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Jackson Pollock
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Using this Site

This digital resource is designed to provide students with a collection of images for courses offered by the Department of Art History and Archaeology. As with many subjects in the history of art and architecture, issues of attribution, chronology, subject matter and condition continue to be discussed and debated among scholars. Although we have made every effort to use reliable sources of information, students should approach this site with a critical eye and a questioning mind.

Images are available on the menu under Visual Resources.

Working Methods and Technique.

Pollock is most famous for his pouring technique and for painting his large canvases on the floor using heavily loaded brushes, sticks and turkey-basters to disperse the paint. Analysis of Number 2, 1949 (9.68 x 4.81 m; Utica, NY, Munson-Williams-Proctor Inst.; see Abstract expressionism, fig. 1) will clarify his methods. The surface consists of poured lines and small drops of paint on commercially dyed dark red fabric. The sequence of colours is as follows: thin grey and white lines, a row of bold black curves, an overall intertwining of white and finally delicate pourings and touches of yellow, silver, scarlet and Indian red. Oil from the larger concentrations of black and white paint bled into the porous fabric, creating shadow-like areas of a darker red. Pollock exploited this by carefully placing drops of Indian red paint, the same colour as the fabric, within these darker areas, creating a repoussoir effect that gives a lively dimensionality to what would otherwise have appeared a drab mistake. Pollock was not arbitrarily ‘dripping’ paint but was concerned about, and carefully controlling, his painterly effects, despite the implications of the idea of Action painting. The first elements of the curvilinear design can be traced on the reverse of Number 2, 1949 because it is painted on fabric rather than canvas. Elements that soaked through appear there as if white were under black but appear on the front with the white on top, showing that Pollock filled in parts of the white lines so the overall aesthetic balance of lights and darks would, as he liked to say, ‘work’.

The vertical black elements of the composition all feel as if the hand had applied them from left to right. Looking at the predominant white elements, a certain tension is discernible. The problem posed by visual instinct is solved by recognizing that the whites were mostly set down from the other edge of the canvas. For Pollock, painting on the floor like a North American Indian sand painter, it was a matter of working along both of its long sides. When the painting is reversed it is apparent that the whites flow as freely and logically as the blacks. One of the hallmarks of most of Pollock’s large-scale work is that the major design elements flow from left to right, as if written out. The left edge of the work, whichever side Pollock is working from, always begins with an elegant pirouette of paint, which then dances across the length of the canvas, until it reaches the terminal right edge, where a suddenly stymied form signifies the artist’s frustration that subjective infinity is limited by the objective length of his ground. In the case of Number 2, 1949, after thinking through the overall coherence of its composition from both sides, Pollock felt it ‘worked’ better if the tension in the whites was retained against the freer blacks underneath. This was typical of his way of thinking, akin to the wildness of nature.

The unusual shape of the work, about five times as wide as it is high, served his tendency to ‘write out’ his paintings. Pollock was also very interested during these years in painting murals, which he did not do on the WPA/FAP. The row of vertical black curves across the length of the work echoes Benton’s theories of mural design. He taught artists to organize a wall with a series of verticals around which more free-flowing forms could be arranged. Pollock often used this device in his work, notably in Blue Poles, and he used it in Number 2, 1949, countering the whites around the black uprights in a way that sets the rhythms of his oblong frieze. This shape may go even deeper into Pollock’s experience. A family photograph of the dining-room at Cody in 1912, from the same group of photographs that had influenced Going West, showed oblong oleolithographs of flowers on the wall, the exact shape and overall look of many of his most striking poured paintings.

The details of Pollock’s style and facture, whether in major canvases or in his drawings and mixed-media works, all seem to derive from limitations of education and experience. In many ways his work was a closed system that re-assimilated itself until its energy dissipated. Yet his paintings and personality have entered modern mythology by virtue of a heroism of character that transcends both tradition and tragedy.

Bibliiography from the Grove Dictionary of Art

F. O’Hara: Jackson Pollock (New York, 1959)
B. Robertson: Jackson Pollock (New York, 1960) [excellent pls]
W. Rubin: ‘Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition’, Artforum, v (1967), no. 2, pp. 14–22; no. 3, pp. 28–37; no. 4, pp. 18–31; no. 5, pp. 28–33
F. V. O’Connor: ‘The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912–1943’, Artforum, v/5 (1967), pp. 16–23
Jackson Pollock (exh. cat. by F. V. O’Connor, New York, MOMA, 1967)
C. L. Wysuph: Jackson Pollock: Psychoanalytical Drawings (New York, 1970)
B. H. Friedman: Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York, 1972)
F. V. O’Connor and E. V. Thaw, eds: Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, 4 vols (New Haven, 1978)
A. Mag., 53 (1979) [issue devoted to Pollock]
W. Rubin: ‘Pollock as Jungian Illustrator: The Limits of Psychological Criticism’, A. Amer., lxvii (1979), no. 7, pp. 104–23; no. 8, pp. 72–91 [responses in lxviii/8 (1980)]
Jackson Pollock: The Black Pourings, 1951–1953 (exh. cat. by F. V. O’Connor, Boston, MA, ICA, 1980)
Jackson Pollock: Drawings into Paintings (exh. cat. by B. Rose, New York, MOMA, 1980)
Jackson Pollock (exh. cat. by D. Bozo and others, Paris, Pompidou, 1982) [excellent colour pls]
E. Frank: Jackson Pollock (New York, 1983) [summary of critical theories about Pollock]
J. Potter: To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock (New York, 1985)

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