A new book delves into the unique personality and prolific work of artist J. B. Jackson

Citizen Jackson

A new book delves into the unique personality and prolific work of artist J. B. Jackson

J. B. Jackson. Chapel of San Antonio de Cieneguilla in La Cienega, New Mexico, 1982. From the Collection of F. Douglas Adams and used by permission.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, perhaps the father of American landscape studies, was an autodidact whose unique perspective on the world was shaped by travels through Europe, several short stints at elite schools, military service during World War II, and, ultimately, ranching in the Southwest. Jackson initially spread his ideas through
the periodical Landscape, which he self-published (and, as it was later discovered, wrote all the early articles under pseudonyms) from 1951 through 1968. As his acclaim grew, he turned the reins of the magazine over to trusted colleagues and split time between the east and west coasts, teaching at Harvard and UC Berkeley. Through these venues, Jackson forcefully argued for an understanding of the American landscape that incorporated both the natural and the human, the architectural and the everyday. While they are now truisms—that the landscape includes human-made forms like roads and buildings or that banal signage and vernacular architecture provide insight into contemporary culture—these were revolutionary ideas when Jackson forced his way into the discourse of cultural studies. Indeed, it was Jackson’s influence, directly or indirectly, that gave way to everything from Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning
from Las Vegas, to Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, to Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, to John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski’s Everyday Urbanism.

J. B. Jackson. New Mexico and Pueblo Indian; New Mexico IV, [no date]. 10-D-03. From the J. B. Jackson Pictorial Materials Collection (Groth Collection), Center for Southwest Research and the School of Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and used by permission.

Recently published is Drawn to Landscape, an edited volume that revisits Jackson’s life and work. While the book will certainly give readers a sense of Jackson’s intellectual importance, it focuses on two areas which would seem to be secondary to his ideas: his flamboyant personality and his visual art—sketches, magazine covers, and photographs. Given the rich body of Jackson’s published work, however, and the strength of an earlier volume from many of the same contributors, Everyday America, which is perhaps a better survey of the impact of Jackson’s ideas, the lighter fare of this book is welcomed. In fact, the lone essay that attempts to catalogue the various intellectual endeavors which owe lineage to Jackson, “Passing the Torch” by Timothy Davis, stands out as the weakest and least interesting to read, listing off subfields related to landscape studies without noting Jackson’s influence and leaning heavily on interdisciplinary jargon. It does, however, deserve credit for providing the sole mention of anything related to gender and sexuality in the book, a topic which is curiously absent given the politics of everyday existence which one would expect to find in a book so intimately biographical. While Jackson’s personality is fondly remembered at length, his identity—and with it, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, among other things—is left as something unspoken or, at the very least, left without definition.

Despite this, the remainder of the book is a delight to read largely because the personality of John Brinckerhoff “Brinck” Jackson was so multifaceted—to some he was Brinck, the erudite scholar; to others he was Mr. Jackson, the professor without a graduate degree; and to others still, he was John, the church janitor. Like the titular character of Citizen Kane, Jackson revealed very different sides of his personality and history to the various people in his life, and in the end one can only imagine the depths to his character which will remain a mystery. He performed the roles of blue-blooded heir and worldly traveler, at the same time he was the hardscrabble pragmatist who learned with his hands, an evangelical Catholic, a raconteur par excellence, and a motorbike gang aficionado. Unlike the film, however, this book stays in the safe area of fond remembrance, leaving so much of Jackson an enigma.

While we never see Rosebud, the book makes a move, which comes close. Earlier books on Jackson’s influence have reproduced his sketches, magazine covers, or photographs, but they have done so only in the singular. Here, the book presents three “portfolios” of 15 to 60 images each, which were surely painstakingly curated given Jackson’s prolific production.

J. B. Jackson. Road to West Blue Mountain in Socorro County, New Mexico, August 22, 1986. From the Collection of F. Douglas Adams and used by permission.

The images rarely stand on their own as anything close to art—and Jackson likely would have agreed, given his penchant for casually discarding so much of his work. The sketches are quick and messy, while the photographs are competent yet prosaic. When presented in multiple, the images begin to demonstrate the consistency of Jackson’s eye, show what he paid attention to, and in a strange, mute sort of way, reveal even more about who he was as a person. In his sketches, the shapes of architecture just as easily give way to plant life or geography, or the physicality of the bodies of men in his photographs, as they stood without guile near cars or grouped together in a public landscape.

In the end, the greatest success of the book is that it continues Jackson’s mission of imploring everyone to pay attention to the incredible landscape around them, to see value in the overlooked and apparently mundane. While it does so in part through strong texts and a well-curated set of Jackson’s visual output, it does so most potently simply by invoking the inspiring yet inscrutable figure of Jackson, himself.