Though it is easy to remember Jack Beal solely for the role he played in re-affirming the figure as a subject of contemporary painting, a more complex side of his legacy is what lead him to the idealized, modeled affect of his best-known works. Unlike his contemporaries - and friends - such as Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz and Alfred Leslie, who treated the human form with the same, cool analysis as any object, Beal considered himself a humanist and his paintings tend toward the sensuous. While hardly a new subject, figurative painting was, for a younger post-war generation, in its way a rebellion against abstraction. As many artists of his generation did, Beal came of age amidst the dogma and presumption of Abstract Expressionism, with the emotive, impulsive character that implied. Coming to New York via Chicago around 1956, Beal at first attempted to straddle the mid-Western, European-inflected, structural approach of his training with the gestural manners of the New York avant-garde.
The story is not an unfamiliar one - of a young artist finding their voice - though the particulars of Beal’s self-schooling are unique. The first of what he considered his “successful” pictures took an “all-over” approach to gesture and composition and it would be a number of years before the figure became the dominant subject of his work. Over the course of the mid-60s, Beal’s compositions, whether pastoral or domestic, grew increasingly complex, playing off of line, form, color and pattern to the point of near-abstraction. He later identified 1964 as the turning point at which he began to be, as he described it, more ambitious in his paintings. The result was a high level of studied formalism, key to the success of these works. Beal explained that, “early on I realized I wanted to get the viewer involved, but at first my idea was to do this by using diagonals or esthetic means such as tilting things or showing them askew and not parallel to the edge of the painting. Symmetry and parallels bother me anyhow - it’s an emotional thing. As the work went on, however, I found that I was getting more and more into the world of paintings, and gradually I found myself putting out ‘welcome mats’ for the viewer in the foregrounds - empty chairs, rugs, etc - pathways to lead the viewer into the painting. I love composing pictures, I love that part of the painting beyond almost anything else. I wanted to compose the picture so the viewer would follow me in, and I still do.”
Unsurprisingly, much of this development came from a rigorous investigation of flatness he undertook over the course of the 1960s, which culminated in a series of hard-edged studies of his work table circa 1969. While Beal ultimately rejected that body of work along with the style they were done in, he found the process that lead to it rewarding, if only to enforce what he saw as his innate desire to paint naturalistically. Later in his life he endeavored to compile his research into a volume he called the “Form Book.” Part catalog, part lesson plan, the “Form Book” documents his exhaustive research into various modes of representation from classical perspective through mechanical notations as used for technical schematics or maps. His purpose was on one hand to construct a visual language, but also to experiment with the limitations of pictorial space. In the introduction to the volume, Beal gives his own synopsis of the process:
“I decided to look at the flatness which had become a central tenet of Modernism (under the doctrine “The Integrity of the Picture Plane”), a creation of French intellectuals which seemed to say that since the surface of the canvas was flat then everything painted on such a surface had to be flat. The fact that this theory negated the illusion of space and form in great Master painting made it even more attractive to the Avant-garde.
I began making drawings of things in very shallow space, testing the notion that the illusion of volume and space was forbidden in Modern Times. I made “fat” letters at first, then graduated to fat objects, then I began using the pictorial space taught to me by Isobel MacKinnon who learned it from Hans Hofmann (who himself, ironically, became a devotee of flatness). I studied the ways in which persons who were not Artists - carpenters, plumbers, mapmakers, etc. - represented the third dimension on a flat surface. I even retreated to my situation as a biology laboratory assistant while in college.
All these explorations led me to the inescapable conclusion that I could not afford to abandon illusion. That I had to try to make as much volume and space as the canvas would allow. For awhile, staying shy of representational Art, I envisioned making a series of objects which I could use to arrange as still-life objects - those drawings are included here. Sometimes I carried such impulses to extremes - most notably in the series of paintings I made about one simple work table which was a studio fixture. Those pictures are the most schematic of all my work, but they gave me the freedom to work as naturalistically as I wished.”