Discover the artwork of Oliver Lee Jackson

Discovery is one of the most exciting aspects of being an art lover. There are always “new” artists to discover. Artists like Oliver Lee Jackson. Granted, most of these artists aren’t “new,” they’ve been working for decades. They’re just new to us, overlooked for greater art world attention by their race, gender, location – numerous reasons – devious and innocent.

The Saint Louis Art Museum presents an exhibition of works spanning more than five decades by the American artist Oliver Lee Jackson. The free exhibition will be on view through Feb. 20, 2022. 

Jackson (born 1935) is known for his complex and layered images that integrate elements of figuration and abstraction. This exhibition of 12 paintings, drawings and prints includes works created from the mid-1960s until 2020, and it offers the opportunity to trace the artist’s evolution over these years. Jackson’s images are an open invitation to slow and close looking, as figurative elements—or what he calls his “paint people”—emerge from abstract fields of vibrant color. Jackson’s works draw on Western traditions from the Renaissance to the 20th century, allied to what he describes as an “African sensibility.” 

Jackson was a member of the Black Artists Group, which was founded in St. Louis in 1968, and he was a close friend of the jazz saxophonist Julius Hemphill. The improvisatory nature of his painting relates closely to his love of the spontaneity and freedom of jazz. Jackson moved to California in 1971, where he still resides.  

Some of the earliest works in this exhibition are from the Sharpeville series of the early 1970s in which Jackson referenced the 1960 massacre of 69 peaceful protesters in the South African township of Sharpeville.  

In his later paintings like “Alchemy”, Jackson’s “paint people” appear within webs of silvery enamel paint and collaged additions. A colorful watercolor, “Untitled,” was a work in Jackson’s “Currents” exhibition in 1989, underscoring the artist’s long-standing connection to the Saint Louis Art Museum.   

Jackson’s large-scale pictures are painted on the floor, with the artist emphasizing the physicality involved in their making. The exhibition includes a group of major paintings from the early 2000s in which crouching, reclining, and walking figures float in fields of intense pinks and greens, or blacks. Two ambitious prints also highlight the importance of printmaking in Jackson’s practice.  

Oliver Lee Jackson, American, born 1935; “Painting (12.15.04)”, 20004; oil paints, oil enamel, applied linen, mixed media on gessoes linen; 108 inches x 12 feet 1/8 inches x 2 1/4 inches; Courtesy of the artist 2021.89; © Oliver Lee Jackson, Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.
Oliver Lee Jackson, American, born 1935; “Painting (12.15.04)”, 20004; oil paints, oil enamel, applied linen, mixed media on gessoes linen; 108 inches x 12 feet 1/8 inches x 2 1/4 inches; Courtesy of the artist 2021.89; © Oliver Lee Jackson, Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Art.

As a group, the exhibition demonstrates Jackson’s significance as a highly experimental artist across a range of media. Many of the objects have been generously loaned by Donald M. Suggs, a St. Louis collector and close friend of Jackson. The show will complement this fall’s main exhibition, “Art Along the Rivers: A Bicentennial Celebration,” in which a painting by Jackson will be included.   

“Oliver Lee Jackson” is curated by Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art, and Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art, with Molly Moog, research assistant.

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