Jack Bilbo, Trianugneophilio (Triangular Love), 1948, ink on paper, 17 1/2 × 13".

Jack Bilbo, Trianugneophilio (Triangular Love), 1948, ink on paper, 17 1/2 × 13".

Jack Bilbo

Jack Bilbo, Trianugneophilio (Triangular Love), 1948, ink on paper, 17 1/2 × 13".

Hugo Baruch was born in 1907 in Berlin, where he died sixty years later; in 1922, he became “Jack Bilbo,” and it was time spent in England from 1933 to 1948 that saw the genesis of his creative life. Entirely self-educated as an artist, Bilbo described himself in the subtitle of his autobiography as an “Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity.” Like William Copley in Hollywood, he was an engaging, entrepreneurial, self-taught artist who ran a gallery first: The Modern Art Gallery, located in central London, mixed the work of European refugees (including his friend Kurt Schwitters) with local youngsters.

A large portion of the forty-six works on paper, six paintings, and various pieces of memorabilia (including his doorstop autobiography) in this show were created before Bilbo’s departure for France in 1948, though many are undated and some were made later on. In place of the eroticism of Copley’s paintings, Bilbo’s pen drawings, made predominantly with a ballpoint, have a tendency to be political, their lessons underlined by titles worked into the compositions as inscriptions. VIOLENCE DOESN’T STOP VIOLENCE is written at the top of an undated drawing of a faceless man with his arms tied to a beam and about to be whipped; tormentor and victim are placed in front of a wall of wavy bricks. In another, ca. 1948, a Klansman stands next to a beefy black man ensnared by a hangman’s noose; TERROR is written starkly in white on a black rectangle at the bottom corner.

Bilbo’s imagery can sometimes be more oblique, even surreal. For instance, in Todestanz (Dance of Death), ca. 1946, an ant-like, four-limbed, bulbous form is really a ballerina with her arms on the ground and a leg in the air. In Afternoon in the Garden, n.d., the arch of a back is turned into a face with a simple curved line for a smile and some eyes. The motif of buttocks and backs with eyes, in fact, features in a number of Bilbo’s drawings. For instance, in Woman Expecting Triplets, Returning Home from the Cinema, 1948, the bottom curve of a buttock also becomes the jaws of two faces, while a salamander stands in the place of a torso.

Bilbo’s application of ink and paint was as emphatic as his sloganeering. In both drawings and paintings, marks carry a childlike intensity; in counterpoint, the imagery, simplistic and unsophisticated as it may be, effectively conveys what his words describe. But independent of Bilbo’s subject matter is a certain neurotic pleasure he seems to have taken in the process of filling in the space with scribbly marks. Repetitive elements, for example bricks in walls, also create a patterned structure for Bilbo’s dynamic filling. Like Le Douanier Rousseau or Alfred Wallis, Bilbo projected a certain authenticity without the mediation of self-awareness. But where his art differs from that of most autodidacts is in the political burden of so much of his work. Having lost his family to the Nazis and then been interned on the Isle of Man, Bilbo knew what it meant to experience the horrors of his time. DEATH KNOWS NO FRONTIERS, RACES, CLASSES OR RELIGIONS – DEATH IS IMPARTIAL – WHY NOT LIFE? says one undated drawing. More than wishful thinking, this is wisdom garnered from harsh experience.

Sherman Sam