Harry Jackson dies at 87; Western artist created famed John Wayne sculpture
Harry Jackson, an acclaimed Western artist who created the bronze equestrian sculpture of cowboy movie legend John Wayne that was installed in front of what was then the Great Western Savings & Loan office building on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills in the 1980s, has died. He was 87.
Jackson died Monday at the VA Medical Center in Sheridan, Wyo., after dealing with a number of health issues over the last year, said his son Matthew.
The Chicago-born artist was considered one of the most promising New York Abstract Expressionist painters in the early 1950s before he turned to realism and became a highly successful Western artist in the tradition of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell.
“Harry Jackson, in my opinion, was one of the finest sculptors of his day,” said Bruce Eldredge, executive director and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., which contains the largest museum collection of Jackson’s work in the United States.
The bearded artist, a self-described “old cowboy saddle-tramp,” divided his time between Cody and Camaiore, Italy, where he had a studio and foundry.
By the early ‘80s, Jackson was one of America’s highest-paid artists, his work was collected in museums and three presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — had selected his sculptures as gifts to heads of state.
“The Marshall,” Jackson’s multicolored sculpture of a hard-riding, Winchester-brandishing Wayne in his Oscar-winning role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit,” appeared on a 1969 cover of Time magazine.
After his friend Wayne’s death in 1979, Jackson was commissioned by Great Western to create the landmark sculpture of the actor, who had appeared as the S&L’s spokesman in a series of Western-set commercials during the last two years of his life.
Before the sculpture’s debut, however, the Beverly Hills Architectural Commission insisted on a number of changes, including stripping the multicolored paint off it and disconnecting a motor in its base that would have allowed horse and rider to rotate once or twice an hour.
Jackson called the rulings “arbitrary and capricious” and referred to the commission members as “those twerps.”
The 6-ton, 21-foot-tall bronze monument — 3 1/2 years in the making and called “The Horseman” — was dedicated in a ceremony at the 10-story, smoked-glass Great Western building in 1984.
“The statue is more than a likeness of John Wayne,” James F. Montgomery, board chairman of Great Western, told The Times a week before the statue’s unveiling.
The sculpture, he said, reflects the independent spirit of the Old West and the ideal of the great American cowboy.
“The final piece was a spectacular rendition of my dad,” Patrick Wayne told The Times last week. “Obviously, it was larger than life, but there was just an aura, a sense of my dad. Harry Jackson did a very commendable job.”
Wayne said his father owned a number of Jackson’s Western sculptures and was “really very fond of his work.
“When Harry created the piece for Great Western, he set it on a base that included two of my dad’s favorite works by him”: high reliefs depicting a cattle stampede and a cowboy burial on the prairie.
The bronze Duke is still sitting tall in the saddle of what is now the Flynt Building, the Hollywood symbol of the Old West today greeting visitors to Larry Flynt Publications and other tenants.
Jackson was born Harry Shapiro Jr. in Chicago on April 18, 1924, and was given his mother’s maiden name after his parents divorced. He developed an early interest in drawing and attended Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.
An admirer of the cowboys who ate in the lunchroom his mother ran across from the Chicago stockyards, Jackson was fired up by a Life magazine photo spread about cowboy life in Wyoming and ran away from home in 1938 at age 14.
After hitchhiking to Wyoming, he found work as a ranch hand in Cody and then worked on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, which he later called his “spiritual birthplace.”
Jackson, who sketched the ranch life around him and continued to take art classes, enlisted in the Marines during World War II. While on combat intelligence duty in the Pacific, he did reconnaissance sketches and was seriously wounded during the battle for Betio on Tarawa atoll and on Saipan.
After being sent back to Los Angeles, he became an official Marine artist — and discovered modern art. After his discharge, he moved to New York City, where he became a friend and protege of Jackson Pollock, the leading Abstract Expressionist.
As a result of his wartime head wounds, Jackson experienced grand mal seizures, his son Matthew told The Times.
“He also had post-traumatic stress disorder and had a difficult time,” he said. “He lived like he was on the battlefield. Whether he was happy or angry, it was a life-or-death intensity. That was definitely challenging to be around and grow up with. He was our father and we definitely have love for him as our father. But it’s a complex thing, not something that’s ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”
As he wrote on his father’s website, harryjackson.com, this week: “He was a force of nature, full of rage, love, humor and madness.”
Jackson was married and divorced six times.
In addition to Matthew, he is survived by his other sons, Jesse and Luke; two daughters, Molly Keating and Chloe Lear Jackson; and four grandchildren.
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