Published: March 11, 2003
By Stephen May
YONKERS, N.Y. – “One must never forget,” the incomparable Gertrude Stein observed years ago, “that the earth seen from an airplane is more splendid than the earth seen from an automobile.” Recognizing that reality, for the past 30 years Yvonne Jacquette has utilized the vantage point of commercial jets and private planes, as well as high-rise buildings, to create both daytime and nighttime views of cities and towns, factories and farmlands, rivers and harbors, and woodlands, pastures and power plants from coast to coast and border to border, as well as in the Far East.
Although looking from tall buildings or airplanes at cities and landscapes below is an experience common to all of us, few other contemporary artists have explored its artistic possibilities. Evolving from faithful translations of views to images in which she splices together segments from different angles and locations, Jacquette’s urban and rural depictions convey a sense of complexity and wonder. Now at the top of her game, she has gained an enviable reputation with critics and the public.
Her achievements are on view in “Aerial Muse: ,” at The Hudson River Museum through May 4. The exhibition was organized by the Iris & Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and capably curated by Hilarie Faberman, Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Cantor Center. With approximately 40 paintings, pastels, drawings and prints, the show offers an overview of the development of the artist’s idiosyncratic landscape work.
Recognition has come relatively late for Jacquette, in part because her career has not followed a usual evolutionary path and her art is not easily categorized. In her mature work the artist has sought to bring what she calls “intimacy to vastness.” In the process, in curator Faberman’s words, Jacquette “embraces a variety of contradictory tendencies — her art is sophisticated and childlike, earth bound and heavenly, comic and grave, and ordinary and heroic.”
Jacquette was born in Pittsburgh in 1934 to a family that eventually included seven children. Her father was an accountant and management consultant, her mother a homemaker. Neither parent was artistic, but they encouraged her to draw, especially her mother. She began taking private art lessons after the family moved to Stamford, Conn., in 1941. By the time Jacquette graduated from Stamford High School she had won art competitions and had a work published in Seventeen magazine.
In 1952 she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she learned the fundamentals of drawing and design. Dropping out at the end of her third year, she moved to New York City, hoping to learn more about new movements in art at the city’s museums and galleries and to pursue a career as an artist. Early on, she admired the work of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.
Jacquette worked at different jobs, including stints in a display studio, a company where she drafted designs of helicopters for catalogs and a textile design firm. Along the way she honed her drafting skills and sharpened her understanding of color.
In 1961, she met Rudy Burckhardt (1914-1999), a gifted, Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter, who had arrived in New York a quarter century before and had become part of a wide circle of creative figures. He and Jacquette married three years later.
Jacquette became friends with such artists as Alex Katz, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, as well as Rackstraw Downes and Janet Fish, and poet/critic Edward Denby. The Burckhardts’ only child, Tom, has established his own career as a respected artist, while also working as an assistant to Grooms.
Much of Jacquette’s early art emphasized odd angles or perspectives of familiar objects such as floors, windows, telephone poles and buildings, painted with a precisionist touch. It is work that brings to mind that of Charles Sheeler and Mangold. By the early 1970s, categorized as a New Realist, she exhibited at major New York galleries and in group shows.
In 1965, Jacquette, Burckhardt and Denby bought a house in Searsmont, Maine, using the adjacent barn as a studio. Faberman credits Katz, Jacquette’s Maine neighbor, with inspiring her to develop an orderly process leading to more ambitious works. “Jacquette’s observation of his [Katz’s] processes helped her learn how to prepare colors in advance and develop the small sketch from life into a medium-sized study and then a large painting,” the curator writes in the exhibition catalog.
Jacquette was soon creating large paintings of: views in New York looking up at the sky between buildings, street signs and traffic lights near her East 14th Street studio. Several are reminiscent of Fairfield Porter’s cityscapes. She also did work in pastel and experimented with printmaking, especially monotypes and lithographs, that influenced her painting. In 1975 the Burckhardt family moved to a Manhattan loft in Chelsea, where Jacquette still lives and works.
Around the mid-1970s Jacquette started making watercolors of clouds as she flew in airplanes, sometimes turning them into oil paintings. Then, one day, when the clouds disappeared, she considered painting the landscape below. It was a task that at first seemed too daunting, but she tried it and persevered. Today, such serial perspectives have become her trademark and have earned her a unique niche in the art world.
Her first serial painting, “Passagassawaukeag I,” 1975, depicts the town of Belfast, near her summer place in Searsmont, the river that flows beside it and several bridges that traverse it. Chartering a Cessna, Jacquette circled over the area at about 1,000 feet, studied its topography on foot, and made a three-dimensional model to understand the site’s space and scale. After sketching the view in pastel from the plane, she further refined the images back in her studio. Her early aerial work was influenced by the meticulously detailed, panoramic paintings of her friend Downes, albeit he painted subjects from the ground level.
In the second half of the 70s, Jacquette started work on nocturnal paintings. She was intrigued by the challenge of depicting cities after dark, particularly the glow of bright lights against the surrounding blackness. New York City has been memorably recorded by such titans as John Sloan, William Glackens, Joseph Stella and Georgia O’Keeffe, but none achieved the grace and panache of Jacquette’s elevated views.
One of the most successful of the early New York night scenes, “Flatiron Intersection,” 1979, is based on views from the 15th floor of a nearby building. Included are a corner of Madison Square Park in the upper left and the confluence of 23rd Street, Broadway and Fifth Avenue in front of the familiar prowlike shape of the historic landmark edifice.
As Faberman notes in her essay, the painting brings to mind other pictures of the modern city by such disparate artists as Edward Hopper, with his lit-up buildings, and Piet Mondiran’s famous “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” 1942-43, with its elevated perspective and geometric patterns. “Unlike these earlier artists, however,” Faberman observes, “Jacquette presents a more cozy, intimate view of a public space, de-emphasizing its civic status and focusing instead on its role as a kind of urban playground.”
In 1980 Jacquette created a number of views from the Empire State Building, including a pastel, “Diptych: Two Views from the Empire State Building,” and a striking lithograph, “Aerial Views of 33rd Street,” 1981, that is in the current exhibition. She also completed notable aerial images of the Verrazano and Brooklyn Bridges and a number of portrayals of lower Manhattan, some planned from the observation deck of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Later in that decade she explored nighttime aerial views of other American cities, including Washington (of the Jefferson Memorial), Minneapolis and San Francisco, where a highlight is “Embarcadero with Bay II,” 1984. She continued to record the nocturnal wonders of The Big Apple, such as the George Washington Bridge and a vibrant triptych of Times Square.
Flying over the Midwest she captured daytime views of scattered structures, expansive farmlands and trees of America’s heartland. In a similar vein is “Pennsylvania Spring Plowing Patterns,” 1983.
A dedicated environmentalist, Jacquette campaigned in the 1980s for greater regulation of nuclear energy sites and created aesthetically pleasing but ominous views of Pennsylvania’s notorious Three Mile Island nuclear power plant and a controversial facility in Wiscasset, Maine. In the latter, “Maine Yankee Nuclear Plant VI,” 1983, a 79- by 70-inch oil, she depicted the waterbound facility “as a kind of toxic treasure box, with an alluring orange glow,” in Faberman’s words. “The mood is complex and contradictory,” the curator adds, “the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water in precarious co-existence.”
On an extended visit to Japan, Jacquette stayed in various high-rise hotels, from which she produced pastels that led to paintings emphasizing the vivid neon signs, lighted billboards, cars and crowds of that congested, brightly lit city at night.
In a number of works resulting from a visit to Hong Kong, Jacquette incorporated elements of collage, manipulated scale and perspectives, and utilized heightened colors, to present dramatic nocturnal images, such as “Hong Kong Ocean Pier VI,” 1992. This particularly brilliant canvas, integrating composite viewpoints of the crowded city, measures a sizable 75¼ by 64¾ inches.
The Hong Kong experience also triggered a series of astutely organized composite or rotational views of sites ranging from New York City to Belfast, Maine. As Vincent Katz writes in the exhibition catalog, “she blends varying viewpoints within a single canvas, always with such dexterity that while we are conscious that reality has been altered, we are at pains to put our finger on where exactly the sleight of hand has occurred.”
On occasion, the wing or wings of the airplane serve as visual anchors and geometric complements to the landscape below, as in “Double Wing Sunset I,” 1995. Sometimes, hovering above and adding perspective to other works is a giant dragonfly, which has become Jacquette’s personal symbol and perhaps a stand-in for viewers, who can move in and out to look at her compositions. A large dragonfly replica hangs on the wall of the artist’s studio in Maine. She explains that she has come to admire the grace and agility of the fragile insect from frequent viewings at nearby Lawry Pond, where they feed on mosquitoes.
In her most recent paintings of New York and Chicago, Jacquette has expanded her artistic vocabulary, taking added liberties with reality and letting her imagination soar. Based on observation and seemingly representational, close scrutiny suggests a kind of alchemy in which the artist has manipulated the physical characteristics of cities or rural areas, as viewed from on high.
In Chicago in 1997, Jacquette painted several scenes at dusk, of Lake Shore Drive, clogged with cars, and “Chicago River Fork II,” 1998, depicting the Y-shaped confluence of two branches of the river ringed by highways and bridges aglow with a red-orange light. A sizable dragonfly floats above, adding perspective to the view.
In her adopted hometown, Jacquette created several views of the Chelsea neighborhood and composites of the Chrysler Building, a detail from which became a striking woodcut, “Midtown Composite,” 1997. That same year she accepted an invitation to participate in the World Views project, a cultural program that gave artists the opportunity to use empty offices as studios on various floors of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. While working there, Jacquette looked at basically the same view but from slightly different angles or different floors. “Therefore,” she explained, “the conventional consistence of scale of objects or buildings could be ignored, in order for a freedom of visual activity: sometimes a subtle dislocation of space happened or a drastic one.”
Operating in the dark with a camper’s headlamp and a flashlight for illumination, she prepared pastel sketches that served as the basis for several gaily painted, nocturnal canvases, including “Mixed Heights and Harbor from World Trade Center II,” 1998, a composite view from the 37th and 81st floors. Readily discernible are the West Street Building, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Statue of Liberty. “Vertiginous: World Financial Area,” 1999, resulted from nighttime observations from the particularly dizzying perspective of the 107th floor of the World Trade Center.
These are unforgettable images and, although they were made from rather than of the WTC, they have special resonance for all in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, that demolished the artist’s favored observation station.
Through intrepid travel to great heights, constant experimentation with process and composition, and a deft sense of place, color, perspective and style, Yvonne Jacquette has evolved an admired art form that is all her own. “Approachable, profound, and subtle, Jacquette’s art offers much to the thoughtful viewer,” says Faberman.
It is hard to quarrel with Faberman’s conclusion that “it is the power of the aerial view and its capacity to suggest the quirky, menacing, and exhilarating aspects of landscape and society that continue to intrigue Jacquette and captivate audiences.”
The comprehensive, 176-page catalog accompanying the Hudson River Museum show — the first major monograph to examine the artist’s life and work — is exceptionally rich in insightful information and visual documentation. Essays by art critics Bill Berkson and Vincent Katz and the principal chapter by Faberman explore all facets of Jacquette’s career and trace diverse influences on her art.
There are more than 40 color plates, including foldout views of Minneapolis, lower Manhattan, Times Square and the Triboro Bridge, and 100 black-and-white illustrations, plus an illustrated chronology, a bibliography, and documentation of the more than 50 prints that Jacquette has produced since the 1970s.
Co-published by the Cantor Arts Center and Hudson Hills Press, this handsome volume is the indispensable, comprehensive resource about this important contemporary artist. It sells for $50.
Yvonne Jacquette has recently been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Secretary of the Academy, Robert Pinsky, will induct eight new members, including Jacquette, at the academy’s annual Ceremonial in May. The honor of election is considered by many to be the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in this country.
The exhibition was previously on view at the Cantor Center, Colby College Museum of Art and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The Hudson River Museum is located at 511 Warburton Avenue in Yonkers. For information, 914-963-4550, www.hrm.org.
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