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Jack Wright: A Unified Theory of Painting
opening May 2, 6-9pm, on view till June 7, 2014


Jack Wright
Jack Wright painting in his Inverness studio, 1988. Film still from "Dragons on the Ridge"

Krowswork is very pleased to announce an exhibition of the painting of Jack Wright (1919–2003). This show, organized in conjunction with Wilson Art Service, brings the work of this luminous painter into the context of the Bay Area contemporary art world. 

Jack Wright hailed from the Midwest, came to California in 1950, and soon became part of an avant-garde circle of artists living mostly in Marin County that formed around the British Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford. Wright and other members of this group sought the visionary through the act of painting itself and were inspired by Surrealist automatism, Eastern calligraphic forms, and close observation of nature.

Wright’s technique is characterized by his distinct square pointillist mark, which the artist used to create waves, lines, and portent shapes in gradations of rich, saturated color. These individual dot forms are often interwoven with sharp, curving arcs and energetic calligraphic squiggles that channel and emulate light itself. As these dots and lines wash over his canvases—which are often large, even mural-sized—the effect is one of shimmering vibration moving across the surface. Simultaneously, the layers of color and pattern extend the perceived depth of the painting as well.

Wright’s paintings were shown throughout the years at various galleries and museums including the Walker Art Center, Betty Parsons Gallery, the Minnesota Museum of Art, at the Lucid Art Foundation, and in a one-man show at the Everson Museum of Art. Nonetheless he mostly, and happily, worked in an isolated studio near Point Reyes, paying little attention to the public display of his art.

It was this seclusion that allowed Wright years of concentrated work, in which he was able to create his own unified theory of painting—one that invokes simultaneously Russian constructivism and Aboriginal sand painting, Light and Space and Abstract Expressionism, Viennese expressionism and anonymous graffiti, the mundane drip of world news and the profound flow of nature, quantum physics, and Native American spiritualism. He gives us the view to all of these at once; the divisions disappear. His friend and associate Onslow Ford aptly wrote that, “Wright’s paintings have moved through the surface and into an inner-world beyond . . . these pioneering paintings are playing a part in creating a more inclusive way to SEE.”

Likewise, perhaps at the heart of Jack Wright's painting was his ability to really observe, get at, and bring together the large and the small simultaneously in a single canvas. Wright approached his work both from within, as a scientist might, understanding each brushstroke at a individual, micro level, and also as a surveyor, able to see the entire landscape of the canvas and its place in a larger context. The effect is somatic and provides us with an intuitive way to navigate the small path in front of us as we also seek the divine.


Jack Wright: A Unified Theory of Painting has been organized by Travis Wilson of Wilson Art Service and Jasmine Moorhead of Krowswork. A previous incarnation of this exhibition, with a different, though overlapping selection of works appeared at the Lucid Art Foundation and was organized by the Wright family and Dr. Fariba Bogzaran, and took place from October 2013 to March 2014. A catalogue, edited by Jasmine Moorhead and with an essay by Travis Wilson, was published to accompany that exhibition. The essay by Travis follows below.

  Jack Wright
Jack Wright. Group of Five. 1984. Oil on canvas, 91 x 114 inches.
  Wright Cloud Chamber
Jack Wright. Cloud Chamber. 1952. Oil on canvas, 42 3/8 x 57 1/4 inches.
Jack Wright. Group of Seven. c.1977.Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 48 inches
  Red God
Jack Wright. Red God. 1979. Acrylic on canvas, 91 x 114 inches.
Wright Untitled 1970
Jack Wright. Untitled. 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
Wright - Little Blue Demon of the Woods
Jack Wright. Little Blue Demon of the Woods. 1960. Oil on canvas, 37 3/4 x 29 1/2 inches.
  Wright Untitled 1983
Jack Wright. Untitled. 1983. Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 72 inches
Wright - Night in Sedona
Jack Wright. A Night in Sedona. 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 15 x 19 inches

Jack Wright. Metamorphosis. 1982. Acrylic on canvas, 19 x 19 inches




Jack Wright Self Portrait Jack Wright. Self-Portrait. c. 1975

At first glance the work of Jack Wright presents a mystery. He gives you enough initial information to pique your curiosity and lure you in for a closer look, but the paintings don't readily give away their deepest secrets. Instead, they make a compelling visual case to bring yourself to them, that you, the viewer, should be truly present to receive them. It is only in this state of mind that one begins to really see the works. Up to a point Wright worked like a scientist, carefully considering every element of light, color, depth, and composition until each painting worked in perfect harmony. But then it is clear that the deference to a scientific order stops, and a profound artistic vision takes over. The art begins to vibrate in a way that is almost musical, and you must abandon the mere visual clues and allow yourself to feel how the artist passionately conducted each mark and movement in his work, as if they were notes of a symphony. This exhibition showcases fifty years of Wright's work, where one can not only examine individual master works but can begin to understand the subtle outlines of his lifelong evolution as a painter. Each phase of his career added a new component while refining those that already existed—a slow build within each individual opus but also over the entire arc of his career. This exhibition presents a rare opportunity to see such a pristine body of work that spans a lifetime, and rarer still to see one of such meaning and quality.

John "Jack" Cushing Wright's career as an artist mirrors the growth of American culture that came to prominence after World War II. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1919, he showed the inclination to be a painter at an early age. This was galvanized when he studied with the painter Cameron Booth at the St. Paul School of Art in the late 1930s. Booth introduced him to modernism and the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Eugene Berman, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse. Booth's combination of art historical instruction and personal guidance helped pave the way to Wright's artistic devotion and open-minded ideas based on personal liberty and individual expression. He saw the possibilities that being an artist could offer him and experienced the freedom that comes with independent forethought. These early years expanded his horizons and set a lofty standard for his own artistic pursuits. Wright's life was marked by a series of pivotal moments, each of which inexorably altered the course of his development. He termed them his "gong" moments. One of these moments came to him while walking through the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he encountered a painting by Morris Graves. The young artist had a deep emotional reaction to a piece of art for the first time. This experience solidified his drive to be a painter and crystallized his desire to explore the great realms of the unknown. It gave him a glimpse of the vast spaces of the inner worlds that had been previously hidden from him.

Wright joined the Army in 1942, and in 1945 he married the painter and future ceramicist Patty Ordway, a partnership that would endure the rest of their lives. The Wrights moved their young family to Northern California in 1950, seeking the open-minded ideals that epitomized the Bay Area and which better mirrored their own. They settled in Marin County, and Jack worked as an architectural color consultant while still actively painting. In time the family grew to four sons. In this period he was also making inroads into the art world, having regular shows and exhibitions at such venues as the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Art. Then, in 1948 his work was shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, one of the leading avant-garde galleries of its day.

In 1952 Wright made one of his first pointillist paintings. This would prove to be another crucial moment in his life. Although stylistically it was realistic, this work hinted at the abstraction and spiritual undertones to come. The image of two pieces of fruit sitting alone in front of a vast mountain range evokes the ethereal, almost surreal, weightlessness that would later define his work. The pointillist style would evolve into the large scale abstractions for which he was best known. Within a year of this breakthrough, this evolution to his mature style began in earnest with works like Cloud Chamber. With its undulating matrix of soft dots and linear foundation this large canvas would in many ways become the archetype for the next half century's production. Its title suggests particle physics, the study of magnetism, and other mysterious universal forces, while its subtle use of color and line denotes the gently curving paths of the unseen world around us. However, this painting quickly transcends science, manifesting instead the inarguable truth of our collective relationship with nature and spirituality by illustrating the shared visual language of the two. Wright somehow combines factual nature with theological creation.

The title of this piece can also be related to Jack's friendship with avant-garde musician Harry Partch. Partch, a musician, was well known for the creation of unique instruments in particular. One of these was called the "Cloud Chamber," which consisted of Pyrex bowls hanging on a redwood frame. These were found in a Berkeley Laboratory glass shop in 1950, and it is likely not a coincidence that Wright's painting features this same subject. Partch's musical theories pushed the limits of the range of sounds that could be derived by instruments, and capitalized on a 43-tone scale that incorporated both consonant and dissonant tones, as opposed to the more traditional Western theory of restrictive harmonic musical intervals. Partch's musical philosophy can be seen in direct comparison to the visual vibrations of Wright's work.

Another of the pivotal moments in Wright's growth came in the mid-1950s when he met the English painter Gordon Onslow Ford, who had been one of the original members of the Parisian Surrealists. He had served as an officer in the Royal Navy and came to the United States in 1940 as an emissary of European culture; he was tasked to give a series of lectures on Surrealism at the New School for Social Research in New York, which would prove to have a far a reaching effect regarding the transition of the art world from Europe to the United States during World War II. After that he lived in Mexico for several years and finally settled in the Bay Area by 1947. Jack's relationship with Gordon would influence his work and refine his thinking about art's purpose and production; he was introduced to lucid dreaming and benefited greatly from Gordon's immense experience as an artist.Through Onslow Ford, Wright was also introduced to a group of painters and sculptors with whom he would go onto collaborate for decades to come. John Anderson, J.B. Blunk, Richard Bowman, Fritz Rauh, and Lee Mullican, along with Onslow Ford, would form a veritable "lost school" of California artists. The shared vision and collaborative efforts of these artists led to a group that made art without boundaries and limitations. As a result, they accomplished some of the most thorough visual research on consciousness from the perspective of visual artists done in the last century. It is only now that the public at large is being exposed to their conclusions. They acted as pioneers, forging a new direction unrestricted by the need to make gallery friendly art. This created a culture of creative purity: this group that existed on the pristine ridges and mountainsides of Marin County worked far away from the commercial demands of the art world and its accompanying anxious quest for fame. They did it because they had a need, a drive, an insatiable itch that had to be scratched, like a traveler who must see what is around the next bend in the road.

In 1957 the Wright family walked away from their everyday life and spontaneously moved to Mexico. They were inspired by the stories of Onslow Ford and friends who had lived there and made the decision to act upon their need for adventure and change. The Wrights' journey took them near Morelia, and later to San Miguel de Allende. It was there Jack worked in his first real studio, which had an outdoor space with incredible light. The paintings from this period are quite different; it's as if the artist was studying a specific undeveloped component to his work. These realistic pieces are of the vast landscapes of Mexico and deal with the ever changing phases of light. They seem to focus on drawing out the depth by analyzing the luminescent possibilities found inherently in paint and its relationship to light. The Search for the Infinite Papaya is a landscape as seen from behind the lid of a just-opening eye with a mirage-like landscape stretching off into the distance.The two year–journey to Mexico would prove to be another pivotal moment in Wright's life. His work was forever changed; it became expansive in subject matter and in scale. His relationship to light also evolved significantly, creating paintings in which multiple layers of visual information are separated and then put back together seamlessly into a pattern of his own design. Having learned the value of a proper studio, Jack set out to find the right environment in which to paint, after returning from Mexico in 1959. He tried a couple of different spaces but ultimately chose to build his own studio close to his home high on Mount Vision in Inverness, California. As Jack put it "the studio was an answer to his dreams." He recalled in the 1988 documentary Dragons on the Ridge that the view over Tomales Bay was so distracting that he had to paint the studio's large east-facing window white so he could focus on his work. And focus he did; the new space allowed him to paint on a large and organized scale. The sophistication and concepts of his work grew as he realized the possibilities of his new space. Pieces like Untitled 6825 (1968) show an advanced relationship with transparency and washes of color. The soft edges reveal multiple layers of communication that allow the mind to form thoughts, and let them morph into fully crafted ideas. Jack Wright would paint in the studio on Keatly Ridge for the rest of his life.

By the 1960s Wright's mature style was well in hand. However, he was never an artist to be boxed in, and as a result of this liberated ideology, there was the occasional return to representational work, as with the 1967 painting Night Fishing at Brule. At first it appears to be completely abstract, with the shimmering blues and whites pulsating and vibrating à la Van Gogh's Starry Night. After spending a little time in quiet contemplation, the image of a lone fisherman sitting before a vast lake with reflections upon the water is revealed. The realistic nature of the imagery is so delicate that even the slightest shift in perception returns the piece to complete abstraction. Like Van Gogh, Wright had the uncanny ability to break down his imagery into its essential components, while retaining its elemental and atmospheric vitality. Both artists kept the eye in motion and allowed the viewers of their paintings to discover something new at each viewing. In the 1970s Wright's work continued to evolve. The dot-filled canvasses of this period, such as Untitled (7185) and A Night in Sedona, emphasize subtle shifting colors and evoke thoughts of ethereal grandeur that, although mysterious, are also familiar and beckon us to inhabit them. The artist controls the wandering of our eye with patterned brush strokes that keep our attention drifting along the surface of the canvas. His paintings often have a geometric base that creates a visual platform for us to stand upon as we engage his shifting luminescent world. It's easy to become transfixed by Wright's technical prowess. By this point in his career his command of this highly refined technique was absolute. The artist's work was largely composed of thousands of dots painstakingly applied, each with a specific intention. In some cases the shifts in the color fields are so slight that they are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other. Wright was a gifted colorist who understood how to incorporate the natural functions of the human eye. He would place strokes of color on larger fields, the result of which would be a secondary color that was a creation of the viewer's eye. In other places, the dots drift together to form energetic masses that manifest thoughts of the cosmos and phantasmal apparitions.

The paintings of Jack Wright can also be read as portals and gateways. There is a special vitality in his work from this period—a sense of being pulled in and led to a place of weightless clarity. Large-scale pieces made up a significant amount of Wright's late oeuvre, some as big as 18 x 12 feet. The benefits of working on such a scale are evident when you look at the encompassing complexity of pieces such as Group of Five from 1984 . At first glance this piece appears to be as much woven as it is painted. The shifting patterns of subtle blues seamlessly transition into richer undertones. The lighter shapes then dance to the foreground and evoke transparent figures swaying rhythmically like treetops in a gentle breeze.

The last grand evolution in Wright's work came in the 1990s, when he largely left the dots behind and introduced short lyrical lines that were in constant motion and full of energy. The live lines had the ability to be stacked layer after layer on top of each other, and free the canvas from any concept of negative space. In essence, the artist brought the viewer inside the painting. The piece Untitled (9901) shows us two spheres in contact with each other in a way that is reminiscent of a splitting cell. They are engulfed by these electric lines that descend to impossible depths below them. These pieces have an overwhelming sense of calm oneness, and illustrate the special reverence Jack had for the spiritual grandeur of the natural world. He now had mastered the painting skills which could evoke deep biological and cosmic principles without sacrificing the painting to rote academic science.

Jack Wright had a gift for seeing the world around him. He was incredibly sensitive and kept track of his life with photographs, newspaper clippings, and his extensive journals that chronicled decades of his existence and catalogued his day to day activities in exacting detail. But, mixed into the daily routine of his life are hundreds of small spontaneous sketches. It is not unusual to see a profound drawing existing alongside a laundry list or a description of the day's meal. The artist did not separate creation from his everyday life; to him they were one in the same. This resulted in a refined body of work, emanating from an elegant mind that as easily navigated the extraordinary as it did the commonplace.Now that the dust has settled on the twentieth century, we have the chance to look in hindsight at the contributions of artists from the last hundred years. It is easy to focus exclusively on the work of the well known titans of modern art. However, to do so would lead to an incomplete understanding of the century itself. By reviewing the personal revelations of artists like Jack Wright we shed light on the great leaps forward that occur in quiet places and on the unacknowledged advances that fill in the gaps of history and give us the privilege of seeing a larger whole. Through the generous efforts of the Wright family and The Lucid Art Foundation, we have been given the chance to see the verses Jack Wright has contributed to this larger whole. At the same time, he has given us the honor of adding his luminous visions to our own.

  Krowswork Installation Views

Beauty of Relativity - Jack Wright
Jack Wright. The Beauty of Relativity. 1960. Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 50 1/4 inches.


  Jack Wright - Untitled 1978
Jack Wright. Untitled. 1978. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 inches
  Jack Wright - Untitled 1964
Jack Wright. Untitled. 1964. Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 1/4 inches

Jack Wright - Bruja
Jack Wright. Bruja. 1982. Acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 inches
  Jack Wright - Continuum
Jack Wright. Continuum. 1989. Acrylic on canvas, 66 1/2 x 50 inches
Jack Wright - Untitled 2001
Jack Wright. Untitled. 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
  Jack Wright - Untitled 1968
Jack Wright. Untitled. 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches