UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Annotate an abstract work – Blue Poles

During this course I’ve felt a bit defensive at times, working hard to throw off the shackles of colonialism slash imperialism, the tyranny of distance, the cultural cringe. This is my moment – the photograph in the course notes illustrating this exercise shows Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock and it’s here in Australia. One could argue that we just swapped one colonial master for another and that Australian culture is still cringing, which has elements of truth – but not the whole truth and not relevant to the fact that a few weeks ago I was able to catch a bus to Canberra, just 3.5 hours down the road, and sit in front of Blue Poles at the National Gallery of Australia.

Blue poles [Number 11, 1952] by Jackson Pollock (1952). Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas. 212.1 (h) x 488.9 (w) cm. http://nga.gov.au/international/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=36334

bluepoles_carparkI can’t include a proper photo (the one on the right is of a signpost to parking at the gallery). There is a wonderful video on the gallery website, artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=36334, with full views that give an idea of scale and also lots of great closeups. The video is definitely worth the time – I recommend choosing “full screen”, then clicking the button top right to turn off scaling. In fact if you have limited time I say forget any flat photographs of the full work or anything I have to say below – just watch the video. The presentation by Christine Nixon, Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture, is interesting but sound doesn’t matter. The painting is the star.

Personal description

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undatedwww.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibitions-Museum-of-Modern-Art-286135My identification: Blue Poles

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated
www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibitions-Museum-of-Modern-Art-286135
My identification, left to right: Blue Poles; ???; Number 27, 1951

Pollock said the viewer “should not look for but look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for” (Pollock, 1949, p.2), so that is what I attempted to do. From the notes I jotted at the time:
The scale and sheer physicality of the work impress. It has raw energy, shows physical effort. It is heroic in scale and heroic in execution – one imagines the sweat of effort in creation, the painter moving up, down, around, over the canvas on the floor or wall, his whole body involved in arcing gestures as he poured and dripped the paint. It is a captured action describing the process of painting.

There are many blues, also silver, white, yellow, red-orange… The blue or black is not just in poles, but laces across the canvas. There is a beige that seems to have been added quite late, but the complexity defies identification of a strict order of work although there must have been breaks to allow layers to dry. It seems that as well as the original gestural marks Pollock went back into the work, sometimes reconnecting areas that had been divided by a later colour.

The eye moves constantly across and around, smoothly flowing, not jerky. At times I was aware of the flat surface, then suddenly would be lost in the depth of the paint – the colour and layers, but also the literal paint, crusting or squidging up in shoeprints, thrusting up from the surface, creating lines of shadow that emphasise flow and movement.

The large scale of the work makes it easy to lose oneself inside the painting. The bench provided at the gallery is at a distance which makes one turn the head to see the sides; you can see some detail, but hop up to peer more closely at the intricate tangle of lines. Despite its size Blue Poles still seems human in scale, encompassed by the gestures of a man moving around it.

There are eight poles. They could be a tribal dance, dark silhouettes in front of the fire, or totems. Sometimes I thought of telegraph poles crossing a distance, or some strange kind of forest. The dance, movement, feels closest but it doesn’t seem to work to give them narrative meaning. They stabilise, give points of reference.

I was surprised that it didn’t feel raw to me, but polished. Was that the neat framing (a little glint of order) and gallery lighting? But the painting is almost self-framed, with less dense areas towards the edge. It stays in its frame – all that energy actually contained! – and my eye stayed in the frame.

Interpretation

Going West ca. 1934-1935 Jackson Pollock Smithsonian American Art Museum

Going West
ca. 1934-1935
Jackson Pollock
Smithsonian American Art Museum
38.3 x 52.7 cm
americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=19820

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) was born in Wyoming USA and travelled to New York as a young man to train as a painter. He studied with Thomas Hart Benton who painted in a Regionalist manner. Benton’s influence can be seen in works such as Going West (ca 1934 – 1935).

Pollock, in common with other artists in New York around the 1940s, was looking for new ways meanings and new techniques in painting. Although influenced by recent European-based movements, in particular Surrealism, there was a sense that the cutting edge of culture and artistic development was now in America, and particularly New York. There was a feeling of “immanent self-importance” (Anfam, 1990, p. 79), and as described by Ann Temkin “the boldness of what these artists were trying to do … needed to be evident in how they made their paintings. Each of them invented essentially a new tactic for how to make a painting” (Temkin, 2010, 01:22).

Rather than comparison with the work of other abstract expressionists, it seems most helpful to view Blue Poles in the context of Pollock’s other work, developing from or reacting against his early studies with Benton.

Untitled (Composition with Figures & Banners) (1934-38) 27.0 x 29.8 cm (mfahouston.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/contemporary-number-6-jackson-pollock.html) has energy and force in a swirl of twisting shapes. Landau (1989, p. 36) identifies traces of Benton’s teaching in the “spiral dynamics”, while White notes the connection to “one of Benton’s ideas … that a horizontally oriented picture should be organised by means of a series of vertical poles placed at intervals on the canvas, around which rhythmic sequences could be arranged” (White, 2002, pp. 15-16). While elements of this compositional theory remain, there is little representational material with the focus on the dynamics of the painting.

In the 1930s Pollock was exposed to the work of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquerios, Mexican mural painters with an experimental approach to the types of paint used, the method of application and the embedding of sand and other materials. Pollock once wrote that he “believe[d] the easel picture to be a dying form, and the tendency of modern feeling is towards the wall picture or mural” (Pollock, 1947). His first steps in this genre were with Mural (1943) 243.2 x 603.2 cm (uima.uiowa.edu/mural/), commissioned for Peggy Guggenheim’s townhouse, a huge canvas intended to act as a mural. Anfam (2002, p. 101) described Mural and other works by Pollock of the period: “a tremendous plasticity sweeps everything together so that blunt cursive gestures, filigree strokes, drips, splatters, numbers, broken scumbles and opaque overpainting run into one dancing optical medley”. From reproductions in books and on the internet, it appears that a series of dark almost-verticals across the canvas provides a rhythm and structure in the large space. Representations of animals almost break through, but the overall effect is abstract. I would love to view the work in person, but given that is impossible quote from the University of Iowa Museum of Art [n.d.](which owns the painting) website: “in Mural it is the bravura of the brushwork—objective, yet ambiguous—coupled with the vast size (it is the largest Pollock painting) that gives it its unique status. With Mural, Pollock liberated painting from the confines of scale.” Painted for a (relatively) domestic setting the painting is intended for close viewing, with its intricacy inviting the viewer in and its broad rhythms pushing back. The parallels to my experience with Blue Poles seem clear.

Exhibition, Kunstverein fur die Rheinlande und Westfalen 1961

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Exhibition, Kunstverein fur die Rheinlande und Westfalen 1961
www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibition-Kunstverein-fur-die-Rheinlande-und-Westfalen-286130
My identification: Totem Lesson 2 on the left

While presenting these works chronologically, I want to avoid the sense of a strict linear progression. Careful selection of works can give the impression of clear steps of development and ongoing “improvement”. So I will take a moment to look at Totem Lesson 2 (1945) 182.8 x 152.4 cm (nga.gov.au/international/catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=45694). In this areas of earlier work are changed and concealed by a flat grey paint, in the process revealing or creating new imagery. I found it a dark and even frightening work, nightmares struggling out of the dark and unconscious into the room (Pollock spent years in psychotherapy). It is both ugly and beautiful – that dog to the right of the central totem figure has fluid lines and a wonderful vitality. One struggles to pierce the concealing fog of paint. As with Blue Poles the viewer vibrates between the surface and the depths of the painting. It has calligraphic elements, with scribbled marks and lines, patterning across the canvas, and a shallow space with any hierarchy suggested by scale and placement. These combine with iconic elements – the central figure (a totem?), the dog (a spirit guide?), what could be knives, or masks, or … . Lloyd and Desmond (1992) wrote “Pollock intensified the sense of spontaneous improvisation as the painting progressed; the execution begins to rival the image as the main vehicle of expression”, and I think I can see that tension between the emotion and meaning of the forms and the that of the lines and paint itself.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibitions-Museum-of-Modern-Art-286135My identification:  Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left" width="500" height="420" class="size-large wp-image-7418" /> Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undatedhttp://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibitions-Museum-of-Modern-Art-286135My identification:  Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Exhibitions, Museum of Modern Art 1969, undated
www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Exhibitions-Museum-of-Modern-Art-286135
My identification: Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 on the left


In Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950) 266.7 x 525.8 cm www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/488978 figure and ground have gone. Once again reproductions are unsatisfying, but Anfam (2002, p. 130) claims “never had painting been so far from the compositional hierarchies, perspective and figure-ground relations… In these liberated fields only the differing densities of line, no longer reading as contour anyway, imply depth gradations. But they do so along an absolutely frontal axis as if both were suspended in an eternal present”.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Jackson Pollock in His Studio by Hans Namuth 1950
www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Jackson-Pollock-in-His-Studio-by-Hans-Namuth-286112

One of the reasons I selected this particular painting is that I believe it is the one Pollock was working on when photographed by Hans Namuth. There is also some slightly later film taken by Namuth – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrVE-WQBcYQ. These iconic images are always in mind when looking at a work by Pollock, but even without them one would be aware of the sweeping gestures and overall physicality of the method Pollock developed. At times the paint is dribbled or poured, at others it loops up into the air where it twists and turns, might lose surface tension and break into parts, then falls to the canvas which captures that moment, that movement of paint, that pull of gravity. While embracing improvisation and spontaneity Pollock maintained great control over his line as thinned, thickened or pooled – he denied chance or accident.

Michael Fried (1965) argued that using these techniques Pollock “managed to free line from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures”. Pollock liberated himself from constraints in materials and how he used them, from detailed planning and his own preconceptions, from traditional composition, figure and ground. The word “liberated” is repeated in many of the texts I read. From the course textbook: “the marks on the canvas were liberated from any possible representational significance; they simply recorded his engaggement with the medium, forming a graph, as it were, of his emotions as he struggled with the viscosity of paint” (Honour and Fleming, 2009, p.835).

Pollock painted Blue Poles in 1952. It is slightly smaller than Autumn Rhythm, but still large in scale. It has the great sweeping gestures and the intricate detail, and includes dribbles of paint – at times during painting it was hung on a wall as well as laid on the floor. It has much more colour – in Autumn Rhythm there is black (which forms an initial linear framework), white, brown, a dull turquoise and the unprimed surface of the canvas; in Blue Poles the initial black is more a puddle with sprays out, turning greenish in places where mixed with yellow or orange, then aluminium, white, yellow, red-orange. Pollock said “the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture” (Pollock, 1949, p. 1) and the palette used in this painting appear highly appropriate to this need.

The most obvious difference is the presence of the “poles”, ruled lines against the web of marks. Pollock seems to echo the banners of Untitled (Composition with Figures & Banners) (1934-38), present us with figure and ground, and suggest representation. In the photographs of Autumn Rhythm I think I can see a series of almost-verticals in the tracery across the canvas. In Blue Poles they are clear, straight, dancing across the canvas. They don’t simply lie on top of earlier, free lines – further work was done, there is some integration and overlap of the poles. However the contrast in texture and nature of the lines is extreme. However despite this I found when sitting with it for a while there is so much complexity and interest in all areas that I can’t see any area as ground – just different.

Evaluation

“Pollock’s finest work belongs to a relatively brief period, 1947 to 1951” state Honour and Fleming (2009, p.835). A line is drawn and clearly Blue Poles, painted in 1952, is the wrong side. Anfam (1990, p. 176) wrote of the “overwrought, hence belatedly restructured Blue Poles“. Clement Greenberg said (about Pollock’s work shown in 1952 but not specifically about Blue Poles) “[Pollock] had gone back to colour and some of the pictures were shaky. I feel that he felt that he’d run out of inspiration. Not because of the limitations of the technique – he’d run out of charge” (Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock” documentary, 36:40). On the other hand Landau (1989, p. 222) was positive – “This work has to be considered [Pollock’s] last masterpiece. By the addition of a brilliantly conceived and executed overstructure, Pollock managed to create one more electrifying composition. Dominating the less coherent underlayers of the painting and weaving what some have described as a totemic spell, the eight angled rods of Blue Poles triumphantly exert their author’s briefly revived authority”.

