Texas Jack's legacy in the American West ripples down through generations. We've talked about Otto Franc, who visited the Bighorn Basin with Texas Jack in 1878 and founded the Pitchfork Ranch there the next year. We've discussed Charles Belden, who married Frances Phelps, the daughter of the man who bought Pitchfork Ranch after Franc's death. It was one of Belden's photographs that lured another man who would become one of the greatest artists to depict the West to the Pitchfork in 1939.
Harry Jackson's art is as diverse as Jackson himself is as an artist. His career included periods of abstract expresionism, realism, and sculpture. He is remembered perhaps most fondly, however, for his depictions of the American West.
According to Jackson's daughter, "One of the seminal events in [Harry's] life was running away to Wyoming. This is the cover of LIFE magazine dated February 8, 1937. The picture is titled “Winter on the range.” It’s a photo by Charlie Belden of winter on the Pitchfork ranch in Meeteetse Wyoming. The Z bar T ranch which is referred to in the article is a ranch and brand that was part of the Pitchfork...My father saw this article and knew that was where he wanted to go. In 1938 he arrived in Cody, WY by train. The train tracks didn’t go any farther. It took him another year to get to the Pitchfork Ranch outside of Meeteetse, WY on the upper Greybull River."
Already a promising artist, Jackson split his time between attending to his cowboy duties at the Pitchfork and furthering his education as at artist in Chicago. In 1942, Jackson enlisted as a marine during World War II. He served in the Pacific Theatre of War and was injured at Betio on the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and later again in Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands. He received two Purple Hearts, and became the youngest Marine Corps combat artist, stationed in Los Angeles for the rest of the war. The physical and mental toll of his service and combat wounds would effect Jackson for the rest of his life.
Harry began to experiment with abstract expressionism in Los Angeles, heavily influenced by the works of Jackson Pollack and Wassily Kandinsky. He moved to New York and was included in the Talent 1950 exhibition at the Kootz Gallery, where art critic Clement Greenberg said that Jackson produced "the best first show since Jackson Pollock's."
Jackson traveled to Europe and transitioned towards realism in his paintings. He eventually abandoned abstract expressionism, claiming it was too far from his cowboy roots. "[Expressionism] did not speak to the people I was born and raised with," he told an art critic. "John Wayne spoke for these people...he was a wonderful embodiment of the timeless strength of the rugged individualist, the one-man majority I believe in with my entire being." Jackson would later sculpt the statue of Wayne that stands in front of the old Great Western Savings and Loan building. The building and the statue were later owned by Hustler magazine's Larry Flynt.
Jackson dedicated himself to artistic depictions of the cowboy life he lived and loved, returning to the Bighorn Basin and establishing his studio in Cody, Wyoming. He painted the sequential pieces The Stampede and The Range Burial for the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in 1965 and 1963.
Jackson also recorded an album of the cowboy songs he learned at the Pitchfork Ranch. Texas Jack wrote about cowboy songs and singing to herds as far back as 1876, two years before he first brought Otto Franc to what would become the Pitchfork Ranch where Harry Jackson learned songs like The Streets of Laredo.
He performed some of the songs in New York City, including at Carnegie Hall with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger. Jackson and Dylan became friends, with Jackson painting a portrait of the musician soon after. Harry summed up his respect for Dylan, saying "He's so goddam real, it's unbelievable."
By the 1980s, Harry Jackson was one of the most in-demand and the most successful artists in America. President Ronald Reagan presented world leaders with Jackson's sculptures. Today, you can find art by Harry Jackson in the collections of the Saudi Arabian royal family, Queen Elizabeth II, the Italian government, and the Vatican. He didn't just continue in the tradition of Charles Russell and Frederick Remington, he pushed their art forward, capturing the west that is both timeless and progressive, as authentic today as it was in the 1870s when Texas Jack and Otto Franc looked out over what would become the Pitchfork Ranch and the inspiration for generations of the West's best art and artists.