|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following is from an article, "An Artist at The Abyss" by Richard Cheverton:|
Time has claimed the greats of Bay Area abstract art who came of age in the years after World War II. Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Jon Schueler--all gone, save one: Jack Lowe. At 78, he's struggling with bone cancer, his body weakening even as his mind remains lucid. But that's not what preoccupies him as the shadows lengthen. It's the artist's lonely challenge of "finding my identity" and leaving behind a legacy of paintings that will do just that.
Odds are you've never heard of Lowe. His has been a curmudgeon's career, lived as far away from the brittle world of galleries and reviews as possible. And yet, against all odds, he has continued painting. He is not a historical curiosity, a throwback, but he is doing work that is intense, tough-minded, as strangely beautiful as a heavyweight's knockout punch. In short, he's doing the best work of his life, or as California art historian Nancy Boas describes one series of Lowe's late-life canvases, "paintings made by a wise and experienced elder."
Lowe was one of the bright young artists who coalesced in the late-1940s around Douglas MacAgy, the legendary director of the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. MacAgy put together a killer's row of talent --besides Park and Bischoff and Diebenkorn, there were abstractionists Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt; also, fine-art photographers Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston and Minor White.
Lowe, living on his GI Bill stipend in a one-room flat above the Golden Spike bar in North Beach, was in the middle of this creative chain reaction at the venerable school. He took life drawing from Hassel Smith and the Wunderkind Diebenkorn--"He was the star. He was my teacher and we were the same age. It jarred me a little," Lowe says.
He played drums in the school's fabled Studio 13 jazz band, which is pictured in an early David Park canvas in LACMA's current "Made in California" exhibit. That's Bischoff on trumpet, Schueler on bass. Park plays piano, beyond the frame. The man behind the drums is MacAgy. Park did the painting a short while before Lowe, following the music through the school's hallways, walked in on the band's rehearsal. "I sat in for two or three numbers," Lowe recalls, "and [MacAgy] handed me the sticks and said, 'You're the new drummer.' "
Lowe had never played drums in public before. "I learned," he said, "by watching and listening to the greats, like Buddy Rich . . . It was enough for me to fake my way through." It was one of the most revolutionary times in American art. In New York,
Pollock was dripping paint and appearing on the cover of Life Magazine; De Kooning was slashing out misogynistic nightmares. The California wing of the insurrection was sunnier, less angst-ridden, more connected to reality.
Bischoff was doing moody, almost melancholy studies; Park, big, delicious nudes; Diebenkorn, kaleidoscopic landscapes. "The beautiful thing about it," Lowe recalls, was "the spontaneity and the unself-consciousness. They were fearless and gestural."
Lowe, too, painted up a storm--mostly in the newfangled abstract style--and haunted the nascent L.A. gallery scene. His work was juried into three LACMA annual exhibitions, he did a show at the Pasadena Art Museum, and he was given a 1953 one-man show at L.A.'s groundbreaking Paul Kantor Gallery. A year later he did a Kantor group show (this one included Diebenkorn, Lee Mullican and Park). "I didn't sell a damn painting," he says. "That was quite a lesson to me--you know that song, 'Is That All There Is?' "
Meanwhile, he led a hectic triple-life: full-time Long Beach lifeguard by day, pulling "flatlanders" out of the riptides; drummer by night in Long Beach and Signal Hill dives such as the Sarong strip club. (The stripper named Treasure Chest stopped Lowe mid-song and complained, "We're not getting together. I bump on the beat.")
And, through it all, Lowe painted. It was a compulsion that had first struck at Long Beach's Jefferson Junior High School, when he chanced to pass a hallway display case with casts of the eye, nose and mouth of Michelangelo's "David." "I was 14 and fascinated. I had never seen anything like that in Long Beach, and I was amazed that someone could reproduce something so skillfully."
But in the early '60s, he hit the wall: "I just painted myself into a corner. I was burnt out. I just wasn't finding my identity . . . There was no intensity, there was no essence . . . They [the paintings] were just shallow."
His solution was brutally direct: "I pulled [my paintings] off their stretcher bars, rolled them up, rented a trailer and took them to the dump and threw them away." Others went to the fire pits on the beach. "I loved doing that--burning 'em. I read later that Park had done the same thing."
