Happy Birthday Jackson Pollock

Not many people know this but Jackson and I share the same birthday. To commemorate this, here is a little piece about him.

 

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Jackson Pollock's work at the Museum of Modern Art

PAINTINGS

Pioneer of ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM; b. Cody, Wyo.

He began to study painting in 1929 at the Art Students’ League, New York, under the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. During the 1930s he worked in the manner of the Regionalists, being influenced also by the Mexican muralist painters (Orozco, Rivera, Siqueiros) and by certain aspects of Surrealism.

From 1938 to 1942 he worked for the Federal Art Project. By the mid 1940s he was painting in a completely abstract manner, and the `drip and splash’ style for which he is best known emerged with some abruptness in 1947. Instead of using the traditional easel he affixed his canvas to the floor or the wall and poured and dripped his paint from a can; instead of using brushes he manipulated it with `sticks, trowels or knives’ (to use his own words), sometimes obtaining a heavy impasto by an admixture of `sand, broken glass or other foreign matter’. This manner of Action painting had in common with Surrealist theories of automatism that it was supposed by artists and critics alike to result in a direct expression or revelation of the unconscious moods of the artist.

Pollock’s name is also associated with the introduction of the All-over style of painting which avoids any points of emphasis or identifiable parts within the whole canvas and therefore abandons the traditional idea of composition in terms of relations among parts. The design of his painting had no relation to the shape or size of the canvas — indeed in the finished work the canvas was sometimes docked or trimmed to suit the image. All these characteristics were important for the new American painting which matured in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

During the 1950s Pollock continued to produce figurative or quasi-figurative black and white works and delicately modulated paintings in rich impasto as well as the paintings in the new all-over style. He was strongly supported by advanced critics, but was also subject to much abuse and sarcasm as the leader of a still little comprehended style; in 1956 Time magazine called him `Jack the Dripper’.

By the 1960s, however, he was generally recognized as the most important figure in the most important movement of this century in American painting, but a movement from which artists were already in reaction (Post-Painterly Abstraction). His unhappy personal life (he was an alcoholic) and his premature death in a car crash contributed to his legendary status. In 1944 Pollock married Lee Krasner (1911-84), who was an Abstract Expressionist painter of some distinction, although it was only after her husband’s death that she received serious critical recognition.

Breaking the ice

It was Jackson Pollock who blazed an astonishing trail for other Abstract Expressionist painters to follow. De Kooning said, “He broke the ice”, an enigmatic phrase suggesting that Pollock showed what art could become with his 1947 drip paintings.

It has been suggested that Pollock was influenced by Native American sand paintings, made by trickling thin lines of colored sand onto a horizontal surface. It was not until 1947 that Pollock began his “action” paintings, influenced by Surrealist ideas of “psychic automatism” (direct expression of the unconscious). Pollock would fix his canvas to the floor and drip paint from a can using a variety of objects to manipulate the paint.

The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle (1943; 109.5 x 104 cm (43 x 41 in)) is an early Pollock, but it shows the passionate intensity with which he pursued his personal vision. This painting is based on a North American Indian myth. It connects the moon with the feminine and shows the creative, slashing power of the female psyche. It is not easy to say what we are actually looking at: a face rises before us, vibrant with power, though perhaps the image does not benefit from labored explanations. If we can respond to this art at a fairly primitive level, then we can also respond to a great abstract work such as Lavender Mist. If we cannot, at least we can appreciate the fusion of colors and the Expressionist feeling of urgency that is communicated. Moon-Woman may be a feathered harridan or a great abstract pattern; the point is that it works on both levels.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock – Before Blue Poles


Jackson Pollock 'Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952' 1952enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Jackson Pollock, 1952/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002 Jackson PollockBlue Poles: Number 11, 1952′ enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Jackson Pollock, 1952/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002 

The abstract paintings of the American artist Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) are among the highest achievements of 20th-century art. During an unparalleled period of creativity from the late 1940s to the early 50s, Pollock abandoned the conventional tools and methods of the painter, putting aside brushes, artist’s paint and traditional composition, and poured and flung house paint directly onto large canvases placed on the floor. Inspired by the work of earlier modern artists that he admired such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, Pollock’s painting has had an enormous impact on contemporary art up to the present day.

