Art In Conversation
Richard Jackson with Jeffrey Grunthaner
“Art is really a documentation of how you spend your time.”
ZurichHauser & Wirth
RICHARD JACKSON WORKS
September 2–December 23, 2022
Richard Jackson often gets referred to as a performance painter; and while there’s some truth to this, I think it’s more interesting that he works in and around the gestural properties of painting—often liberating paint and pigment from the direction of the artist’s hand entirely. It would be inaccurate to classify him as a “digital” artist, yet his work uses technology to extend (and often complicate) the limits of what viewers might understand as an organized and balanced composition. When we spoke at Hauser & Wirth in Zürich, I was struck by Jackson’s affable nature as much as by how his personability revels in undermining the calculated logic of planning and design. As you enter into the thinking that has shaped his work over the course of his career, you can see how much of his practice recontextualizes twentieth century painting precedents, and how much of it transcends those precedents.
Jeffrey Grunthaner (Rail): To start off, I’d like to talk about recent history and then maybe we can talk more about biographical details—like what brought you to making art. So last night was the activation of your current show, and you kind of led it off by realizing a painting on site. Is that how you would describe it?
Richard Jackson: Like most of my work, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into it. So there’s a device, an old style shooting gallery where things go around; and instead of shooting at it with a real gun, a .22 or whatever, I shot at it with a paintball gun. That transfers into my idea of making painting more than just a painting, and making it more of an activity or evidence of an activity. I shot at it for an hour or so. So it doesn’t look like it originally did. But now it’s like a painting or a piece of art.
Rail: Now this shooting gallery piece has symbolism in it, right?
Jackson: Yeah. It’s the Swiss flag and the American flag. What the Swiss and the Americans have in common is: they love to shoot. They love their guns. You know, they have things here called schützenhaus, where people go out and shoot. I’ve been to those places. Swiss people all have guns because they’re in the military, they did military service. Then you contrast that with the craziness that goes on in America with guns…
Rail: When you were doing the performance, you sort of jokingly mentioned that it was starting to look like a painting. Do you sometimes think—despite the fact that your work isn’t bound by the canvas in a conventional sense—that it still has to resemble a painting?
Jackson: I see myself as a painter. And I taught at UCLA. Five years, as an adjunct. And I taught sculpture and new forms, which was video and performance, that kind of thing. I always wanted to teach painting, but the painters didn’t want anything to do with me. I can see why. Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants painting to change. In fact, right now, it’s going backwards. The paintings that people are interested in now look like they could have been done in the 1950s or something. They have no content. And we’re so used to non-objective, abstract work or whatever. It’s in our DNA; it hangs in hotels and motels. You know, painting with no content is, in my mind, just fabric. Fabric design. But I've spent a lifetime trying to extend painting or make it more of an activity and experience for people. I don’t think I’ve succeeded on a big level, but I’m happy with what I’ve done.
Rail: When were you teaching at UCLA?
Jackson: In the 1990s. I think ’92, around that time. At the same time as Helter Skelter. A lot of the faculty then was part of Helter Skelter.
Rail: And the painting students just didn’t want to have anything to do with your courses?
Jackson: Well, I have a different theory about how people learn, because I dropped out of school. I don’t have a degree in anything. And I have students that are way more successful than me. I mean, I don’t know about that, but, you know, they’re better known, they’re more successful financially, and in the amount of attention they get. Which is all deserved. I had some great students. My students got Master’s degrees, in the end, a lot of them. And I was told that you couldn’t take more than twelve students. So what I thought was, these people are teaching art the way they learned it. It's been going on forever and ever and ever. But my theory was, you take a class, you have fifty students, because they learn more from each other than they can from one person. So you set up an atmosphere that they can thrive in. Then the first thing you have to do is have them trust you—then they'll do anything. They’ll do some really great stuff.
Rail: Didn't you at one point study engineering?
Jackson: I did. It was the 1950s when I studied engineering. There were no computers that did drawings, architectural drawings, or any kind of drawing; and they made you take an art class. So I took an art class, and then I got interested in art. Wayne Thiebaud taught at a school that I went to. I never took a class from him, but I met him and he used to help me with my homework sometimes. And I thought, hey, these artists are really smart! So then I got interested in art.
A critical thing for me was, there was a woman whose husband owned a Country Western station. And somehow, she thought I was interesting enough that I should go to New York, look at real art. I was in Sacramento, there was a small museum; hardly anything ever came there. So I went to New York in 1960. And I went to the Guggenheim and I saw Jasper Johns’s “Numbers,” you know, 0 Through 9 (1961), all in a row. And Painting with Two Balls (1960)—which was a real inspiration to me. And I saw a lot of the Abstract Expressionists. It affected me. Then I went back to Sacramento, and I realized that the art teachers I was studying with really weren’t artists.
Rail: What were they?
Jackson: They were teachers. You know, there’s a myth that runs: so and so’s not a good artist, but they’re a good teacher. That’s impossible. What can you learn from a bad artist? It’s the same thing if you want to be a carpenter. You go to somebody that’s a good carpenter!
Rail: This is all in 1960?
Rail: Couldn't you go to LA?
Jackson: There wasn’t anything there.
Rail: What about San Francisco?
Jackson: You could go to San Francisco. I think there was one gallery that was pretty good.
Rail: Only one gallery?
Jackson: One gallery that showed real contemporary art.
Rail: So it’s 1960. You go to New York. You’re wowed by Jasper Johns and the Ab Ex artists. You come back to Sacramento and you realize what your teachers are presenting to you isn’t worthwhile. What do you do now? Do you try to create your own community?
Jackson: I joined the Coast Guard. [Laughter] Because I didn't want to be drafted. It’s hard to relate to it now, but when I was thirteen, fourteen years old, I’m thinking, “Hey, I’ve got four or five years, then I could be drafted.” Younger people were making plans that they don’t have to make now. There’s generations of people now who have never had to do anything they didn't want to do. Which is, for me, kind of foreign. I've always been in situations where somebody’s told me to do something I would never have done unless they told me. And that’s an experience I think everybody should have.
Rail: Yeah. So a lot of planning goes into these seemingly chaotic spaces and gestures.
Jackson: I do a lot of preparation, because they’re going to be in a public place. But things go wrong. Even though there’s a lot of forethought and preparation. Like last night, I had an audience. That’s really unusual. Because I think that if you have an audience, it sort of demystifies the whole process. If they come in, and it’s all done, then they have to imagine how it happened.
The way I see it, it’s like the circus comes to town. Some people see it. And then the work is always torn down. I have thirty-five years of throwing everything I made away. It doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in people’s minds. Then they tell people about it. And as the years go by things that they’ve seen previously get bigger and bigger and bigger. Because people, their imaginations, magnify and exaggerate.
Rail: So when you’re enacting a work, are you thinking ahead to how it could be interpreted by a viewer?
Jackson: I think so. I think there’s a division of responsibilities. I make the work, people interpret the work, people look at the work, people write about the work, and I don’t have to agree with them. But that’s their job. And not only that, I can learn something from what they bring to it. Different people bring different information. It’s like my teaching theory: a diversity of people can inspire and affect each other. The same thing with the paintings.
Rail: A lot of your work over the years uses very non-traditional methods for applying paint to a surface. For this show you used a paintball gun, which is something you can buy at a store. Do you ever design your own machines?
Jackson: Yeah, oftentimes. But the shooting gallery I made from scratch.
Rail: Even the guns?
Jackson: No, the guns are bought. I would have preferred to have a gun that looked more like a sporting gun than a military gun. You know, I have a lot of guns. I had a gun that needed to be sighted in about three weeks ago. I went out to the shooting range, which was run by the county of Los Angeles. And on the left side of me, there’s a guy from New York, he’s got a Yankees T-shirt on, you know, and shooting a military gun, an AR. There’s an older woman on the right side of us, probably in her seventies, with a young woman in a halter top. And they’re shooting an AR. And we’re there with a gun that we’re planning to go hunting with. Trying to sight it in for the first time. I told my friends, “Man this is making me really kind of uncomfortable.” [Laughter]
Rail: It should. Even yesterday with the paintball gun, there was a moment where it sort of glitched—
Rail: When you use machines or technology to paint, how do you feel if something goes wrong or the machine gets stuck?
Jackson: It’s the greatest. I had a painting that I titled after Barnett Newman’s, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966–70), and I had thirty gallons of red paint, blue paint, yellow paint. Thirty gallons of each. And then I had a motorcycle. It powered the whole thing up. I was on the motorcycle and this thing like shot against the wall. It shot against me. I turned all red, like somehow the red hit me. But the yellow wouldn’t go. Something was wrong. And there were people there at that time, and they start getting nervous. But for me, it’s kind of exciting, because now I have to be creative to solve the problem. So that’s all part of the art. It’s a creative part. You see, it’s a challenge to do things in a public place. But when I think about my art, I never think it’s going to be in the living room.
Rail: Humor is an important element of your work. When you talk about the yellow not appearing, it’s a problem to be solved, but it creates a comedic environment too. Right?
Jackson: Yeah. [Laughs]
Rail: Maybe you don’t see it like that at the time. But—
Rail: —a good deal of your work is funny.
