Last week, my mother called to tell me, her voice wobbling, that the artist Jack Youngerman had died. He passed away on February 19, after a fall. He was ninety-three years old.
I was ten years old the first time I visited Jack’s studio. My father brought me—perhaps to pick up a print he’d bought, or perhaps simply to say hello. I recall the feeling of the space, the cool cement floors, the wide skylights, the bright colors dancing off the canvas-lined walls.
My family’s house sits approximately four hundred yards from Jack’s, at the end of a long dirt driveway in Bridgehampton, New York. As a kid, I passed his house and the adjacent studio—a small red barn nestled on the edge of a meadow—every day on my walk home from the school bus. Growing up, we had few neighbors and Jack was a friendly presence. Rosy-cheeked and white-haired, he would often drop by our house with his corgi, Winslow, trotting by his side. I would sometimes catch glimpses of him at work through the window; painting or measuring something at his big drawing table or laying a print out to dry. If he happened to be outside, we would exchange waves and quick hellos. Our relationship was friendly, if not particularly close.
It was only after my father died, in 2015, that I got to know Jack a little better. Grieving and eager to learn more about my dad’s early life, I reached out to some of his old friends. Jack was high on the list. The two of them had spent quite a bit of time together in the early seventies and my father considered Jack something of a mentor. I composed a long, rambling email to Jack. Minutes later, I received a three-word reply: come on over.
And so it happened that in February of 2016, I found myself in Jack’s sunlit studio once again, this time with a mug of Earl Grey tea in my hands. We began by talking about my father, but our conversation quickly roamed to other topics: his art, what books he was reading, the many ways the East End has changed in recent years. He showed me what he was working on—the design for a cobalt-blue wooden relief—and gave me a tour of his personal archive, housed in an adjacent barn. We sifted through old photographs of the years when he shared a studio space with Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella. Jack was charming, funny, and abundantly kind. As I walked home after that first meeting, he called down the road after me: “Don’t be a stranger!”
So I wasn’t. Over the following years, I’d pop by to visit Jack in his studio from time to time, to share a cup of tea and discuss his latest project. He was generous with his time, happy to answer my questions and tell me stories about the “old days”—the fifties and sixties when he first came out to Long Island.
Jack was part of a storied era of Long Island history. He expressed a longing for those years, before the East End got “all gussied up,” when it was still possible to live out there on an artist’s income, but he wasn’t one to wax poetic. He struck me, first and foremost, as a rationalist, sensitive but unsentimental. He had little patience for name-dropping or nostalgic talk. He was simply too busy for all that. More than anything, he wanted to discuss his current work, the most recent idea he’d had, and what was on the schedule that day.
Jack in his studio was a man in his element. Everything in the space—from the neatly stacked pencil boxes to the alphabetized collection of cassette tapes (Bach and Schubert mostly)—was efficiently organized and pristinely curated. He was distinct in his tastes and disciplined in his working habits, which had varied little over the past fifty years. Since moving to Bridgehampton in 1968, Jack kept what he referred to only half-jokingly as “business hours.” He worked from around nine in the morning to around five or six in the evening, Monday through Friday, with a short break in the middle of the day for lunch. “I’m like a banker,” he joked, “except my job is a lot more fun.”
Slender and soft-spoken, Jack was as gentle as his work ethic was ferocious. He was easy-going and quick to make a lighthearted joke, which he often followed with a trill of chirping laughter. His blue eyes appeared to possess their own light source. He was, on the whole, a wonderfully bright-tempered person.
This is not to say he was without demons. It was just that, whatever they were, he seemed to have reached a peaceful compromise with them. During our last conversation in June, Jack made several references to the difficulties of his childhood. He never went into specifics, but recalled “my earliest years were exceedingly stressful. Since then I have been very fortunate. But my first six years were…” he trailed off, shaking his head, “… really very troubled.” Just what those troubles were, I never learned. But I have often wondered if, perhaps, those years were part of what inspired Jack to make work that can be characterized, largely, by joy.