Pollock’s life story is no less startling than his art. From humble beginnings in a family of Wyoming farmers, he struggled for years to overcome an apparent lack of natural talent before his rise to artistic stardom in the New York art world. Pollock’s fame – fuelled by articles in the popular press such as Life magazine which in 1949 posed the question ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ – was followed by a slide into alcoholism and depression, and a concomitant decline in output. His death in a car accident at the age of 44 has prompted comparisons to other short-lived American icons, such as Charlie Parker and James Dean.

Within the life and work of this extraordinary artist, the National Gallery of Australia’s Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 occupies a special place. Pollock’s last monumental abstract painting, Blue Poles is the final instalment in a series of works which have changed the course of modern art. The controversy, however, that followed the work’s purchase for 1.3 million Australian dollars – a record price at the time both here and in the United States – and the subsequent claims that the work began as a drunken collaboration between Pollock and other artists, have made it difficult to see the picture through the journalistic hype. The time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Blue Poles.

The focus exhibition Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, at the Gallery from 4 October 2002 until 27 January 2003, commemorates the painting’s 50th anniversary, and explores the meaning of Blue Poles by placing it within the broader development of the artist’s work. Paintings, drawings and prints by Pollock from the Gallery’s collection will be displayed alongside a selection of his works borrowed from American and European museums. Representing key moments in the artist’s career, the exhibition will trace the evolution of Pollock’s style from the early figurative work of the 1930s to the abstract ‘drip’ paintings of the 50s, leading to a fuller understanding of the genesis of Blue Poles.

Jackson Pollock painting, Summer 1950, photo: Hans Namuth Jackson Pollock painting, Summer 1950 photo: Hans Namuth

The turning point in Pollock’s career was the mid-1940s. Two significant events occurred in 1945: his marriage to fellow artist Lee Krasner and their move to a house in the countryside in East Hampton. It was in the studio that they set up in the barn that Pollock first began pouring paint, either straight out of the can or with sticks and hardened brushes, directly onto a canvas placed on the floor. In an interview he justified his unusual method of painting by saying that ‘the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture’. 1. Pollock felt that his painting technique reflected not only the ‘inner world’ of the unconscious but also the cultural experience of the time he was living in. 2 Unexpectedly, to express these things, he felt compelled to move away from figurative art. As he remarked in 1949: ‘I try to stay away from any recognisable image; if it creeps in, I try to do away with it . . . to let the painting come through. I don’t let the image carry the painting . . . It’s extra cargo and unnecessary.’ 3. It was important that the meaning of the art work should not be carried by any recognisable image, as this was something extraneous to the medium of painting itself: ‘Experience of our age in terms of painting – not an illustration of but the equivalent: concentrated, fluid.’ 4. To express the modern age, painting would have to be equal to that age – not to illustrate it through an image but to participate in the intensity and fluidity of modern society through the very manner in which the painting was produced.

Although Pollock rejected many of the traditional methods of artistic control over his painting, preferring to pour, dribble, fling and pool paint onto the canvas, the effect is often staggering and incredibly beautiful. In the ‘classic’ pictures of the period 1947–50, such as One: Number 31, 1950 the black, white, brown, and blue-green arcs of flung paint on unprimed canvas seem to cartwheel before the viewer’s eyes in a majestic dance of colour. Neither a nihilistic statement nor a ‘paint pot flung in the public’s face,’ Pollock used the effects of gravity, liquidity of materials, and the collisions between paint and canvas to show the viewer how oil paint behaves when it is pooled, what enamel looks like when it is thrown onto different kinds of surfaces – either dry paint, wet paint or unprimed canvas. Similarly, in his smaller scale enamel on paper works, such as Number 12, 1949 we are directly confronted by the vivid, shiny physicality of the enamel, as well as the extraordinary effects of puckering, marbling, puddling and interlacing of paint in all its raw beauty. In other words, he allowed the materials to speak their own language. As the traces of gravity, liquidity, and fortuitous occurrences appear to have taken place with a minimum intervention of the artist, the painting has what Pollock claimed it should: ‘a life of its own.’ 5.

At the same time, as the art historian Meyer Schapiro has pointed out, dripping is one of the painterly techniques of ‘handling, processing, surfacing, which confer to the utmost degree the aspect of the freely made’.  6. Pollock signalled through his liberated use of materials that he was free of constraints on his own individuality, artistic or societal. He was liberated to the extent of not entirely planning in advance what he was going to do. His works were not based on preliminary studies: ‘I don’t work from drawings, I don’t make sketches and drawings and color sketches into a final painting.’ Moreover, as he commented ‘When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about.’  7. In other words, he freed himself from his own pre-conceptions of what would happen on the canvas, giving free rein to the physical body and its performance ‘in’ the painting. By working in large scale and by placing the canvas on the floor, Pollock allowed his full body movement to be engaged. We read the grand, sweeping lines of flung paint in One: Number 31, 1950 not as the result of a rationally driven, artistic ordering process but rather as evidence of the physical arc of the arm as it swings across the canvas. This focus on the physical, combined with the often-published photographs by Hans Namuth of the artist at work has been instrumental in the notion of Pollock as the ‘action painter’, an artist more concerned with the authenticity of the physical act of painting than with the measured consideration of the how the act should be performed.

Jackson Pollock 'Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952' 1952enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Jackson Pollock, 1952/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002 detail: Jackson PollockBlue Poles: Number 11, 1952′ 1952enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia © Jackson Pollock, 1952/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney 2002 

Nevertheless, as Pollock himself insisted, he did carefully orchestrate his actions in such a way as to ‘deny the accident’.  8. The delicate tracings of splashed, dribbled and flowing pigment actually attest to the control that Pollock had over his materials, demonstrating that part of the artist’s intention was to exploit accident while managing his performance with extraordinary dexterity. As Frank O’Hara once wrote about Pollock’s painting:

There has never been enough said about Pollock’s draftsmanship, that amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate that simplest of elements, the line – to change, to reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass by drawing alone. 9.

It is for this reason that the paintings are so compelling, because in Pollock’s work we have the feeling of order wrested out of disorder. Giving in to the nature of the materials and the forces of gravity, and giving free rein to the human desire to burst all constraints, Pollock’s paintings were able to embody a recurrent theme in contemporary America, that of modern man as ‘the helpless prey of forces both within and without himself’. At the same time, by exhibiting his technical finesse in the management of these forces, Pollock achieved a victory in the face of what could only seem impossible odds.  10.

Another important element of Pollock’s technique is the ‘all-over’ composition. When we look at the classic paintings and our eye roves over the surface looking for some way of making sense of the picture, we realise that it is not easy to identify discrete areas of the canvas that can be differentiated visually. As the critic Clement Greenberg argued, the all-over composition, in which the traditional distinction between figure and ground is all but obliterated, responds to a modern feeling that ‘all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other’.  11. Rather than imposing hierarchy onto our experience of the painting, Pollock asks the viewer to choose his or her own points of interest. As Pollock insisted, the viewer ‘should not look for, but look passively – and try to receive what the painting has to offer’.  12. To look for, to bring a pre-conceived idea to the painting, would interfere with the experience of being in front of the work.

Crucial to understanding the 1952 painting Blue Poles is the knowledge that it is a late work in which Pollock re-assessed his drip style in the classic pictures of 1947–50. In many respects, the approach in Blue Poles is similar to his earlier works such as One: Number 31, 1950; the painting is built up with successive layers of dripped and poured paint evenly dispersed across the canvas. However, it also differs in a number of important respects, not least of which are the strong vertical elements of the ‘poles’. As the exhibition Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles demonstrates, this departure was both a reprise of a recurrent motif in Pollock’s work and a self-conscious re-evaluation of the painting technique for which he was famous.


Notes
1Interview with William Wright (1950). Reprinted in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, Reviews, New York: MoMA, 1999, p. 20, hereafter referred to as IAR.
2ibid., p. 21.
3Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, New York: Clarkson N Potter, 1989, p. 591.
4Jackson Pollock, handwritten statement (1950), in IAR, p. 24.
5‘My Painting’ in Possiblities 1 (1947–1948). Reprinted in IAR, p.18.
6Meyer Schapiro, ‘Recent Abstract Painting (The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art, 1957)’ in Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, Selected Papers, New York: George Braziller, 1978, p.218.
7Interview with William Wright; ‘My Painting’ in IAR pp. 22, 18.
8Interview with William Wright, IAR, p.22.
9Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, New York: George Braziller, 1959, p. 26.
10See the discussion in Michael Leja, Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993, p.278.
11Clement Greenberg, ‘The Crisis of the Easel Picture’, Partisan Review, April 1948. Reprinted in John O’Brien (ed.) Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 224.