Jackson: I’m a funny guy. I have a great sense of humor, and I’m sarcastic.
Rail: Yeah, definitely.
Jackson: Like the “Stacked” paintings. The original painting was Big Ideas (1000 Pictures) (1980), and I made a thousand. And I designed it to go floor to ceiling for the gallery that was showing it, the Rosamund Felsen Gallery. And when I got to the ceiling, I couldn't get any more paintings in and I had four left. So I got a hammer and I pounded them in. Because I think that if you’re an artist, you have to be honest. You can’t say, “Hey, I can get by with 996.” I said it’s gonna be a thousand, and it’s gonna be a thousand! But the content of that work was kind of what painters do. They have one idea, and they make a thousand paintings.
I get up in the morning thinking I’m going to have a new experience and learn something. I can’t imagine going into the studio and making another, you know, like the other one, and enjoying that. But that’s what makes the art world, that fuels the money. A style, or an object that they can identify.
With my work, I think it takes a lot to convince somebody that it’s even art, or that they should consider spending money on it. But again I think there’s a sort of division of responsibilities. My audience is mostly young people with no money. A lot of artists, people like that. And I respect that. I respect my audience, and I'm willing to show just for them in a way, and everybody else gets drug along.
Rail: So for 1000 Pictures, each one was an individual work and you yourself stretched the canvas?
Jackson: I did all the work.
Rail: How long did it take you to do that?
Jackson: Well, I did a thousand the first time. Then I was asked to do something at the County Museum in Los Angeles. So I made another two thousand, recycling the first thousand. Then I made three thousand.
Rail: And how long does each batch of a thousand take? Like six months, a year?
Jackson: Well, in the end, I got it so I could easily stretch a hundred canvases in a couple of hours.
Rail: Okay, wow.
Jackson: Yeah. And cutting and putting them together, about the same. I was doing construction at the time. I supported myself with construction for more than thirty years. And I funded my own work. So I made all these stretchers where I cut all the wood, put them all together. I stretched them all, I primed them all. I would just go home at night and produce a hundred canvases.
Jackson: Art is really a documentation of how you spend your time. I made a piece about time that took a lot of time to do, and it cost me 100,000 dollars of working in construction. I handmade everything. I handmade the mechanisms, I handmade the clock faces, I even handmade the hands. It took me five years and a lot of money. And it ended up in Helter Skelter.
That kind of an accomplishment, that one person on their own can do. It’s a dedicated idea. You realize that. And the critics just said it was no big deal. I think all the writing didn’t talk about what I was talking about, because Los Angeles is the capital of decorative painting.
Jackson: And Helter Skelter changed that. It was the first big show that had any kind of content. I mean, people in film in Los Angeles, they don’t like content. That’s obvious, if you go to the movies or watch television. And the whole town is kind of poisoned by the film industry. It’s a multibillion dollar industry. And it’s a bad product by and large for the amount of money that’s spent on it. On the other hand, it employs a lot of people. They’re in a union in a lot of cases. There’s positives. But like I say, I’m kind of critical and sarcastic.
Rail: And you’ve been based in LA almost your whole life, pretty much.
Jackson: I have.
Rail: You were also influenced by Bruce Nauman, right?
Jackson: Well, he was a friend and we lived in the same house for seven years or something.
Rail: Does LA provide an environment, despite Hollywood and the poison that runs through it, that has a particularly generative atmosphere, where people like you and Nauman can make this new kind of art?
Jackson: I’m third generation California. My family goes back to the 1800s. I like Los Angeles because it’s uncivilized. I also don’t like it because it’s uncivilized. It's a tricky thing. But Los Angeles when I went there, there was a lot of space—cheap. I had a studio that was 2,000 square feet. I had it for I think it was fourteen or fifteen years. For a hundred dollars a month. This is in the 1970s and ’80s.
Jackson: I had three studios in Pasadena, where now, like, everything is sold, and all that. It’s all redone. Now it’s a fancy area. But I had three different studios. I probably had close to 20,000 square feet. Three studios for 575 dollars per month, total. That was going on, and so people were coming to Los Angeles for cheap rent and everything. Then Helter Skelter really, definitely did it.
Rail: It did everything in, you think ?
Jackson: It really brought a lot of people out there and rent started going up and spaces started disappearing. Los Angeles now is like New York. There’s a flood of people with Master’s degrees right out of school, coming to Los Angeles, creating paintings, delivering paintings or artwork.
Rail: You mentioned your studio—what is your studio practice like typically? Do you work with assistants?