His sister-in-law, Betty Blomberg (now a San Francisco commercial interior designer), plucked a few pieces out of the trash. "He tore [one painting] into four parts. They were out in the trash can. I went out there and took one- fourth of that painting. I had it squared off and framed. He comes down to my living room and he says, 'That really is quite nice, isn't it?' I've had offers to buy that 15 or 20 times."
To commemorate the destruction, a friend wrote a poem: "The disposal (by hand) / of one-hundred and fifty / paintings / in the city dump / is, O Friend, a brave / and glorious act. / You have found the way / (quick as acrylic) to / instant anonymity. You have / made your offering, laid it / in the public place, then / stood before the open tailgates / and mouths of the morning. / . . . you have thrown your work / like spinning spectrums / into the wind and foulness / of your age . . . ."
The next decades were rough. His 20-year marriage ended. ("I guess you have to get dumped once in your life.") In 1972, he retired from his beloved lifeguard tower. He started booking a slow passage on freighters--a throwback to his days in the Navy during the war. ("I've often wondered what those other sailors thought of this crazy radioman painting a harbor scene." He got the answer when a shipmate threw his work overboard.) Lowe traveled to Hong Kong, Japan, London and Scandinavia--accompanied only by his hip-flasks of scotch and sherry and rapidly filling notebooks. But it wasn't until he hit New Zealand in 1980 that something broke loose.
"Somehow, when you're alone, you become very introspective . . . Suddenly I had all these ideas. Why don't I start all over again?" He re-analyzed piles of surviving drawings and rethought his choice of brushes, colors, the size and shape of his paintings. Everything.
Since then, he has painted relentlessly. Like a baseball slugger on a hitting streak, he has his timeworn rituals. He always starts one of his big, meticulously carpentered Masonite panels on a Tuesday--he was born on that day--and always after "dreaming" it, as fully formed as a Hitchcock script.
His New Zealand epiphany led him to his "key image"--a roughly scrawled outline of a head. Inside is a phrenologist's riot of daubs, floating shapes, smudges, smears. The colors are violent--he uses just 10, straight out of the Dana Colors cans--playing warm against cool, letting complementary colors jangle and vibrate. When you first encounter a new painting hanging on the spot-lit back wall of his work space--"It's not a studio, it's a garage," he growls--your first impression might be one of utter chaos. "I hope so," says
Lowe. "Avoid composition. I don't want a composition, in the sense that it's all premeditated, thought out, intellectualized."
But look again, and the picture's internal logic kicks in. It's a jazzman's riff, soaring off into wild improvisation but always grounded on a theme. For years, Lowe worked his way through paintings linked to the alphabet: "W is for Ben Webster," after the great jazz saxaphonist; "Z is for Zapata," after the Mexican revolutionary; "P is for the Pink House," memorializing an infamous World War II South Pacific bordello. It's a running, multi-part autobiography of a man's preoccupations, fears, soul.
Now, as the end draws near, Lowe's paintings and drawings have become more spare. They are as ugly-beautiful as late Beethoven quartets. Lowe dips the creamy paint from the can, finger-slathering it into frosting-thick globs, nervous stutters of color, roiling shapes that resemble mad calligraphy.
It's not easy work. A friend helps him muscle the big panels onto the garage-wall easel. Now the old athlete's stamina is measured in moments. Walking is agony. But still he paints. He limps to the panel, makes a mark, retreats, rests, attacks again. He rose at 2 a.m. recently, struggled out to the frigid garage, turned on the lights, made one critical, almost imperceptible addition to his latest work: a trace of cold red against a blob of warm green. The painting clicked.
"I'm a recluse now," says Lowe. "I'm strictly dedicated to painting. I can't tell you how much I love to paint now. After 60-some years, it's still exciting to have that panel in front of you and attack it. I can't say this was always true, but I seem to have reached the point where I have this confidence, and that's not easy to attain."
In 1999, San Francisco gallery owner Dick Ebert gave Lowe a one-man show; five paintings and one drawing sold. Others have winkled the occasional panel out of the artist. Betty Blomberg filled two floors of a San Francisco office with Lowe's works. Boas, author of "The Society of Six: California Colorists," says "Lowe's painting has always had the human being as its subject [and] he has always been mindful of the unbreakable link between primordial and contemporary man, an awareness that enriches his work."
Lowe is indifferent. Commercial success never has been the main event. What mattered--what will always matter--is "finding my identity." And now, at the edge of the abyss, Jack Lowe has done it.
A note from Carol A. Lowe, the artist's daughter:
My father died on October 20, 2003. The correct year of his birth is 1922.
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