Question: Is cosmic artist Jack Armstrong the best American painter today? Answer: It's up to you to decide but you should know that there are people who believe he is and have invested a lot of their resources in letting the rest of us know about him.
First, the essential facts: The Omaha native has been making art since he was three. He says, "Talent is inborn and appreciation -- which is so important -- means you have a sense of wonderment. It is something innate that every interesting person I've met had as a child. It is a gift, especially if you can keep it into adulthood."
When Jack Armstrong speaks his words are infused with urgency, with the conviction that he has a power to create that is, somehow, tied to the stars, the cosmos and that, for the record, is why he says he is a "cosmic artist. From the time I was a child to today, I've believed that life is about textures, colors and light. Van Gogh's work taught us how to see and Chagall taught us how to fly.
"Everything ," he is convinced, "is star power. I think we've been transported here from another planet. We're primal, still evolving. The only reason people don't believe in themselves is that they're taught not to. Believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself no one else will."
It was that belief in himself that brought Armstrong to Manhattan in 1979. There he met Doris Duke, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and, most important of all for his work, Andy Warhol, whom he met in Bloomingdale's. "It is a very powerful drug to be accepted by people like Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol who are internationally famous. Andy was so nice and he loved what I did. He always told me," he says, "that if you listen to somebody else you'll never discover yourself.
"We talked about painting a lot. He said that what I was doing was 'magic.' And he told me, 'After I'm gone you'll be the last wizard.'"
The Wizard has determined to produce only 100 paintings in his lifetime and has very definite opinions about marketing them. He will not use a big-name gallery. He prefers to do it his way. And he's got a reason for that.
"I remember meeting Robert Rauschenberg. He always had an entourage. He was crap. It's all in the national gallery and it's crap. Art cartels run the world. There's one guy and two auction houses -- Larry Gagosian, Sotheby's and Christie's. I'm giving young artists hope. I've sold a painting for $1.6 million, my record, and did it without a dealer. It can be done."
Now Armstrong's embarked on a new project (photo above left) and it's truly singular. On October 21 the Harley-Davidson he has painted will be unveiled at a major event at Bartels' Harley-Davidson in Marina Del Rey, California.
The uniqueness of the project comes from the simple fact that this is the first Harley ever to be painted by any artist. It will sell for $1.1 million.
Why a Harley? Armstrong recalls, "I rode my first Harley in Chicago outside the Drake Hotel and I was hooked! Magic! A legendary machine! Sitting on my first Harley it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I thought I was Keith Richards, James Dean and Steve McQueen. I found that the Harley rider is plugged into a different kind of current. The way the girls look at you, you are a movie star. "
And, speaking of stars, many of those who are Harley fans are customers of Bill Bartels' at his dealership. They have been invited to the October 21 event.
Bartels says, "We've had promotions before, but never like this one. We did the Harley Jay Leno had his guests autograph and that was then auctioned off. It brought $800,000 from a man in Texas."
The Harley demographic tends to be baby boomers and Bartels notes that the company has "been concerned about this for many years and is trying to get younger people, people under 50, interested."
He is hopeful that Armstrong's work will help this happen. He says, "Jack is an exciting guy to be around. His energy -- he calls it his 'cosmic energy' -- reminds me of Evel Knievel. After I talk with Jack, I am tired. He's a real force."
Armstrong was brought to this project by Robert Star, his friend, business partner, biggest booster and an individual who clearly shares the artist's credo that believing in oneself is critically important. Star, who produced the film El Padrino, says, "I met Jack two-and-a-half years ago.His art is amazing to me. It's something that I've looked at and I've been around and I believe he's created a new style of art. It fills me with great level of happiness. Jack's extremely unique and even he doesn't realize how talented he is."
The Harley idea was a natural to Star. Like Armstrong, he is a devotee of the brand. "I've been riding motorcycles since I'm six years old. I have three Harleys. If I couldn't ride, I don't think I"d want to be here anymore.
"I was reminded that Modigliani used to paint chairs, fiddles and lots of objects. I thought, 'What could be a perfect blend with a Jack's art?' What a compliment to Harley-Davidson to have Jack paint it and sell it for $1.1 million!" A Bartels' client, he brought the idea to Armstrong and to Bartels.
"With this," Star continues, "we would be doing something no one's ever done before. I wanted to figure out a way for a lot of people to see Jack's art and this is what I came up with. I know everything in life is doable if you can believe in yourself and your dream."
To make this particular event happen, Armstrong had to work in uncharted territory. "I used acrylic paint and 37 coats of Clear-Coat on top of it. But the texture of the art came through.
"You know," he says, "it took 30 years of experimentation to do this. I've been to hundreds and hundreds of museums and never seen anything like it. I don't mean to be immodest, but I invented my own medium. It's so different that people either love it or hate it.
At the October 21 launch, the 2011 Harley V-Rod will be brought down from the skies surrounded by $100,000 in lights designed by Branam Enterprises. The "step and repeat" red carpet backdrop -- those screens common at events like award shows that have the event and sponsors' names on them so red carpet photos of celebrities will feature the names of the sponsors or event -- will be different from the usual repetition of corporate logos.
"There will be," Armstrong says, "a 50-foot red carpet and my art will be on it along with the sponsors' names. In the center will be Warhol Naked, a painting that's 10 feet tall and four feet wide (above, left), Pl@netJack (above right) and StarTwins #1 (right).
Armstrong plans to donate part of his proceeds to DesertArc in Palm Desert, California, an organization that benefits people with developmental disabilities. He has worked with the group before, producing a ballet and limited-edition $1,000 t-shirts to benefit them. He explains, "I grew up next door to a person that the world called retarded. But, he was intelligent and kind and it is because of him that I want to help DesertARC."
While waiting for the launch, Armstrong will retreat to his home in Palm Springs. The desert, he explains, is the optimal environment for him to work. "The intensity of the light here is better than the light in the south of France when all the masters were painting. Here there's pure light and pure sunshine. It's something to do with the mountains here. There's a kind of magic."
Jack Armstrong sees this magic clearly. He hopes -- believes -- that other people, too, will see the magic in his art and will be drawn to it.