Jackson: I've never had more than one. I found that if you have one person and you work with them, you give them something to do and you leave them alone, you get a lot done. Because they’re proud of being able to do it, working together. And if we have a good, friendly relationship, it’s really great. But if you hire two people, you don’t get twice as much work done. You get a lot of talk and wasted time and all that stuff. So I’ve only really had one assistant, ever. And now I don’t have any. But I do have a person that I can call every once in a while, if I need to move something, or maybe a day’s work or something.
Rail: So a work like Shooting Gallery you did mostly by yourself?
Jackson: Yeah, I made it. I had somebody help me because parts are heavy, and we had to move around and put it together. It’s been put together in my studio for at least three years. And then I have other works.
Rail: I want to talk about the neon works that you’re exhibiting, which I think are quite funny. Very inappropriate; and also semantically very interesting—with how the shape of a word changes and turns into a different word. Big Pig (2008) is one instance of that. Dick's Buck Buck's Dick (2006)—stuff like that. Interestingly enough, in your current show you have very detailed blueprints for these works.
Rail: So a lot of thinking goes into these clearly irreverent pieces that are a middle finger to really just about anyone. [Laughter]
Jackson: Whoever’s on top of my mind.
Rail: How long have you been making these pieces? What motivates them?
Jackson: Well, I’ve been deer hunting since I was ten years old. I don’t drink any alcoholic beverages now, but I drank beer then. And the deal was—deer season in California is in August. It’s early. And it goes through September almost. So it’s hot. So during deer season, I drink beer because it’s hot. So, when deer season was over one year, I thought, “Wow! I could make a sign that says ‘Deer Beer,’” you know? And I made it just for the studio. It just kind of flashed in the studio. It made me feel good, you know? But from there I made a piece called deer beer (1998). I made it out of deer decoys, and all the gear had a paintball gun that shot, and the whole table revolved and shot the wall. Then, basically, it was all about minimal artwork, paintings. Everything was a black circle; kind of a minimal thing. Then there was a bear that was a black bear that spun really fast and made a black circle. The Hamburger Bahnhof owns that. That’s where the neon started. And “Big Pig”—I have feral pigs on my property.
Rail: So again, it’s like what you were saying: art documents how you spend your time.
Jackson: Yeah, it’s a little bit of that. Then there’s a lot of sarcasm. Like the one that’s about art fairs.
Rail: Were you thinking at all about Bruce Nauman when you started working with neon?
Jackson: Well, we were friends. I had the neons made at the same place he had neons made when he was in Los Angeles. Look, my generation, no matter what they say, we’re all influenced by Bruce Nauman. Absolutely. Because he’s a great artist.
Rail: Well, it’s especially interesting in your case because you knew him personally. Early on, when, by your own admission, there wasn’t much going on. It’s the late sixties in California. It’s culturally barren. But all of a sudden, now you have these interesting artists, yourself included, who are coming up and doing something really innovative very quickly.
Jackson: Yeah. Well, you know, I think what happened was after the Second World War, the state of California needed—the whole country might have needed—teachers and engineers. So they set this whole school system up to train teachers. And it was a state college system. And they had no artists. So they hired all these people out of the Midwest, who were grinding stones and making etchings, and it was really retro. The people they were hiring weren’t professional artists. They were teachers. But then the sixties hit. Schools started bringing people from New York. Robert Motherwell and Wayne Thiebaud started teaching. And then Elaine de Kooning came out; John Coplans, who started Artforum. They brought people from the East Coast, instead of the Midwest.
Rail: So it all came from New York?
Jackson: You know what I mean? There’s nothing like New York. Anybody that denies that is crazy. It’s still the capital of art. Los Angeles is a lot better, but it’s just not New York. It just isn’t. I mean, the closer you get to Europe, the better you are in America.
Rail: New York is definitely a painting city, for sure.
Jackson: Thing about New York—I lived there in ’72 for a year—is when you see something and you don’t know where it came from, like a painting, people in New York know. They honor their people or their whatever you want to call it.
Rail: Especially if they were New York-based artists.
Jackson: Yeah, that’s really great.
Rail: So do you have early, formative impressions—you mentioned Jasper Johns earlier—of any particular works or artists that have had a lasting influence on your career?
Jackson: I think Jackson Pollock. There’s a 16-mm film made of him painting outside. I saw that when I was a teenager, I think. When I saw that, that got me into all this stuff. I got into Jung. Pollock was way into that. Then I realized there’s a connection between what’s going on here and what’s going on there; that artists were truly smart people. But art’s changed a lot. In my mind, contemporary art is not important.