Jack’s career spanned many decades and mediums. As a young man in Paris in the forties, he studied under the figurative painter Jean Souverbie, from whom he learned formal technique in oil painting and gouache. His work from this era demonstrates a clear constructivist influence, employing simple shapes and graphic geometries reminiscent of Calder sculptures. Later, he returned to the United States where he developed his own, more heavily abstracted, style. Showing at galleries around the city, Jack soon emerged as a leading figure in a generation of painters who sought to redefine the terms of abstraction in the wake of the bombastic abstract expressionist movement. In 1959, his work was exhibited in the pivotal “Sixteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art alongside his contemporaries Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ellsworth Kelly. In the late seventies, he began making sculptures, first in fiberglass and later in steel, aluminum, and wood. As recently as last summer, Jack had a show of “Cut-Ups,” small, hand-painted paper collages, at the Washburn Gallery in Chelsea.
From the mid-’60s to mid-’70s, Jack went through a particularly prolific period in which he produced a number of candy-colored acrylic prints that depict botanical forms in an expressive, minimalist style. Of all of Jack’s works, the paintings from these years, which might aptly be called his “floral period,” are among my favorites.
Without making overt references, the shapes in these prints recall gestures from nature: the curl of a nautilus shell; a blossom opening; the swoop of a bird’s wing as it takes flight. Rendered in contrasting pastels with sharp edges and clean contours, they possess an affinity with Matisse’s cutouts. One of the prints from this era—a celebration of red, white, and blue—appears on the cover of the Summer 1966 issue of The Paris Review.
In 1971, New York Magazine called him “a master of the simple yet meaningful shape.” And yet, despite their visual clarity these forms are elusive. They evoke nature in motion, a tender poetry whose meaning will never be fully known.
I am particularly fond of a 1970 lithograph from a series called “Changes” that Jack gifted to my parents as a wedding present. The print, which features an abstract yellow shape dancing across a landscape the color of raspberry sorbet, hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom and, later, my college dorm room. It is an unabashedly joyful image; the shape’s upward gesture seeming to soar skyward, like a helium balloon or the hook of a great pop song, inviting you along with it. Today, it hangs on the wall above my desk. I am looking at it now as I write this and, despite the weight in my chest, can feel its gentle lift.
In the last years of his life, Jack’s style underwent a significant shift. His most recent work—the paintings hanging on the walls of his studio when I saw him last—were quite different from those that covered the walls on my first visit. His 2016 collection “Spectrum,” a series of large (60″ x 60″), kaleidoscopic paintings, stands out in particular for its bold use of color and stark symmetry. For a painter known for organic forms, these images introduced a hard geometric vocabulary. At first, I was curious about the paintings; they seemed, to me, a little aggressive, almost disorienting, in their contrasts. When I asked about them, he said:
For a long time I had the idea that symmetry and geometric shapes weren’t expressive or emotional; but geometry is at the heart of natural form. People think of nature—plants and clouds and things—as imperfect, asymmetrical, soft. But if you look deeper, on the cellular level there is a pervasive symmetry lying beneath. It has the potential to be quite emotional, too. There is energy in these shapes. There is drama. I want the images to vibrate with that, to have a resonance that is more than just visual … that hums with something … something beyond the image.
Over the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about this answer. While he was constantly in pursuit of new frontiers of abstraction, it seems odd that he would upend his philosophy so late in life. What strikes me most about this statement, though, is that last line: “something beyond.” It crosses my mind that, perhaps, the stylistic changes that attended Jack’s twilight years were evidence of a more interior shift; a slackening of his hold on the rational principles of form that had defined his career—and a growing interest in whatever lay beyond form.
His answer moved me for what it suggested about the enduring depth of his work. What could be more hopeful than to reach the ninth decade of one’s life and still feel that there are new discoveries to be made, that nature’s mysteries are still revealing themselves?
The last time I saw Jack was in November. As I recall, it was a Sunday afternoon. I was packing up my car to head back to New York and Jack was standing outside his studio, apparently talking on the phone. He waved; I waved. I considered going over to chat with him but, glancing at the clock, thought, next time. It was a naive and youthful assumption: that there would, of course, be another time. That there will always be more time.
Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York.