Englishman in New York

In the everyday insanity of American life, British artist Bill Jacklin has finally found a canvas big enough for his work.
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The Independent Culture
One of the most thrilling evocations of New York City belongs to the photographer William Klein. Returning to the city after a decade away, he wrote: "I expected to hear a burst of big-city music. All the sights and sounds I missed or had forgotten or never even knew suddenly moved me very much. I was in a trance." For the British painter Bill Jacklin, who has lived there since 1985, the city retains a similar giddy enchantment.

Jacklin approaches his adopted home like an investigative journalist - restless to absorb its rituals and peculiarities, and, inevitably, its underside: the peepshows off Times Square and the hookers of 42nd Street; the restless movement of the homeless on the benches at Grand Central Station; the swinging carcasses unloaded by 14th Street meat packers; all the lunatic parade of insanity that in New York passes for everyday life.

Jacklin's friend, the archivistJohn Kobal, summed it up: "He likes open spaces in which anything can happen, where everyone mixes. Men who might be murderers bask in the sun beside secretaries on lunch-breaks with their transistors."

Asked why the city still appeals, Jacklin replies as he must once have told Kobal: "You are in a space where anything can happen. It's a contradictory arena. I didn't leave to become a New Yorker, but I stay because it still excites me."

It is odd to hear his accent - defiantly English - and to recognise his unmistakable charm and self-effacing modesty, at odds with the flashiness of the Manhattan art world. "I try to respond to their generosity of spirit," he says of the art-hungry New Yorkers. "I like that kind of openness."

Like Klein with his camera, Jacklin has poked into corners that New Yorkers see but rarely register. Only a visitor's inquisitive eye could also pick up on the quirky humour: the poodles, owners and stewards at the annual dog show at Madison Square Gardens are richly depicted. So, too, the palmist at work on Coney island, and the mother dragging her child along the subway.

The rock star Sting has also long admired the artist and his work: "Bill Jacklin is, like me, an Englishman in New York," he says. "He sees it with the wonder and objectivity of an outsider. He can appreciate its miracles, and can transfer them to canvas better than anyone I know." Sting is responsible for one of Jacklin's once-infrequent excursions from the city and nurtured a memorable series of paintings. Jacklin accompanied the singer to Philadelphia on the first leg of an American tour, with the intention of painting him. The portrait did not materialise, but the series of pictures that did, Audience I-III, are among Jacklin's finest. As in so much of his work (such as the bathers at Coney Island and the commuters on the concourse of Grand Central Station), the artist thrills to the sheer movement of the crowd. "I enjoy being anonymous," he declares, and, though he appears to be as much a participator on the streets as an entranced recorder of its anarchy, he becomes, he says, "invisible".

Jacklin's monumental urban landscapes - some are composites of up to four separate canvasses - opened last week in New York and are on show soon at Marlborough Fine Art in London. One spectacular piece, The Rink, a mural in nine panels and 24 feet in length, was commissioned for the new terminal at Washington Airport. And a magnificent monograph of his work, with an illuminating biographical text by John Russell Taylor, was published last week.

Jacklin has been labelled as a loner both artistically and socially, though no one has a bad word to say of him, and his admirers are fervent. The quote from Sting for this piece came through within an hour of the request. But his easy-going manner conceals a background of hardship and considerable sadness. An early memory is of his father, a gifted amateur artist, burning his own paintings in the garden, weeping as he did so. He was later hostile to Jacklin's ambition to take up art.

Jacklin worked as a labourer to pay his way through college - he entered Walthamstow Art School, near his home in London's East End, in 1960, but left after two years to design railway posters for an advertising agency. In 1965, he was admitted to the Royal College of Art, where his tutors included Peter Blake and Carel Weight. After graduating, he assisted Yoko Ono, helping her put on a show of "half objects" at the Lisson Gallery in 1967.

Now 54, he has always been "unfashionable", in the best sense. "I paint what I know," he once declared. As Pop Art took off in Britain, Jacklin stayed resolutely a "systems artist" - a painter of abstracts - exploring geometric patterns and lines and networks of points and dots. Having achieved success in this minimalist style, he changed course during the 1970s to follow a more realistic inclination. Though he seems not to care, it has been reported that he was shunned as a traitor to abstraction. This did not herald a "flight" to New York - he waited another eight or so years before leaving - but the idea of re-invention somewhere else may have been attractive.

His relocation, according to Russell Taylor, happened by accident. In New York for his first one- man show, he "found himself constantly excited by the unfamiliar sights and sounds, the ethnic variety of the people, the nervous tension in the air." He found he wanted to paint it, and stayed.

No one has painted the urban sprawl of modern New York quite like him. You have to go back to Edward Hopper to find a similar sensibility, and perhaps, as John Kobal has suggested, to the work of Alfred Stieglitz, too. And there is something photographic - even cinematic - about the broad sweep of Jacklin's vision. He pulls and pushes the viewer in - and out - of focus like a panning movie camera. Certainly, photographic imagery is as important to him as raw material. He gets different truths from different media; he has drawn straight from the television screen.

One can sense that his New York is changing. Theatreland has legitimised much of Times Square; he sees 42nd Street becoming "Disneyland"; the benches at Grand Central have been carted away and the Roseland dance-hall may close after a couple of recent murders. Since the mid-Nineties, he has diversified: he stayed for three months in Hong Kong, not perhaps a surprising destination for a painter who thrives among bustle and skyscrapers. He has designed rugs for specialist dealer Christopher Farr, and, a long way from the meat packers' diners of his neighbourhood, he has painted the interior of the Ivy Restaurant in London (where the work now hangs).

Maybe he will return to London (he was made a Royal Academician in 1991), but, for the moment, he has just bought another studio in New York - the one he maintained here has gone. He has married again and bought a house in Connecticut, and, anyway, London, one suspects, just isn't exotic enough. Though he is regarded by some, as John Russell Taylor put it, as "a British artist on extended safari in the wilds of Manhattan", perhaps Jacklin has gone more native than he cares to show. There may be little to come back for, but, he maintains, "anything can happen. Before, I couldn't `see' London. Maybe I could now"

Bill Jacklin's paintings are at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London W1, from 6 May to 30 May. `Bill Jacklin', by John Russell Taylor, is published by Phaidon Press, pounds 39.99