To Whom It May Concern:
As Head of Fine Arts at The Pingry School in Martinsville and Short Hills, New Jersey I am writing on behalf of artist Jon Sarkin. I am a professional artist and have chaired Art Programs in Atlanta, Georgia, in London, England, and in New Jersey just outside of Manhattan for a total of over 27 years. I also founded a non-profit Art Collective and I have worked with a number of Artists Foundations/Organizations throughout my career as an artist, facilitator, and curator.
I first encountered the work of Jon Sarkin on the occasion of the opening of my school’s new Fine Arts Facility in 2003. We were holding an alumni art exhibition to commemorate the opening of this new space, and Jon sent two paintings/collages on small canvases for this exhibit. After seeing his work I invited him to do a solo show in our gallery. I curated that show selecting from hundreds, if not thousands, of his pieces.
Over the course of the last few years, I have gotten to know Jon Sarkin well. I have followed the evolution of his art, his poetry, and his performance based work including his music samplings. In my opinion, his art embodies the artmaking process in its most basic and purest sense. Particularly, as a teacher, I recognize the congruity between Jon’s persona and what I try to communicate to my students about artmaking. His unrestrained creativity, complete dedication, and total immersion in his work resonate with my students. His work is relevant and timely; and at the same time it expands on ideas found in dada, the fluxus movements, and the meanderings of Joseph Beuys.
Ironically, it is Jon’s compelling story that has perhaps tended to cause the art establishment to categorize and confine him. In many ways his art is actually still to be discovered. Jon’s story, featured in several radio and television documentaries and the subject of both an upcoming movie and an upcoming book, is extraordinary and is worthy of all of the attention it has attracted. Yet this focus on his life can cause one to look less intentionally at his art. Because Jon spends a week each year with our art and literature students, I have come to know and experience his art in a way that few have had the luxury of doing.
Some have labeled Jon as an Outsider artist due to his lack of formal art training. After studying Architecture for one year he became a chiropractor and practiced this until his stroke and near death. During his recovery he began making art and has thrown himself into his work ever since. On any given day Jon may summarize his artmaking as a curse or as a blessing. Jon would describe this transformation as “art choosing him” not the other-way around, but this would be a simplistic explanation. Looking into Jon’s background one sees that his propensity to make art can be found as far back as his prep school days. His sister worked for years for Andy Warhol at Interview Magazine, and one of Jon’s major influences is the enigmatic Warhol. Like many of the Outsider artists, Jon Sarkin is untrained in the traditional sense but I assure you that Jon is neither naive nor uninformed. I had the privilege of being close to the epicenter of the outsider art movement in the United States in the 80’s, having been one of the first to offer Bill Arnett a show of the southern visionaries that ended up in the Saatchi Gallery retrospective many years later. There are few worthwhile corollaries between Jon and these artists. His understanding of contemporary art is insightful and sophisticated. He is well educated and well read. However, like the vernacular Southern artists, Jon’s work is unfazed and untainted by the art marketplace. He unconventionally uses materials to fit his vision. Financial gain, status, or popularity has not polluted or derailed him. He has resisted being categorized by public opinion.
Yet Jon is not making work in isolation or in a bubble. His cartoon like imagery, widely popular, is uniquely his own, but over the last two years he has shown his versatility by executing a series of totally abstract paintings that are most easily aligned with Color Field painting or the more cerebral encaustics of Brice Marden. Executed primarily with prisma-pencil on canvas, they have a sensibility not so removed from Sol LeWitt’s repetitive mark makings or the scribbles of Arnulf Rainer minus the self-portrait underneath. In the past few years Jon has also been focused on making large-scale portraits. Using his unorthodox approach of applying prisma-pencil to canvas, Jon has explored the genre of portraiture by recreating close-ups of Vermeer’s and Manet’s as well as using his own family and friends as subjects.
A great deal has been made of Jon’s compulsion for making work. Perhaps the change from chiropractor to making art 8 or more hours a day, 7 days a week is significant, but these are the habits of many dedicated artists. When we first featured Jon’s work in a solo show in our Arts Center, my reaction was to depict his prolificacy by plastering one wall of the gallery with over 100 images. This was after I spent hours wading through piles of work at his sister’s and his mother’s houses when preparing for the show. Jon’s attitude was simply “Take what you would like.” But in retrospect this curatorial approach did not best facilitate the interpretation of Jon’s work. Maybe it helped the general public understand Jon in a superficial, novel way, but it in no way revealed the brilliance that I have come to recognize in him. It is only by looking singularly at many of his works over years that I can now see the delicate balanced achieved by Sarkin between his immediate, often unedited, stream of consciousness way of working and the almost Van Gogh like obsession with ideas and images. He works and re-works material as he digests his ideas and then “puts the pedal to the metal”, a description Jon would like because quotes of blues and rock and roll music run all through his work. One can also find juxtapositions of race, politics, religion, and art subculture running throughout his work.
Much can also be gained by looking at his use of language. His iconography is intriguing as visual imagery, like Twombly’s work, but it is the conceptual nature of his use of language that has drawn me even further into Jon’s circle of admirers. Just as John Cage radically organized elements of sound and silence, Jon Sarkin establishes a rhythm or pulse linguistically in his work that is best experienced when you verbally walk through one of his paintings. Over the past few years of Jon’s yearly weeklong visits to our school, I have asked Jon to recite his poetry. (He is equally prolific as a writer as he is as a visual artist.) He often begins a class reciting the lyrics to one of his favorite Tom Waits’ songs or a famous passage from one of several poets whose works he has committed to memory. When Jon begins to recite from his own works, it is like he is polishing off a well-crafted sentence with a period, his paintings become much clearer and richer.
Perhaps one could find fault with the overwhelming volume of works in Jon’s oeuvre. He produces hundreds of artworks in any given week and many are a conservator’s nightmare. Any savvy New York artist would recognize that the quantity of his output could be an immediate marketing problem and this has dissuaded many a curator from trying to summarize Jon’s work in a comprehensive show. Most get too caught up in Jon’s life story, or in trivial facts, such as that Robert (R.) Crumb is his favorite artist, to get the true genius of his art. Personally I am convinced that his work is unique, full of content, and it is significant and contributes to the artistic canon. To date, Jon remains the most significant undiscovered discovered artist I know.
Miles S. Boyd