Jack Boul at 90
Essay by Eric Denker, Guest Curator
“I am interested in the first impression, the large masses you see when your eyes are half open, before the details get in the way. I am interested in the way shapes merge. I am interested in what information you take from life and how you translate it in plastic terms on a flat surface. I am interested in color before it becomes a rendered thing. I am interested in how the canvas is divided, how you enter and move around, how you turn the corners in a painting. I am interested in the gesture of things, how they lean, or stand, or sit. I am interested in painting that which cannot be explained in words.”
Jack Boul wrote these words in 1994 in a catalogue for an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art called Still Working: Unknown Artists of Age in America; he repeated them almost verbatim in his 2016 public presentations at the National Gallery of Art. That paragraph, written over twenty years ago, continues to define the essence of Jack Boul’s paintings and monotypes. For more than 65 years, Boul has been one of the premiere artists in the Washington area, employing his exceptional talents in painting, monotype, and sculpture to convey a deeply poetic sensibility. With restrained eloquence, his small-scale works capture timeless elements of our visible world. Landscape fascinates him, from the bucolic cow pastures of Maryland to the beachscapes of North Carolina. Yet, he is as attracted by the inherent poetry of a gritty cityscape as he is to the countryside. He depicts such prosaic urban sights as back alleys, water tanks, and elevated trains with the same subtlety he demonstrates when rendering the charm of a Parisian cafe or a Venetian salone. Boul's artistic interests extend from barnyards to barbershops, from wheelbarrows to watering cans.
Many of the artist's finest works center on the human figure and its myriad expressive possibilities. Whether he represents single figures lost in contemplation, or groups gathered in public settings, his depictions always speak to the artist's profound appreciation for the human condition. Although Boul’s art has remained steadfastly representational, he has always maintained that all art is essentially abstract, as much about relationships as about any ostensible subject matter. Boul is concerned with the balance between light and shadow, the contrast of sharp to soft edges, the affinity between depth and surface, and the geometry of composition.
Boul is concerned with the balance between light and shadow, the contrast of sharp to soft edges, the affinity between depth and surface, and the geometry of composition.
Jack Boul was born in Brooklyn in 1927, and grew up in the South Bronx. He attended the American Artist's School in New York, before being drafted into the United States Army. In 1945-46 he served in an Engineers battalion as part of the US occupational forces in Italy. In 1951 he moved to the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to study at American University. He exhibited in the Annual Area Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1951, and again in 1954, 1956, and 1958. He was represented in a series of group shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art in the 1950s. In 1957 Boul received his first solo showing, at the Franz Bader Gallery, and in 1960 he had a one-man exhibition at the Watkins Gallery of American University. In 1969 he was appointed an adjunct professor at American University, and during his fifteen-year tenure he showed regularly at the Watkins Gallery. Boul had his first major one-man museum exhibition in 1974 at the Baltimore Museum of Art. In 1984, after fifteen years at American University, Boul became one of the first faculty members of the new Washington Studio School, where he had annual one-man shows. Since retiring from teaching in 1994 he has devoted his time to printmaking and painting. He had a major retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the winter of 2000-01, Intimate Impressions: Monotypes and Paintings by Jack Boul. In 2008 the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center hosted a well-deserved exhibition of Boul’s work, Jack Boul: Then and Now, 57 years after he commenced his studies at American University, and 48 years after his first one-person exhibition at the Watkins Gallery. Boul’s work is in the collections of many prestigious museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, Georgetown University, and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Asked to name artists he admires, Boul will name Chardin, Degas, Corot, Vuillard, and the nineteenth-century Italian Macchiaioli painters. Surveying this retrospective of Jack Boul’s painting and monotypes, and as he continues to produce extraordinary work, the words of the great nineteenth-century Japanese artist Hokusai come to mind:
“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I will have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. Let no one mock at these words. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word.”
In 2000, I ended the essay in Intimate Impressions: Monotypes and Paintings by Jack Boul by stating “Jack Boul creates intimate works of balance and harmony, images of surpassing beauty drawn from the fabric of everyday life. Throughout his long career as a teacher and an artist, Boul has been a model of perseverance and artistic integrity, persistently seeking the perfection of his art.”
The Stanford in Washington Art Gallery exhibition bears elegant witness to the enduring truth of Jack’s art.