Canaletto of the Skies
Yvonne Jacquette has had a busy summer. Most of it, as usual, has been spent in Maine – she’s summered in the state since 1954. But there have been trips back to the city to make the final choice of photographs for the definitive book about the work of her late husband Rudy Burckhardt – it is due from Abrams next year. She had to personally touch-up many of the prints, as he used to do. And she has been flying around Utah, sketching and photographing what is a departure in her work: mountains.
“I had tried many years ago and failed so badly that I thought ‘Stay away from mountains,'” she says. “They tend to flatten out from above. You have to use a lot of shadow. Otherwise, the presence and drama of the mountain wasn’t there. Recently I was in Utah for a show of mine, and someone arranged for me to get up in a little plane over these enormous mountains – 11,000 to 13,000 feet – so I took a crack at it, and it wasn’t too bad for a start.”
Ms. Jacquette is the Canaletto of the skies. Her paintings are rich, dense, elaborately detailed panoramas, often nightscapes, usually of cities, viewed from airplanes and skyscrapers. At once visionary and empirical, they hold opposites – vastness and detail, alloverness and microscopic precision – in a perverse and fascinating tension. Although she is concerned with actual, observed landscape – often sensitive politically to issues of land use and urban sprawl in her paintings – she has a modernist love of pattern and arabesque for its own sake.
What first drove her to the skies? “I was painting pictures of clouds from the ground up. I would go outside at the same time everyday and look at the same patch of sky and paint what I saw – then I would attach maybe five of them in a row. After I’d been doing that for a year or two, I went to visit my mother in California. I took my watercolors, thinking I would do some skies from the ground up, but when I was in the plane I saw that the clouds close up were much more exciting, so I started painting on planes. About a year or so later, one day there were no clouds and, the view was so complicated, I thought: ‘That’s too much.’ But here I am.” She was launched, in other words, on her life’s work.
And why so many nocturnes? “That happened accidentally four or five years later. Our friend [the poet and critic] Edward Denby was taken ill and was in the New York hospital on the East River and he had many visitors and it didn’t look like he was going to pull through. I became the person who made sure that he didn’t become overwhelmed by visitors, so I was there a lot. After a while he came around and said ‘You shouldn’t be here, go home and do your work.’ So I told him that I would visit in the evenings. I was shocked at how different the whole image was at night. I started a drawing there, and I just kept working on it until it settled into something.
That particular work was so important to her that she was initially unwilling to part with it. “I was shamed into making a painting because the Metropolitan Museum wanted to buy the drawing. I said no you can’t have it, it’s personal. My dealer then suggested that I could borrow it back if I needed to make a painting of it – so I did that, and that’s what stated it all off.”
Yvonne Jacquette was born in Pittsburgh in 1934, and began art studies at 10. From 1947 she received private instruction from the traditionalist Robert Roché – “He had studied with John Sloan” – who had her look at Bellini and other Renaissance masters. “I was doing these very literal renderings of form, but it was good to learn how to make form sculptural. He wanted me to be an apprentice to him when I left high school but I thought, ‘I want to go to art school and meet other people’.”
She chose Rhode Island School of Design, which couldn’t have been more of a contrast: She was catapulted from the Renaissance to the Bauhaus, as RISD was then very committed to the abstract principles of the Bauhaus curriculum. “I was terrible at it, but fascinated by what it was all about. By the time I got to the third year I was quite interested in de Kooning. I started coming to New York on weekends, and I got so interested in what you could learn in galleries here and the museums when they started to show Abstract Expressionists that I was too impatient to do my fourth year.”
This combination of traditionalist and modernist education stood her in good stead for a career committed to intellectually ambitious perceptual realism. She supported herself at various jobs: decorating windows at Macy’s, and even, after a bit of bluffing as regards her technical expertise, by doing drafting work for a company that designed helicopters. She became part of a set of artists at the forefront of a revival of representation: Alex Katz, Janet Fish, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Rackstraw Downes. In 1961, at a party given by the painter Nell Blaine, she was introduced to Burckhardt by poet Kenneth Koch. They soon began to live together and married in 1964.
There are striking affinities between Ms. Jacquette’s paintings and her late husband’s photographs: Dramatic cropping, play with scale and unexpected quirks and tenderness in the man-made environment. “When I first met him, I was very interested in his views of Chelsea and one of Astor Place, from high-rise buildings looking down onto the street or across to water towers. I just loved those. They were very interesting, because you would think that you would get a very distanced, detached view, but they were very friendly. They had an intimacy and warmth to them.” But it was 10 or 15 years before she launched her aerial perspectives. “I think Rudy’s images were in the background all along. I had one in my studio for years before I thought, ‘There’s something.'”
She uses photographs to guide her painting. “I have to. The plane will circle for me, so I will photograph around the subject. Even when I shoot from one point, I try to get some sense of seeing it from other angles. But I always have to start from life. The things I started from photographs have failed – they don’t have any life in them.”