Jackson: It’s a collective effort. And it’s not important. You can’t treat it the same way. Like, we buy a computer, and we don’t expect it to last. It’s made in an environment where cost is important. The same with art. It’s not Old Masters’ art. If people come and say, “Well, how are we going to save this thing?” Don’t save it! Treat it like your phone. Trade it and throw it away. Everything, in my mind, is temporal. It’s an activity. It’s an experience. And here people are making these paintings that look like they were made in the 1950s. And I guess it’s okay. I just see it as the applied arts. Some people have more skills than others. Other people have discovered some technique that’s very beautiful. I mean, you see it on Instagram.
Rail: Yeah, absolutely.
Jackson: You see people making beautiful brushstrokes or some damn thing on Instagram, you just go, “Oh, my god,” you know?
Rail: I’m inclined to agree with you about this preoccupation with moving backwards in a way. I would speculate it’s because for so long people, I think, since even the sixties, people claimed painting is dead. And if no one’s getting at it, where do you expect it to go?
Jackson: Well, it’s never dead. Jasper Johns is more valuable than a wheelbarrow full of gold. But, in my mind, history sort of stops with contemporary art. You know, there are some great contemporary artists. What I’m waiting for, and I’m really optimistic, is somewhere there’s a genius offstage in the wings who is gonna come out and burn the house down. Maybe I’ll see them, maybe I won’t. But the thing about art is that it’s the change business, ultimately. And it’s not interesting if it doesn't change. And it sure as hell isn’t interesting to go backwards.
Rail: Yeah, yeah.
Jackson: Then it becomes applied art.
Rail: Is this the kind of thinking that leads you to find these very non-traditional ways to paint?
Jackson: I’m trying to give people a different experience. In my mind, it’s evidence. And it’s performative.
Rail: It’s also working with the machine, similar to the way a digital artist might work with the computer. You’re still working with technology. I mean, I guess strictly speaking the paintbrush is a type of technology that has more of a traditionalist connotation to it…
Jackson: You know, I think it’s in my background. When I taught at UCLA, those students were extremely smart. And then I would get them in their art class. And their backgrounds were different. Their parents didn’t have a place where they could work with tools, and all that in the garage. So they have no exposure to any of that. Their parents probably weren’t working class carpenters, and people who waited on tables and all that stuff. But they probably had a big library. So the kids were really smart, but they couldn’t make anything. So you have to understand that those people could make great things, and they could look terrible, you know, but then you had to bring out the content—like, what did you intend that thing to be? And the kids are so damn smart, that it was amazing. They had great ideas, they just didn’t know how to make anything. So it was a great experience, because I never finished school, to be able to teach at a major university. I learned a lot from those kids. Some of whom are still my friends. Jason Rhoades I was very close to. I went to high school with his mother.
Rail: You’re currently working to develop an opera alongside these other projects that you mentioned. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that?
Jackson: Well, I know a story that maybe only I know. It involves people who are all passed away now. It’s a classic, it’s two men and one woman, just like Shakespeare. So I know the story, and I’m trying to develop it into an opera with people who can help me with that. One person can write the music, another the libretto. I can make the sets. We have some contact with a mezzo-soprano who performed at the Met and lives in our neighborhood.
Rail: Do you have any prospective venues?
Jackson: No, I’m trying to get one together, but there’s no interest. I’ll get it together. I’ve gotten a lot of big projects together on my own. I know how to do it.
Rail: You can maybe mount the play at your studio. Like a theater.
Jackson: You know what, though? Here’s the thing: if you make something and you don’t ask for money, it’ll get done. I got two cars I want to crash. I've got them all prepared. I've been in two head-on accidents. First one, the guy that hit me was killed. Right on the spot. The second one, I was damn-near killed. They had to do open heart surgery. So I bought the car that hit me. And the car I was driving. I’m gonna film it for a paint crash. And it’s all done and ready to go. Just needs a place. It’ll come up somewhere.
Rail: It’s interesting that you’re taking this very tragic experience and not trivializing it and not celebrating it either. But transforming it into something that’s almost quasi-comical. I don’t think it would come off that way if not for the actual—
Jackson: Event. Yeah. No, really. No kidding! As I get older, I kind of look back. I’ve had a lot of experiences. Like, now I’m also making a gold mine, because I had a gold mine. The gold mine is kind of a statement about my life, and that is: we got a lot of gold. It wasn’t worth anything at the time, thirty-two dollars an ounce. But the process was important. Not the results, but the process. It’s basically a room and the light will come out through the cracks in the walls, the room’s all gold, everything will be gold leafed, and all this gold will come out of a box.
Rail: “Progress, process.”
Jackson: Yeah, that’s it.
Rail: Much to look forward to.