Two silver birds above a thick pink sunset, a quiet smile from a lone cloud, a woman’s eyelids, a glimpse of a sleeping boy’s foot, two hands interlocked on a walk through a vertiginous meadow, a saffron skyline exploding on the wall. 

To experience the work of artist Oliver Lee Jackson, born in 1935, is to pull at the seams of perception so as to see ourselves for the very first time. His two-dimensional surfaces lead us into a maze of shapes and visual gestures, yet tease us into recognizing the figures hidden within. Is that an azure ellipse or a man’s shoulder blade? An egg cracked into a void or a veil lifted by aged fingers? A beating heart or a crowded womb? Within each work emerge unbidden characters, the abstract haunted by the figural. 

Curated by Simon Kelly and Hannah Klemm, and on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through February 20, Oliver Lee Jackson presents over a half century of the artist’s oeuvre on luminous display — as tender as it is imposing, as unabashedly splashy as it is often subdued. In these 12 paintings, drawings, and prints from 1966 to 2020, Jackson’s early career is juxtaposed with his output from the past 15 years, evidencing his evolving experiments with color, shape, and the tension between figuration and abstraction. Organized thematically and stylistically rather than chronologically, the exhibition honors this living Black American artist as a groundbreaking contributor to the story of abstraction.

Oliver Lee Jackson (American, born 1935), “Untitled (Sharpeville Series)” (c. 1966), graphite on paper, approx. 30 x 40 inches. Collection of Donald M. Suggs 2021.85 (© Oliver Lee Jackson)

Upon entering the first gallery, we are greeted on the right by a 96 by 96 inch blazing yellow canvas painted with a combination of oil, chalk, and fixative on gessoed panel. The painting radiates with the intensity of its pigments: peony juts from a bottom corner, crimson squiggles swirl and collide, misty blue blotches float to the left. Titled “No. 1, 2020 (6.14.20)” after its date of completion, this most recent work on display erupts with the energy of early summer — in warm contrast to a bitter winter and ongoing pandemic. Two human figures on the left seem to move into the painting’s unseen depths, the brow of the taller one leaning into the journey. Next to “No. 1,” an even larger painting, mostly white, depicts a tornado-like rupture of vibrant color; greens, blacks, and reds cluster, while two poofs of bright yellow appear toward the center.   

On the wall to the south, the largest work in the room — “Painting (12.15.04),” a 108 inch by 12 foot 1/8 inch linen canvas — is over two inches thick, a mirthful cacophony of oil, enamel, and mixed media. Strips of torn linen are affixed to the surface with heavy splotches of paint, itself taking on the tactility of fabric. The oldest, and smallest, works in the first gallery — “Sharpeville Series I, 1970” and “Sharpeville Series VIII, 1973,” both taking the form of a grid and rendered predominantly in a muted gray-green — reference the 1960 slaughter of peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, South Africa. “Sharpeville Series VIII” is framed with a flamingo pink festooned on either side with magenta tassels; in its center, the silhouettes of four running figures emerge from the blank background, with varying degrees of representational detail. In “Sharpeville Series I” the same shade of pink forms an L-shape in its bottom left corner; on the upper right of the grid, a tiny hand holds a white blanket that nuzzles, in the square below, the likeness of a child’s face. 

Oliver Lee Jackson (American, born 1935), “Sharpeville Series VIII” (c. 1973), acrylic paint, applied fabric, mixed media on cotton canvas, approx. 84 x 84 inches. Collection of Donald M. Suggs 2021.84 (© Oliver Lee Jackson)

A similar grid appears in the second gallery in Jackson’s drawing “Untitled (Sharpeville Series),” circa 1966, this time dominated by graphite figures of human victims lying prone, parts of their bodies erased by partially or fully empty squares. In all three of these works, the precision of the grid visually imposes a type of order on a catastrophically violent event. Across the room, an eerie watercolor, “Untitled (8-22-89 II),” speaks to Jackson’s virtuosity across media; the amorphous outlines of seven human forms — pointing, crouching, and lying face down — hover on a beige plane. Pastel blue, green, and bright pink lend a sense of childhood innocence, one subtly disrupted by an upside-down skull grinning to the left.  

Abstract expressionism has long had the reputation of being all white, all male, and almighty, but Jackson is one of many Black artists to contribute to the history of American abstraction. Born in St. Louis and based in Oakland, California, he was associated with the artists, dancers, poets, and musicians comprising St. Louis’s Black Artist Group (BAG) of the late 1960s and early ’70s, a multidisciplinary cooperative that traveled throughout the nation, and around the globe, to promote what Jackson called an “African sensibility” alongside the European avant-garde. “To speak of one’s art was not to describe what should be seen in it,” argues Darby English in 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, on the spirit of two seminal American exhibitions of Black modernism. “It was to describe one’s hope that the work would find itself, as it were, in a serious relationship, one in which the work could become more than what it — objectively — was by being seen for exactly what it was.”

Oliver Lee Jackson (American, born 1935) “Sharpeville Series I” (1970), acrylic paints on cotton canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Collection of Donald M. Suggs 2021.83 (© Oliver Lee Jackson)

For Jackson — whose work did not appear in either of these shows, and whose artistic evolution over a half century is only now on display — what is visually at stake seems to morph as one approaches and retreats. We are rewarded for how deeply we inspect, then introspect, in response to these creations, which blur the line between abstraction and figuration, categories that Jackson himself has dismissed. What “exactly” we see is not what’s most important. In each of his reveries of color and line, we are gifted a generous hint of what was, is, and may suddenly be. 

Oliver Lee Jackson continues at the Saint Louis Art Museum (One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri) through February 20. The exhibition was curated by Simon Kelly and Hannah Klemm, with Molly Moog.

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Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell is a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington...