Since yesterday I’ve had such a strong sense of sorrow that I almost called a few relatives to see whether anyone had died. Today I found out who it was: Harry Jackson, Western artist. If you don’t know who he is, watch this vid. (The first part is about a little Wyoming town a lot like Valier.) http://video.wyomingpbs.org/video/1884303003
I’d been thinking about Harry, partly because the big auctions are selling bronzes by both he and Bob Scriver and partly because it’s about the time of year we first met Harry. Of course, as Harry says emphatically in the video, art knows no past or future. Art knows only now and I can feel him strongly right here and now. He is so welcome!
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This is from my biographical memoir of Bob Scriver, called “Bronze Inside and Out.” Harry was no less brazen than Bob.
An anticipated “shoot out” with Harry Jackson was staged at this reception without us having any idea what was happening. We’d hardly heard of Harry except that his work was handled by Kennedy Galleries in New York and was similar enough to Bob’s that Rudi Wunderlich thought it would cause a conflict of interest if he represented Bob as well. As it turned out, the Coe family -- major supporters of the Center -- were personally fond of Harry and tended to push his work, which put Harold McCracken’s back up. Someone told us McCracken was so intent on having Bob’s work for the opening because he was hoping the rodeo pieces and the Opening of the Medicine Pipe Bundle would trump Harry’s big stampede and range burial bronzes. Of course, feuds are good for business when one needs publicity.
Harry was a long-time veteran of the New York art scene. A friend of Jackson Pollock’s and student of Thomas Hart Benton, he famously raised grub money by selling his authentically worn jeans to Bob Dylan. Harry had been traveling with the abstract expressionists, then the most dramatic and American of painters’ “schools.” He knew about the famous rivalry between Pollock and de Kooning, buttressed with Life magazine stories about both outrageous geniuses. In fact, he’d had his own major Life magazine story. And he knew a dramatic moment when he came to one.
A hush fell on the huge reception space. People cleared an aisle between Harry and Bob as Harry strolled across, his boot heels ringing on the terrazzo floor. Bob raised his head from conversation to see what was going on.
Harry looked like a smaller version of Bob -- built much the same, bearded, with an attitude. He came up, stood eye-to-eye with Bob, pulled out his hand in a “draw” motion, and said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “My God, man! I’m damned happy to meet you! Your work is so goddamn good!” The two men shook hands. Harry threw an arm over Bob’s shoulders and suggested, “Let’s you and I go talk someplace private, pard.” People stepped back to let us out.
We spent the afternoon in one of those tall, old-fashioned booths in a café, talking and whooping and pounding the table in agreement on almost everything. The shootout was a big bust.
Harry Jackson, Bob’s new Cody friend, did indeed charter a plane and fly up. We were impressed, though it was no Lear Jet -- just a small plane such as ranchers use. In the taxidermy years, we often met such planes out at Starr School where there was a level field and a windsock. Big-time hunters were used to flying in Alaska, so conditions didn’t look bad to them. The pilots would contact the sheriff in Cut Bank, who would call us on the phone to alert us. Then we’d drive out as quickly as we could to chase the inevitable cows off the field.
When Harry’s plane got there, it was met by us and a small crowd of Blackfeet kids, whom the pilot eyed nervously. He threw out Harry’s bag and promised to return the next day after he spent the night in Cut Bank.
Clearly Harry was sizing us up to see if he should worry about Bob as a rival. His Italian foundry was far beyond our little operation at the time. Our Blackfeet crew didn’t have generations in the business, like his Italian men. He told about his fine foreman and his terrific third wife. But he didn’t have a wildlife museum. (And we heard his foreman eventually ran off with his wife.) We took him up to East Glacier for supper, driving the loop over Looking Glass Pass which is like a small version of “Going-to-the-Sun.” After we got to the top, an eagle joined us, flying over the van. We took this to be symbolic, a blessing, though we all sort of knew the bird was hoping we’d provide a little road kill.
At bedtime we opened up the folding sofa but when Harry went past the bedroom door with his toothbrush, he was still talking and he ended up sitting on the foot of the bed talking to Bob until birds began to sing outside. There was no drinking. Harry couldn’t drink because of his wartime head injury, which sometimes pitched him into epilepsy. He had a natural outrageousness that Bob envied. In an infamous article in Fine Art Collector, he announced, “I’m the most unhobbled, fence-jumping bastard the art world has produced in fifty years. Many have tried to rope me; all have failed.” Harry can name-drop famous New York artists, Wyoming cowboys, and movie stars. In this article he drops Bob’s name as “one of the few whose works brighten my life.”
Harry Jackson was not intimidated by rich people or the art scene. He’d run with the crowd at the heart of the abstract expressionist whirlwind. He knew his cards and he could play them well at an international level. Bob could only admire -- there was too much to learn.
Both Jackson and Scriver were constant winners with the Cowboy Artists of America, but neither of them really fit the organization all that well. Harry finally resigned, but Bob was too cautious to quit, though he never went to the shows and trail rides unless they issued an ultimatum. When CAA went its own way, splitting from the Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the National Academy of Western Art formed in its place on more elitist principles, both of the sculptors accepted an invitation to join the latter. In 1973 Jackson and Scriver collaborated on a seminar about bronze casting to accompany the exhibition. It must have been a hum-dinger.