Oliver Lee Jackson


Current Exhibition

Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings

National Gallery of Art - Washington, D.C.

14 April – 15 September, 2019

Press Release

PRESS preview (AUDIO)

National Gallery of Art Statement:

American painter, printmaker and sculptor Oliver Lee Jackson (b. 1935) has created a complex body of work which masterfully weaves together visual influences ranging from the Renaissance to modernism with principles of rhythm and improvisation drawn for his study of African cultures and American jazz.

Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings will present 18 paintings created over the past 15 years, many of which will be shown publicly for the first time. Jackson's often large-scale paintings blend figural elements of bodies pointing, kneeling, drawing and playing instruments with colorful abstract compositions and vigorously worked surfaces. Each painting creates a space and world of its own, captivating viewers and challenging them to spend time with the mesmerizing works. Born in St. Louis, Jackson taught at California State University, Sacramento, for many years and now lives and works in Oakland, California.

The exhibition is curated by Harry Cooper, senior curator and head, department of modern art, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART: Shared Exploration: Music and the Visual Arts

Oliver Lee Jackson, artist; Marty Ehrlich and Oliver Lake, musicians; and Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art, National Gallery of Art, in conversation with A.B. Spellman, poet, music critic, and arts administrator.


American painter, printmaker and sculptor Oliver Lee Jackson has a complex and diverse portfolio that expertly incorporates influences from the Renaissance to modernism and African culture to American jazz. A current National Gallery show presents 18 paintings he created in the past 15 years -- many of which have never before been publicly exhibited.

Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings, Gallery Walk-through (Video)

Oliver lee jackson: there is no story (VIDEO)

NATIONAL GALLERY Press Event: Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings

Sponsors: The exhibition is made possible through the generous support of the Robert and Mercedes Eicholz Foundation. Morgan Stanley is proud to sponsor Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings. Additional funding provided by the Tower Project of the National Gallery of Art.


Past Exhibitions

Untitled Original 2.0

Burning in Water - New York, 505 West 27th Street & 317 10th Avenue

13 September - 3 November, 2018

Press Release



Untitled Original

Burning in Water - New York, 317 10th Avenue

May 31 - September 1, 2018

Press Release



Oliver lee jackson: untitled original (VIDEO)




-Katie Fata

Centering most of his work on the human form, [Jackson’s] art is defined as modernist abstract expressionism. [Jackson has] created a complex body of work which masterfully weaves together visual influences ranging from the Renaissance to modernism with principles of rhythm and improvisation drawn from his study of African cultures and American jazz.

CAPITOL FILE MAGAZINE: The National Gallery of Art’s Harry Cooper Answers Our Questions on Oliver Lee Jackson

-Michael M. Clements

The figurative works of Oliver Lee Jackson defy categorization, so we asked Harry Cooper, the Head of Modern Art at the National Gallery of Art, for guidance.

Michael M. Clements: “What can we expect from the exhibition?”

Harry Cooper: “The paintings presented here may be the fruit of Jackson’s long experience, but they have a youthful energy that recalls Ezra Pound’s battle cry of modernism, ‘Make it new.’”

“Why is it a must-see?”

“It’s for anyone who loves color, energy, improvisation, rhythm, tension, and the human figure and its gestures. Also, it’s for anyone who wants to ‘discover’ an artist who has been working at the top of his discipline for some 50 years.”

“How long did it take to curate the exhibition?”

“About two years, but I’ve known and worked with Oliver for two decades.”

“How has the exhibition been received so far?”

“People are attracted, engaged, and often moved by the works on view.”

“How is Jackson influencing modernism?”

“I don’t love the concept of influence when it comes to art, since it implies an active-passive dualism. I am not exactly sure what modernism means, or any ‘-ism’ for that matter. I would say that Jackson is an essential part of the story of art, both in our times and as it extends back to the caves. He is dealing with age-old questions about how to express and convey human experience, which is at once physical-spatial and social-emotional, with the inert materials of art- and how to bring those materials to life. His ways of doing this are new, vital, and very traditional.”

INTROSPECTIVE MAGAZINE: For Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting is a Fierce and Sacred Matter

-Marlena Donohue

Donohue: “Your paintings are called abstractions, but you always qualify this term.”

Jackson: “If by abstraction, you mean that I move around forms with no reference to the world, then my work is not abstract. I utilize abstract shapes, textures, colors, lines, all sorts of materials in a very thoughtful way to serve the function of each work. The intent is to achieve, sustain and share something profound about the world — not necessarily a picture of a person or an event or a thing.”

“Would you call your work figurative then?”

“Words like figuration or naturalism usually imply people or landscapes — my works are most certainly not landscapes. Whether you see a recognizable figure or not, my work is inspired by nature. It always references an experience from the world, because that is where I, and all humans, come to know ourselves.”

Your work features a lexicon of strident and lyrical figures, some lithe, some fulsome, that are barely suggested. But in the end, they read as shapes, textures and atmospheres.”

“Again, the word figurative usually means a human. But that is just because we humans have huge egos and see ourselves as the central event in nature. Everything in the world is part of nature. Every object or thing we experience is figurative. But once figures — an arm, a drum, whatever — enter a work, they are never descriptions of the world. My figures are carriers of form, vehicles to create a space or modality.”

THE HILLTOP: Review: Oliver Lee Jackson’s Recent Paintings At The National Gallery Of Art

Similarly to artist Sylvia Snowden’s desire to capture the glimmer of the soul seen in people’s eyes in her paintings, Jackson’s paintings have the same effect in capturing a glimmer of moment in life with all of its fascinating overlaps. They are worlds of their own… Jackson’s Triptych [is a] towering piece… created with carefully placed and overlapping pieces of cut felt that jump off the picture plane in a way I have never experienced. Jackson attributes this experience to the intensity of color that felt achieves that no type of paint could ever compare to. The way the light refracts on this material creates color at its strongest intensity.

ART& OBJECT: Oliver Lee Jackson's Modernist Abstractions come to the National Gallery

Jackson's paintings, often large in scale, defy categorization. Figurative elements captivate the eye, while the dynamic compositions, vibrant colors, and vigorously worked surfaces in a variety of materials capture the viewer's attention.

…Jackson's mastery of painting is evident in the works, which reflect his personal sensibility and ease with his materials. His compositions offer connections between gestural actions (pointing, kneeling), recurrent motifs (figures with hats, instruments, or carts), and references to the act of making (drawing, brushing, measuring). The exhibition also includes a film created by the Gallery featuring an interview with the artist in his Oakland studio.

…One of the most striking works in the exhibition is the large Triptych (2015), consisting almost entirely of colored felt cut and applied to board. In each panel, dark forms suggesting figures or parts of figures seem to move, dance, or run in and through fields of light blue, orange, pink, green, and white. Figurative references—looming heads and recumbent bodies—are also contained within the fields of color. The imagery, with its simultaneous suggestions of joy and intense energy, dance and flight, echoes thematic material that has permeated Jackson's career, from the dynamism of his works of the 1970s inspired by newspaper photographs of the 1960 massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, to persistent themes of a grand dance evoking a sense of spectacle and ritual. While collage and cut-outs have a long history in 20th-century art, Jackson's embrace of felt, which he values for its saturated color and optical neutrality, is distinctive. He folds and overlaps the cloth to create sensations of depth that complicate (without ever contradicting) the inherent flatness of the materials.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a group of eight paintings from 2003 and 2010-2011, each just over five feet square, made with water-based pigments on canvas with touches of spray paint and gold and silver leaf. Once again, Jackson's unusual choice of materials at this scale (watercolors are usually confined to small works on paper) allows for striking and original effects. These works are notable in Jackson's oeuvre for their dramatic restraint and apparent simplicity. Some seem to be entirely abstract while others make clear references to birds, flowers, and figures. The paintings exhibit an improvisational daring that the medium of watercolor both allows and enforces.

WASHINGTONIAN: 16 Things To Do Around DC This April

-Washingtonian Staff

The 84-year-old Oakland artist’s work is like jazz captured in paint—rhythmic, colorful, and exuding complex energy. This collection of 25 works from the last 15 years includes a portrait of the late Julius Hemphill, who was, naturally, an adventurous jazz saxophonist.

DCIST: 10 Things to do Around D.C. This Weekend

-Lyndsey McKenna

ON DISPLAY NOW: To honor the opening of Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings, the National Gallery of Art is having a daylong celebration. The program includes live jazz from Herb Scott, a performance from poet and educator Charity Blackwell and hands-on visual art activities.

THE ST. LOUIS AMERICAN: St. Louisan Oliver Lee Jackson’s exhibition opens next week at National Gallery

-American Staff

…Next week, in partnership with Burning in Water, Jackson – an acclaimed multidisciplinary visual artist and alumnus of Vashon High School – will have his work prominently displayed in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, which is located on the National Mall in Washington D.C. His “Oliver Jackson: Recent Paintings” exhibition will open April 14 and remain on display through September 15.

“Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings” will include more than 20 paintings created over the past 15 years, many of which are being shown publicly for the first time.

 “Oliver Lee Jackson’s paintings encourage viewers to slow down and take time to absorb their energetic use of color, line, and texture,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “We are pleased to have Jackson join our tradition of presenting the world’s leading contemporary artists in the East Building.”

…“Unlike many artists who came of age in the wake of abstract expressionism, Jackson never abandoned his figurative orientation,” said Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art, National Gallery of Art, Washington. “Having worked with Jackson for over two decades (including on a 2002 exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums), I am excited that we are presenting his recent work– which for all its discipline has an extraordinary freedom and daring. The paintings presented here may be the fruit of Jackson’s long experience, but they have a youthful energy that recalls Ezra Pound’s battle cry of modernism, ‘Make it new.’”

“Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings” also marks the first time financial services institution Morgan Stanley has sponsored an exhibition at the National Gallery.

“Jackson’s experience working with writers, musicians, dancers, and other visual artists directly inspires his colorful compositions,” said James P. Gorman, chairman and chief executive officer, Morgan Stanley. “His work has captivated audiences worldwide and challenges viewers to see in new and different ways. At Morgan Stanley, we strive to challenge ourselves to discover new perspectives to share with our clients and communities, and we are pleased to be able to play a part in sharing Oliver Lee Jackson’s work.”

…The National Gallery has created a robust lineup of programming to complement “Oliver Jackson: Recent Paintings” over the course of its display and will include esteemed fellow St. Louisans. Famed saxophonist, composer and painter Oliver Lake (Music and the Visual Arts on April 12) and renowned poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe (Two Writers on Art, Music, and Modality on May 19 – also featuring playwright and legendary drama educator Paul Carter Harrison) are among the featured guests that will take part in events related to the exhibition.

For more information on the National Gallery of Art, visit https://www.nga.gov/.

ARTFORUM: Oliver Lee Jackson

-Donald Kuspit

An eclectic mix of paintings and sculptures by Oliver Lee Jackson was exhibited at Burning in Water. If you're unfamiliar with the artist's work, know that the octagenarian has a rich past: Amongst other things, he founded in 1971 the African Continuum arts organization, a body dedicated to the support and advancement of black thinking and culture, and from 1968 to 1972 he collaborated with Saint Louis's cross-disciplinary Black Artists Group (or BAG), befriending and working with the avant-garde jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Jackson's show was a modest sampling from a lifetime of production by an imagination still going strong (a major retrospective of the artist's work is scheduled to open next March at the National Gallery in Washington, DC). All the pieces on view were infused with a broad modernist spirit. One could locate subtle references to an assortment of forebears, such as Klee, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Picasso. Three freestanding, painted sculptures--two of steel (Bust VI, 1998 and Striding Figure, 2004), and one of wood (Head No. 5, 1988)--were rather cubist in feeling. Yet Jackson's vision is singular: A cunning handling of materials pushed the works well beyond formal quotation of clichéd distortion.

In three black paintings, No. 12, 2013, and No. 6 and No. 7, both 2014, abstraction and representation ingeniously converged, suggesting their inseparability. At first glance, Jackson's canvases might come across as thoughtful extensions of Ad Reinhardt's "black paintings." But then, slowly yet surely, a figure appears, like a mirage--a phantom evoking Ralph Ellison's "invisible man." Of course, blackness has a different meaning for Jackson than it had for Reinhardt. Yes, black is a color, to borrow the title of Matisse's 1946 essay. Though in the United States, black has a profound social and political meaning--an aspect the French painter of bourgeois pleasure likely did not fathom. Jackson builds death into blackness, and his black figures appear to have risen from the grave to haunt us: They possess the inevitability and majesty of death; they are absence given uncanny presence. His beings surge from the souls of the painting with nightmarish persistence, conveying the negation, devaluation, and deindividualization African Americans have suffered in this country. His figures, disappearing into oblivion even as they make an unforgettable appearance, are emblems of a violent black history, tragic memento mori.

Three intaglio prints in the exhibition were also powerful: Composite, 2012, and Intaglio Print XLVI and Intaglio Print XLVII, both 2013. To my eye they were the most intensely wrought and aesthetically convincing works in the exhibition--combinations of heavenly light and hellish shadow, depictions of bodies both damaged and adored, feats of draftsmanship complemented by a flair for expressionistic chaos. The artist creates a palpable tension by merging his particular stripe of formalism with his politics--it's what gives his works their grandeur, a revelatory beauty.

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Oliver Lee Jackson (b. 1935, St. Louis, MO) is a painter, sculptor and printmaker based in Oakland, California. Jackson was awarded a BFA from Illinois Wesleyan University (1958) and an MFA from the University of Iowa, Iowa City (1963). During the 1960s, Jackson worked extensively with community-based arts groups in the St. Louis region during which time he was Assistant Director of the People’s Art Center and later the Director of Program Uhuru. He was closely aligned with the landmark Black Artists Group (BAG), which included musicians, theater performers and dancers in addition to visual artists, and he was a close collaborator of renowned jazz musician Julius Hemphill. Jackson also co-founded the arts organization African Continuum. 

Jackson was an artist-in-residence at Harvard University from 2000-2001. His artwork has been exhibited extensively at major institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); the Museo de Arte Moderna (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil); the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle, WA); the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Illinois); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA); the Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA); and the New Orleans Museum of Art (New Orleans, LA). Jackson's recent show at Burning in Water - New York, Untitled Original, was recommended by Artnet News and Time Out - New York and selected as a "must-see" exhibition by Artforum magazine. A major show of Jackson's paintings will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on April 14, 2019.

Curriculum Vitae

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