The creative influence of blacks cannot be overstated in the realm of American and world culture. And it’s fair to say that the Saint-Louis region provided more than most. Popular music has been forever changed by Chuck Berry – just like jazz music thanks to Miles Davis. Modern dance has been revolutionized by the work of Katherine Dunham. Dick Gregory created a cross between politics and comedy and his focus on the plight of black Americans during the infancy of the civil rights movement that paved the way for figures like Dave Chapelle.
An equally influential giant among these Black St. Louis culture changers is Oliver Lee Jackson Jr.
For nearly six decades Jackson has created on canvas, along with three-dimensional sculptures and other mediums in the same transformative, innovative, and distinctive ways that Chuck Berry sang, Miles Davis performed, Dick Gregory joked, and Katherine Dunham. choreographed and danced.
From this week, the public will have the opportunity to see a selection of some of his works at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The exhibition consists of 12 paintings, drawings and prints, including works created from the mid-1960s to 2020 that trace what the museum catalog describes as “Jackson’s aesthetic evolution over five decades and demonstrating his importance in as a highly experimental artist working in a range of media. “
“Oliver Lee Jackson” is organized by Simon Kelly, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Hannah Klemm, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with Molly Moog, Research Assistant.
This exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum follows a triumphant exhibition of “Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings” at the famous National Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 2019.
“If we were in Japan, Oliver Lee Jackson would be what they call a living national treasure,” Harry Cooper said during his 2019 exhibition opening address. “And that really comes down to mastering the techniques, genres and traditional methods. He did this not only in painting – which is the focus of this exhibition – but also in sculpture, printmaking of all kinds, drawings and artist collaborations in many other mediums. Cooper is Senior Curator and Head of the Modern Art Department at the National Gallery of Art. “You’ll see in so many of these paintings, things that no one has really done before,” Cooper continued.
At a talk on the occasion of the exhibition at the National Gallery, Cooper and Jackson discussed his origins in the visual arts. He had previously obtained a BFA from Wesleyan University near Bloomington, Illinois in 1958 and an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1963.
But the Vashon High School graduate credited the St. Louis collective known as the Black Artists Group for helping them find and operate in sync with their Creative Compass.
It was around 1968 and he wasn’t sure how to go about creating “what people call art”.
“The Black Artists Group were also creators and musicians – and we came together to strengthen each other as we developed how to navigate our way by doing what we wanted to do,” Jackson said. “This part was difficult, but I had good friends –
which gives you a lot of strength to keep going when you’re not sure how to keep going.
Jackson and the members of BAG, a multidisciplinary arts collective, quickly embarked on the business of bringing the gift of creative expression – in many forms – to black children, adolescents and young adults.
“We were clear that we had to do something for our community,” Jackson said. “And what we had to give was training in music, poetry and theater.”
BAG has helped young people with limited access to the arts find a path into the arts and the type of training needed to keep them using them.
“The kids were hungry for something and we could provide it,” Jackson said. “We had to do something to make sure that this generation of young people who had these abilities had some sort of training. I’m proud of it.
Find Oliver Jackson
The duo also discussed how Cooper was introduced to Jackson’s work indirectly through composer, musician and co-founder of BAG’s World Saxophone Quartet, Julius Hemphill.
This was in 1977. By this time, BAG was dissolved, but collaborations between its members continued. Jackson’s art was used as illustration for Hemphill’s “Blue Boye” album. Cooper, who was still in high school at the time, purchased a copy of the file.
“I bought this album, and the music just changed my life quite honestly,” Cooper said. “And this drawing simply carved itself into my mind. He merged with music.
More than twenty years later, Cooper was Associate Curator of Modern Art at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. He decided to seek out Jackson, who had long since developed a very solid reputation as an artist and art educator. Cooper’s successful research ultimately resulted in an acclaimed exhibition “Duo: Oliver Jackson / Marty Ehrlich”. The exhibit was a collaboration with Ehrlich, (also a former St. Louis and devout devotee of Hemphill) and a tribute to Hemphill (who died 1995) forged a bond between Cooper and Jackson that spanned two decades.
Jackson rejects politics and the categories often attributed to his craft – even with art as a definition.
“It’s meant to get you around here,” Jackson said, showing his chest.
“It is a contemplative act on your part and an act of fabrication on my part. These works are, as far as I am concerned, for the viewer – and I am a viewer after I finish.
Rather, he refers to art as a “language for the eyes”.
“It forces me to have something for my eyes [to see]Jackson said, “I have to do something – and I have to do it the way I see it.”
Although Jackson discourages the practice of giving him any credit for the work, Cooper makes no secret of his appreciation for Jackson’s contributions to the canon of modern art.
“Jackson draws life beautifully and yet he’s not afraid to display the simplest, childishest icon,” Cooper said in his 3000-word essay “Parallel Processing with Oliver Lee Jackson.” “Jackson likes to say that his paintings are ‘for anyone with eyes’ – and, I would add, for anyone with a body.”
“Oliver Lee Jackson” will be on view in galleries 249 and 257 of the Saint Louis Art Museum from July 16 to February 20, 2022. For hours and additional information, visit www.slam.org.