In a nondescript metal warehouse on the outskirts of Cody, Wyoming, sits an unlikely treasure: a vast body of work by an artist praised by Jackson Pollock, displayed at prestigious museums of art across the United States, and collected by Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson.
The artist, the late Harry Jackson, of Cody and Camaiore, Italy, left behind an extraordinary legacy reflective of a life that spanned more than eight decades and several continents.
Plagued by seizures and mood disorders resulting from a brain injury Jackson sustained while fighting in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific during World War II, the artist also lived a life of suffering and conflict. His complex and thorny personality often alienated him from his colleagues, including curators interested in his artwork.
It is perhaps for this reason that so much of his life’s work sits in Cody today. Since his father’s death in 2011 at age 87, Jackson’s eldest son, Matthew, has worked to assemble and survey his father’s pieces—approximately 5,300 paintings and drawings and 1,000 sculptures. It is a collection he describes as “a lost treasure of the art world that has been hiding in plain sight for years.”
A selection of this treasure is on view through April 10 at the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery in Clearmont, Wyoming. The exhibition, Jackson’s first major abstract show in six decades, offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a fascinating, if controversial, man. It includes the public debut of eight paintings that are part of a major work called “Betio: Light and War,” which Jackson created from 2000-2001 during his re-examination of the battle for Betio Island, part of the Tarawa Atoll.
Described by the artist as “works that exploded out of me,” the paintings that make up “Betio: Light and War” were more recently described as a “a monumental masterpiece” by Gordon McConnell, the artist, critic and former curator of the Yellowstone Art Museum.
As an artist, Jackson defied categorization. He was widely considered to be the pre-eminent Western artist of his time. He was also acclaimed as a master of realism and as one of the great mid-century abstract expressionists.
LIFE Magazine devoted eight pages to a profile that hailed him as an “American painter of surging talent and ambition.” Today his late abstract works focused on his experiences in World War II are forcing a reevaluation of his entire career.
To anyone with a fascination for biography, the man’s life story is as interesting as his work. His mother ran a lunchroom near the Chicago stockyards and he grew up admiring the cowboys who ate there. Inspired by them, and by a LIFE magazine photo spread about cowboy life in Wyoming, he left home in 1938 at age 14 for Cody, where he found work as a ranch-hand.
Later, he worked on Meeteetse’s Pitchfork Ranch, which he called his “spiritual birthplace.” He enlisted in the Marines at 18. Serving as a combat artist, he witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. After the war, he traveled to New York to seek out and study with Jackson Pollock.
Jackson’s friends and subjects included Bob Dylan, John Wayne and C. Douglas Dillon, who served as the U.S. ambassador to France, the 57th secretary of the Treasury and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1969 Jackson created “The Marshal,” a sculpture for the cover of Time magazine of Wayne as Rooster Cogburn from the film “True Grit.”
Curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, among other institutions, collected and displayed his work. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody owns several bronze sculptures by Jackson as well as pieces from his abstract-expressionist period and oil-on-canvas renderings of cowboy life.
Today, Matthew Jackson is searching for a home for his father’s work. His hope is to keep the pieces together as one collection alongside the 149 volumes of journals the artist penned and other papers that chronicle his father’s life. He is also working to remodel his father’s Cody studio, which houses his father’s vast legacy, with the plan of opening it to the public, possibly as early as this fall.
Until then, the exhibition at the Ucross Foundation Art Gallery offers a rare opportunity to view a fascinating dimension of Jackson’s work. The show presents 47 paintings and drawings—all abstract expressionist pieces, which by all accounts are key to understanding Jackson’s artistic legacy.
“Any full account of his work,” said McConnell, “must acknowledge the significance of abstraction to his work as a whole.”
If you go: “Well-Aimed Lightning: The Abstract Art of Harry Jackson” runs through April 10, with an opening reception Saturday, Feb. 21. For more information, call the Ucross Foundation at 307-737-2291 or visit ucrossfoundation.org.
Alexis M. Adams writes from Red Lodge. She has also contributed to AFAR, the Boston Globe and the Utne Reader, among other publications.