into her semi-abstract paintings. Most iconically for the young artist, who was instinctively moving away from painting per se, those materials included plaster casts of manhole covers that she had made on city streets. “Manhole Covers Make for Hole-some Art,” quipped an August 1964 headline of a New York World-Telegram article about Jagger’s working methods.

In the fall of that year, at Manhattan’s Ruth White Gallery, Jagger presented a solo exhibition of mixed-media works. Some incorporated plaster casts of manhole covers. “One of the manholes had been mounted on a big board, on which I had painted a yellow line,” she says. “Several men had to carry it up five flights of stairs, because it didn’t fit in the elevator. Meanwhile, I mentioned to Ruth White that I had been called a ‘sculptor’ in the newspaper, and she said, ‘If it takes five men to carry your piece up the stairs, you cannot call it a painting. It’s a sculpture!’”

Much to Jagger’s consternation, the media called those early creations Pop Art and labeled her a Pop artist. So upset was she about having been misunderstood that she withdrew from the art world, moved to New Jersey, and focused on one of her life’s enduring loves: horses. In time, though, she resumed making castings in plaster, sodium alginate (a material used for making teeth-impression molds), cement and lead. On a freighter trip to Portugal in the 1960s, during an unexpected stopover in Boston, Jagger became intrigued by bits of metal she found lying in some railway tracks and by the visible wood-grain impressions the formworks used in the construction of Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University had left in that building’s poured-concrete walls. “Those discoveries fascinated me,” she says. “I raced back to the boat, got hold of some plaster and made relief pieces, into which I pushed the metal pieces.”

After making the manholes, she says, “I stuck my own rear end in plaster.” Similarly, in the 1970s, using plaster or materials such as a malleable polyurethane foam, she made casts of the impressions in the sand of her friends’ bodies after they had slid through it; of horses’ footprints; of a dead cat; of the tire tracks of heavy vehicles like Jeeps and earth movers; and, during a trip to Kenya in 1975 with her companion, Connie Mander, of the legs of a baby buffalo. “I hauled 60 pounds of sodium alginate with me to Africa,” Jagger recalls. “I made castings of the walls of little-known tombs in Egypt, but it was the look, shape, and atmosphere of Kenya’s volcanic landscape that really moved me.”

In subtle ways, Jagger’s art began to reflect a confluence of interrelated themes that had long interested her. Among them were the cycle of life and death found throughout nature, the fragility and vulnerability of all living things, and an insistence on recognizing reality for what it is instead of seeking what the writer Graham Greene used to call “ways of escape” in fantasies or in attention-diverting drugs, booze, or fleeting relationships. (“[I]f you take death head on, it includes life, because they are both part of a circle,” she told the critic John Perreault in 1987).

“The idea of impressing an image and not making an image myself,” she explains, recalling the many castings she had made in the past (once she even cast in cement a flow of water down a sandpit), “was me trying to get away from the facility of such good drawing that I had.” Jagger found that she did not like artifice. She explains: “When I thought that what I was drawing was manipulating some kind of truth, cleverly, and pleasing you with the illusion, I thought: ‘Hey. That’s not it. I want it to be true!’” This was the same, now-conscious impulse that had made her upset about being called a Pop artist.

Jagger recognizes that her vivid, cast-form representations of real-world subject matter and, later, her integration of such materials as tree trunks and animal bones were attempts to literally keep her art as real and as artifice-free as possible. At the same time, though, she admits that transforming their materials physically or in the ways in which they are perceived are essential aspects of what art-makers do. She also makes clear that her appropriating of materials from nature, which she presents mostly unmanipulated within her works, is not intended as a Duchampian or as a self-conscious, postmodernist recontextualizing gesture. (As a result, a certain tension can be felt in and from these elements of her works, which retain much of their meaning and character as nature specimens even as they exist as aestheticized objects in the realm of art).

The allusions to natural forces, to the natural cycle of life and death, and even to spiritual values that Jagger’s sculptures convey through the elements from nature they incorporate cannot be shaken out of them. There is no irony in her art to get in the way of the inescapable sense of humanistic compassion and empathy that characterizes them and that is also their invisible subject. Nevertheless, the large scale, real or imagined rawness, and in-your-face impact of some of her mixed-media creations help make them every bit as startling as a cut-up cow’s body displayed in formaldehyde-filled tanks, but without the puerile, calculated shock value of such a resonance-lacking one-liner. Consider, for example, Jagger’s “Rift” (1999), a phantasmagoria of airborne animal bones; ominous, metal cow-stall stanchions; and barbed wire; or “Sideways” (2007), which resembles a gigantic clothespin hanging horizontally from the ceiling, with its two massive tree-trunk sections joined by a slab of stone.

“Why did I start using trees?” Jagger asks. She explains that, in 1990, she had used lead to cast impressions of the surfaces of trees. Then one of her close friends was diagnosed with a degenerative disease. “The lead and a hollowed-out tree came together in a piece I was working on,” Jagger says. (She forgets its title; many of her works evolve through many versions with differing titles, creating a conundrum for art historians). “When I dragged that big tree into the studio, it was like a scream for life. I opened it up and hung it from chains from the ceiling, and when my sick friend came to see that piece, she rolled right into it in her wheelchair, as though that’s where she belonged.”

Today, Jagger, who taught art at Pratt Institute for nearly 40 years and retired in 2007, looks back at her discoveries and accomplishments and asks about life in general and about art in particular: “What is it that matters? Is there something we could do that would really matter? How can I get out of myself, and what is there out there that can integrate what is true—emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, physically?”

She cites the sense of exhilaration she feels when riding one of her favorite horses as the kind of fully integrated, body-mind-spirit experience she is trying to describe, then leans forward and adds, emphatically: “In fact, that’s what making art is about, too. I don’t think we are whole much of the time; I think we’ve become fragmented.” She looks across the cavernous space of a former dairy barn that serves as her studio, where several of her monumental, salvaged-tree sculptures are on display, and recalls how difficult it was to retrieve some of them from forests, creek beds, and ditches. She says: “But while making art—I’m talking about the entire process, no matter how long it takes to create a piece—you’re whole.”


Edward M. Gómez

EDWARD M. GÓMEZ is a critic, journalist, and author. This text is excerpted from his forthcoming book of art-themed essays; it will first be published in its entirety as a limited-edition chapbook that will be available at select New York bookstores and through his website (


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2011

All Issues