Jack Beal (1931-2013) was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. He briefly attended the College of William and Mary, studying biology, but dropped out after two years. A decision to take evening art classes lead to his attending the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied from the old masters in the Institute’s collection and with Isobel Steele MacKinnon, a student of Hans Hoffman. His classmates there included Red Grooms, Richard Estes, Claes Oldenberg and Robert Barnes, and while abstract expressionism remained “the only valid way to paint,” it was a style that all would eventually reject. In 1956 Beal left the Art Institute and moved to New York with the aim of finding success as a painter, eventually becoming one of the first artists to settle in the SoHo neighborhood.
A turning point came in 1962 when, spending the summer in upstate New York, Beal decided to begin painting outdoors. Dissatisfied with abstract painting, he “wanted to give Art one more try” and in working from nature “fell in love with painting all over again.” Over the next few years Beal worked toward a balance between expressionistic paint handling and realistic, narrative pictures. Clement Greenberg’s pronouncement around this time, that the figure was no longer a valid subject was taken as a challenge by many artists, Beal included. His subsequent adoption of the female nude - modeled by his wife, the artist Sondra Freckelton - was a break-through. Though the paintings retained the sensuousness of his earlier canvases, the rigorous formality of their composition and the masterful treatment of light and shadow offered a new approach to realist painting. Indeed, Beal was not alone in this transformation; friends and colleagues in New York were coming to similar conclusions and the group, who included painters such as Philip Pearlstein, Alfred Leslie, Yvonne Jacquette, Alex Katz, Jack Tworkov, Nell Blaine and Fairfield Porter, would eventually be considered the ‘New Realists.’
With the resurgence of figurative painting, Beal distinguished himself for his skillful handling of color and modeling as well as what was later described as his “pushing of representational forms to their interface with abstraction”. Through the later half of the 1960s, while his subject matter remained unchanged, his paintings were increasingly given over to wide areas of flat color. In 1969, he exhibited a series of Table Paintings which, with their hard-edge style and near complete abstraction of the form, were a radical departure for Beal. So radical in fact, he was accosted by fellow realist painters Alfred Leslie and Sidney Tillim, who berated him “for betraying realism and betraying [himself], for moving away from ‘the true path’.” The incident had its intended effect and Beal did return to a more naturalistic and humanistic style, eventually abandoning the nude in favor of increasingly allegorical portraits. In 1974, the United States General Services Administration commissioned Beal to produce a series of murals for the U.S. Department of Labor headquarters in Washington D.C. The result was The History of Labor, four, 12 x 13 foot paintings in the vein of George Caleb Bingham, each illustrating a century of American development.
Following the completion of the murals in 1977, Beal continued to make use of narrative in his paintings, with portraiture and self-portraiture as a means of exploring moral and didactic themes. He and Sondra had purchased an old mill in upstate New York in 1974 and after extensive renovations, it became their permanent residence. Unsurprisingly, many of his later paintings are pastoral scenes based on his rural surroundings or still lives including flowers which they grew on the property. In 1986, Beal was commissioned by the Art in Transit Initiative to create a large-scale mural as part of the redevelopment of the Times Square Subway Station. The proposed mosaic mural, The Return of Spring, took over fifteen years to complete, with the two, 7 x 20 foot sections finally installed in 2001 and 2005. Together they update the Greek myth of Persephone with a New York setting, showing her abduction by Hades, initiating the arrival of winter, and her release, bringing the bountiful return of spring.
Beal was a founder of the Artist’s Choice Museum, New York and the New York Academy of Art as well as the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including honorary degrees from the Art Institute of Boston and the Hollins College. His work has been shown extensively throughout the states, including multiple retrospective exhibitions, in 1973 organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, and in 1998 at the Oglethorpe University Museum, Atlanta. Besides his public installations, Beal’s work is part of the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Neuberger Museum, Purchase; The Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; the National Gallery, Washington, DC; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.