Jackson Pollock – Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952

Jackson Pollock - Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (detail)Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952

Painted relatively late in Jackson Pollock’s career, this painting conveys the unique skill that Pollock had by now achieved with his infamous ‘drip’ technique. Executed on unstretched canvas laid flat on the floor, both the artist’s dripping, splashing and pouring of paint onto the work’s surface and the scale of the painting itself, clearly reveals the highly physical aspect of Pollock’s technique. It could equally be regarded as a performance. Pollock believed that his abandonment of traditional painting tools (he preferred to use sticks, cooking basters or pour directly from the paint can) and the paintings he produced reflected the realms of unconscious experience but also responded to contemporary life. As he stated: “The modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any past culture”.

In marked contrast to the artist’s classic works of 1947–50, the electric colours of Blue Poles in no way reflect the palette of nature as earlier paintings had done. Blue Poles is for Pollock an ambitious transitional work where not only colour, but the artist’s handling of composition, mark a conscious move away from previous work. While in many ways continuing his now trademark ‘all-over’ composition, Pollock pushed his endeavours in abstraction further by introducing the bold presence of the eight blue ‘poles’ that intersect the canvas. Pollock uses the prominent slashes of Blue Poles to reintroduce the conventional notion of figure and ground into his work, but without making any concession to traditional concepts of perspective. In Blue Poles, the ‘figure’ is, quite radically, the abstract mark.

Since its controversial purchase by the Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), Canberra in 1973, Blue Poles has assumed an iconic place in recent Australian history. Contemporary debates surrounding the painting at the time of its acquisition extended far beyond discussions relating to its artistic merit and position in Pollock’s career. Given the work’s enormous price tag – then a world record for a work by a twentieth-century artist – Blue Poles came to embody, almost by default, a number of issues particularly relevant to Australia. These included the role of art and politics, the validity and global impact of the Abstract Expressionism, as well as questions surrounding the purchase of the painting as a signifier (for Whitlam’s Labor Government) of modern nationhood.

Now a much-lauded and internationally celebrated work, first-hand experience of Pollock’s mesmerising and complex painting serves to reinforce the enormity of the artist’s impact on twentieth century art. While initially ridiculed by the American press in 1949 as ‘Jack the Dripper’, Jackson Pollock is now recognised as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Jackson Pollock 1912-1956

With his cowboy persona, characteristically casual attire and appearance in the widely-circulated Life magazine, Jackson Pollock was the first American artist to capture the popular imagination. Brought to worldwide fame after his death in a car crash in 1956, Pollock’s life and art came to be seen to capture both the possibilities and perils of postwar American society. While Jackson Pollock’s untimely death, and the almost mystical intrigue of his abstract paintings, have served to emphasise both the ‘romance’ and ‘heroism’ of the artist’s public persona, Pollock’s achievements as a painter cannot be overshadowed. His friend and patron, the artist Alfonso Ossorio said of Pollock’s career: “Here I saw a man who had both broken all the traditions of the past and unified them, who had gone beyond cubism, beyond Picasso and surrealism, beyond everything that had happened in art … his work expressed both action and contemplation”.

Jackson Pollock - Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952Jackson Pollock was born in the United States in Cody, Wyoming on 28 January 1912. He was the youngest of five brothers, born into a farming family that struggled financially and moved a number of times during the young boy’s life. After some early art training in Riverside, California and Los Angeles, in 1930 Pollock enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City under the tuition of the figurative painter Thomas Hart Benton. It was during the early 1930s that Pollock first encountered the work of Mexican mural painters Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work was to prove an early influence on his own art. After a period of depression in the late 1930s, during which very little painting took place, Pollock commenced Jungian analysis. He returned to painting with renewed vigour in 1940.

Fellow abstract artist Lee Krasner (who Pollock first met in 1936 and married in 1945) was central to Pollock’s life and instrumental in the subsequent development of his career. Another influential contact was with Peggy Guggenheim, a wealthy art collector who was to become one of the most significant early supporters and promoters of Pollock’s work. Pollock first exhibited at Guggenheim’s ‘Art of this Century’ gallery in 1942.

In 1945 Pollock and Krasner moved from New York to The Springs in East Hampton, Long Island. Pollock initially established his studio in an upstairs bedroom before relocating it to the barn. This move to the Hamptons was to herald a period of relative stability and great creativity in Pollock’s life.

While continuing to produce monumental paintings such as Blue Poles during the early 1950s, Pollock became increasingly despondent about his work and by 1956, the year of his death, had not painted for more than twelve months.