In October 2014, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted the exhibition Robert Jacks: Order and Variation, the first major retrospective of Robert Jacks, one of Australia’s most celebrated and accomplished abstract artists.
Jacks studied at Richmond Technical College, before transferring to Prahran Technical College in 1958, where he enrolled in lessons in sculpture. It was during this period, while he was looking at the work of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró that Jacks’ style moved quickly towards abstraction. In 1961, he commenced a Diploma of Art in sculpture at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (now RMIT University), but soon transferred to painting and printmaking. Jacks’s 1966 debut solo exhibition held at Max Hutchinson’s Gallery A in Melbourne was an immediate success, with the then NGV Director Eric Westbrook and NGV Trustee Ken Myer acquiring works from the show. The sell-out exhibition was welcomed with extensive critical acclaim, and effectively launched Jacks’s artistic career. The Age critic Patrick McCaughey later declared that the 1960s had ‘arrived in Melbourne’ when the Gallery A show opened.
In 1968, Jacks’s Red painting, 1968, was included in the NGV’s landmark exhibition, The Field, the Gallery’s inaugural exhibition at its new premises on St Kilda Road, and the first comprehensive display of colour field painting and abstract sculpture in Australia. Jacks lived in Toronto between 1968 and 1969, before moving to New York City. It was in New York he made friends with celebrated Minimal artists such as Sol Le Witt and Donald Judd. This time spent in Canada and America greatly shaped the development and complexity of Jacks’s art.
Jacks returned to Australia in 1978 to take up the position of Artist in Residence at the University of Melbourne. Following this, Jacks moved to Sydney where he embarked on consecutive series of significant large-scale paintings, including his celebrated Metropolis works, a series of predominantly grey-scale abstracted representations of the city that referenced his time living in both New York and Sydney. These works were also informed by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis. Jacks’s consequent series of paintings, some of the largest produced in his career, included Temple gate, 1983. While the geometric forms of Temple gate and associated works closely echo those of the Metropolis series, these paintings had the addition of vibrantly coloured and irregular zig-zag forms. Jacks incorporated the same painting technique that he had introduced in his Metropolis series, where he used a palette knife to build up and continually scrape back the paint layers, creating strong textural surfaces. Throughout his career, Jacks’s paintings were often a source of inspiration for related series of sculpture and works on paper, and these early 1980s paintings were no exception. The angular forms in works like Temple gate lead Jacks to produce a series of related painted wood sculptures, which were displayed together when they were exhibited.
Sadly, Robert Jacks passed away just a few weeks before his retrospective opened at the NGV. Following the 2014 exhibition, his wife, Julienne Jacks, made a series of significant donations of Jacks’s paintings, works on paper and sculptures to the NGV. Temple gate, 1983, was part of this generous gift and is a welcome addition to the Collection.
Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980, National Gallery of Victoria