The drive to the Ucross Foundation’s big red barn sets an idyllic Western scene: Deer bound across the prairie and bald eagles perch in trees outside Ucross, a town of about 25 people.
Arriving at the barn that serves as the foundation’s art gallery, you never forget you are in rural Wyoming — until you step into the barn.
Hanging on the gallery walls are melting images in muted colors and vivid paint splatters across large canvasses. Colors and shapes collide creating scenes you can’t always decipher.
These are some of the abstract works by Wyoming’s Harry Jackson, an artist most often categorized with the likes of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell for capturing the American West. Yet Jackson was known first for his abstract work, which he continued until he died in 2011.
The Ucross exhibition hangs until April 10 and features 37 of those abstract pieces.
“We’ve had a lot of shows out here, but never one quite like this,” said Vivian Banks, director of development and community relations at the Ucross Foundation.
The exhibit is the first since 1953 to feature only Jackson’s abstract art. When most people in Wyoming think of Jackson, they think of the large statue of Sacagawea at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, or of his smaller bronzes depicting bucking horses and cowboys, or his realistic renderings of western landscapes.
Jackson was born in Chicago but came to Wyoming in 1938 as a teenager who wanted to be a cowboy.
“His spiritual birth place was the Pitchfork Ranch in Wyoming,” said Jackson’s son Matthew Jackson. Matthew Jackson, along with artist Gordon McConnell, will speak at the show’s opening reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Wyoming was Harry Jackson’s home, his son said. He always wore boots and a cowboy hat, even while walking the streets of New York City. That love of Wyoming, its history and people, comes through in all of his work, Jackson said.
Harry Jackson, who joined the Marines during World War II as a combat artist, found representational pictures couldn’t capture the tumultuous emotions he felt after the war. Jackson was with the Marines at Tarawa where 6,000 people died, and he was knocked unconscious by mortar fire. His art became his outlet for dealing with his memories and the emotions they conjured.
His abstract art earned critical acclaim. It’s been featured in shows in New York City, and it drew comparison between his work and that of his friend Jackson Pollock.
But in the 1950s, Jackson turned to realism. He realized his skill in composition, color and gestural brush stroke could be used to create realistic paintings, too, his son said. It was his realistic work that earned Harry Jackson commercial success. But even as he was making a name for himself in Western art history, he continued to produce abstract work on the side.
“It wasn’t just a phase. It was work he did throughout his lifetime,” Banks said. “How incredible that someone who did this,” she said gesturing to an image of Jackson’s Sacagawea sculpture, “can do all that,” she said pointing to the abstract art on the walls. “How did this come out of the same brain?”
The Ucross Foundation usually exhibits work from its artists in residence program, said Sharon Dynak, executive director of the foundation.
But occasionally the foundation likes to bring in artwork significant to Wyoming. Dynak says the Jackson show is an opportunity to raise awareness about one of the state’s best artists who isn’t as well-known as his work warrants. People who do know Jackson know his distinctly western work. Exposing people to a lesser-known side of Jackson’s work fits into the foundation’s mission of arts education.
“In a sense, Jackson’s abstract work really reflects the mission we have to support a broad range of art,” Dynak said.
Jackson’s abstract work was experimental at the time he created it, something that falls in line with the type of work Ucross supports. And while his abstract work was created decades ago, it feels contemporary, a reminder of art’s ability to transcend time.
“That’s kind of the key to art,” Dynak said. “It’s not just for the moment; it’s about lasting into the future.”