In fact, she says, she does not ever paint directly from life. The scale at which she paints demands the time and space of her studios, whether in New York’s flower district or in Searsmont, Maine. (Although earlier in her career she did paint outdoors around the city, carrying her accoutrements in a shopping cart!) But she does make colored drawings, whether in an airplane or a high building, as preparation for her paintings.
Ms. Jacquette’s art is a cocktail of perception and invention. Her sense of color is highly specific, albeit synthetic. “I trust the drawing. With pastel you can often find an equivalent for what you see in nature. I have thousands of pastels, broken into little bits so that I can fit more and more into my boxes. It may not be the real color but it maybe something that works.”
The compositions themselves are at once true to the randomness of cityscapes, the odd geometries thrown up from viewing buildings of varying heights set against the New York or Chicago grid, for instance, and searching for patterns and meanings in geometric elements jumping out from the observed scene to take their privileged position in the flattened picture plane. The hexagon roof of the Holocaust Memorial in Battery Park spied from high up in the World Trade Center was a special favorite in this regard.
Actual human presence is rare in Ms. Jacquette’s work, but always somehow implied. There are figures sometimes, but they are too small for the viewer to register a face, or even a body type. Instead, there is the humanness of the artist’s touch. Eschewing gesture or impasto, she animates her surfaces with personally invested handwriting, a warm wobble in her highly distinctive touch markmaking. She acknowledges both Van Gogh and Seurat as inspiration for her painstakingly individualized (feathery) brushstrokes. Georgia O’Keefe’s urban nightscapes and the radical cropping of Japanese prints are also big influences.
Another humanizing factor in her panoramic vision are the frequent traces of anthropomorphism: buildings, landmasses, promontories seem limblike, or to be possessed of giant eyes winking at the viewer. It is something she has noticed herself: “When I first went on the little plane, it was hard to remember, or get it down on the page. As I was circling around on the opposite side of the site, I wondered how I would remember how a river looked upside down. I would try but I would get very confused. If I could make an identification with a part of the human body, or an animal shape, or something that triggered as a memory locator, then I could continue keeping that in mind despite the bumps and shifts of the airplane.
“I was conscious that I had to do that, now I am not so conscious, I am not pulling on it. I am getting more impertinent. I deliberately try and reverse what I was taught in art school. Things that should be further back become bigger until they get right up front and vice versa.”
Some of Ms. Jacquette’s most distinctive city views were sketched on the high storeys of the World Trade Center. Obviously, they have a new, unexpected poignancy. But in a way, all her work is a meditation on transcience, on the earie uniqueness of a moment’s view.
“The night scenes got a lot of help from the World Trade Center because I could go there and I could sit in the window, at any hour, they were open until 9:30pm, and I could choose sections at a time and watch the change in the light until it was really dark. I found that I could start a drawing in Tower One then go over to Tower Two and go a little higher. Sometimes I could see the same building, but from a different angle and it would become a different size in the drawing. I then started putting these things together and started making composites. I almost didn’t think. I would ram these things together. Then I thought these are kind of interesting. Now I try very hard to get a situation where I can get multiple view points from the same building. It’s hard.”
Ms. Jacquette took up transcendental meditation in the 1960s, and has practised Tibetan Buddhism since the early 1980s. Does this influence the way she sees or works? “I am pretty sure it does”, she answers, and pulling back a screen behind her easel, exposes a “tangka” (Tibetan devotional painting) she is working on. She has been painting these, under the tutelage of monks, since 1995, and has helped paint murals at the Tibetan monastery in Sydney, New York for the last few years, too. It is amusing to think of one of the most distinguished contemporary American painters taking on the ego-less task of making paintings in so strict a tradition, one that is not her own. But what kind of impact does Buddhism have on her own world view?
“I think that its about the idea that things aren’t settled and permanent in space. When Rudy and I went to Hong Kong in 1990 to make the film, Night Fantasies, using music by Elliott Carter, Rudy said that I had to do the shooting of anything I wanted to use in the film and that he would do the shooting of anything that he wanted. [Ms. Jacquette often collaborated with Burckhardt and frequently acted in his films, as did his circle of Bohemian friends.] When you film at night you don’t get light into the camera; you only see the brightest things. I always saw the brilliance of the neon signs while everything else was dark around it. Things are not solid, they are floating. They could be sideways, the sense of the background is mostly pretty dim.” Looking at her tangka-in-progress she muses: “The floating of the signs was sort of like these deities around this space.”
Meanwhile, her summer flying jaunts in Southern Utah came up trumps. “I managed to get the kinds of angles I like, so the views weren’t trite. There won’t be paintings for a while, but I finally got some pastels finished. There were such fantastic color contrasts, in the reds and oranges of the rocks, I didn’t have rely on shadows. Do you know that part of the country?”, she asks. I don’t, but from her description of the colors, it sounds like a readymade Yvonne Jacquette. “Not at all”, she replies. “I’ve had to completely refigure out how to use color.”
A version of this article appeared in the New York Sun, September 4, 2003, under the title “A chat with the artist: A cocktail of perception and invention”