Any work of art can give rise to different reactions, but I suggest there are some particular forces in play here. In an era which valued innovation and progress very highly, been seen as returning to earlier work could be regarded as regressive or weak. Although there was no manifesto or common approach among the abstract expressionists, a move away from the surface of the painting, introducing a form, some kind of hierarchy could be seen as unacceptable. Most commenting on the painting would be aware of Pollock’s emotional difficulties and alcohol abuse at this period, which might influence opinion. Pollock’s early death in 1956 meant that if he was taking early steps in a new direction any potential further works or breakthroughs that may have given additional context never eventuated. Anthony White has noted that as well as “not fit[ting] easily into the trajectory of what is considered the artist’s major work”, Blue Poles‘s relative isolation in Australia meant “it was largely excluded from art historical debates during the period in which scholarship on Pollock advanced considerably” (White, 2002, p. 14) (an interesting reversal of my difficulties here in appreciating works held outside Australia). In addition, the publicity surrounding the Australian purchase of Blue Poles and various claims that it began as a collaboration of a small, drunken group could influence opinion.

Having spent some very rewarding hours with the painting, and unable to experience directly Pollock’s ‘classic’ large works for comparison, I can only acknowledge the power and excitement I felt in Blue Poles. I cannot accept the suggestion it is overwrought.

The poles and all the other elements of the painting act together. White points out that the poles also act as masks, obscuring earlier marks, possibly Pollock responding to what he was finding in the painting as he worked. In this reading the poles become “a deliberate layering to create an artistic dialogue” (White, 2002, p. 34). Thaw (1986, p. 21) wrote of the “constant interplay between elements of figuration and abstraction” in Pollock’s work Pasiphaë (1943). Perhaps Pollock’s work in total can be seen as an ongoing exploration of the tension between those elements. White (2002, p. 36) writes that “by adding the poles, with their ambiguous suggestion of figures, Pollock kept the crucial dialogue between figurative and abstract art open”.

Blue Poles in Australia

While working on this annotation I read that in 1957, in “an act of courage”, Robert Hale acquired Autumn Rhythm for The Metropolitan Museum of Art for US$30,000, “an almost unheard of price for an American painting” at the time (Thaw, 1986, p. 9). This neatly foreshadows the notoriety of Blue Poles in Australia when it was purchased by the government in 1973 for the then-record price of A$1.3 million. This purchase was “largely due to the courage and foresight of James Mollison” (Kennedy, 2002, p. 9) supported by the incoming very progressive government led by Gough Whitlam (which also abolished conscription, recognised China, set up Medicare and much more.) There was a huge outcry, some in support and many appalled by the cost and even more the type of work – was this really art? Were we making fools of ourselves, being conned?

Forty years later Blue Poles remains a household name, iconic. I think if you asked any random group of Australians to name a work of art it would be 50-50 Blue Poles and the Mona Lisa. A few weeks ago I spent four days at the National Gallery and some of that time watching the people looking at the painting. Blue Poles is the destination painting (it’s on the car park signs!), school groups surround it almost constantly (the next group lurking nearby), adults search for it – everyone wants to see it, everyone has an opinion, positive or negative, and everyone seems to feel so proud, so clever, that it’s ours. As I said at the beginning, this could be interpreted as just a different variant of cultural cringe and a change of imperial masters. I don’t agree. It gets people looking at and talking about art – not just Blue Poles, but more international art at the NGA and the Australian art (aboriginal and other). It shows us that we’re not so far away, but can mix it with the rest of the world.

References

Anfam, D. (1990) Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson

Fried, M. (1965) “Jackson Pollock” in Art Forum 4 (1), September 1965 pp. 14-16. Reprinted in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia p.24.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

“Jackson Pollock” [Documentary] Produced and Directed by Kim Evans. Edited and Presented by Melvyn Bragg. [online] Available from
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfwUxQrDGqw
(Accessed 23-December-2013)

Kennedy, B. (2002) “Director’s Foreword” in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, pp. 9 – 11.

Landau, E. (1989) Jackson Pollock. London: Thames & Hudson

Pollock, J. (1947) application for a Guggenheim fellowship, quoted in O’Connor, F. (1967) Jackson Pollock. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. [Excerpt online] Available from http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/visualarts/Pollock-ArtStatements-1943-1947.pdf. (Accessed 24-Dec-2013)

Pollock, J. (1949) Transcript of interview with William Wright Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914-1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [online] Available from http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Jackson-Pollock-Interview-by-William-Wright-285893 (Accessed 26-Dec-2013)

Temkin, A. (2010) speaking in From the Curator: Jackson Pollock [webcast, online] Filmed by Plowshares Media, The Museum of Modern Art www.moma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/127/683 (Accessed 23-December-2013)

Thaw, E. (1986) “The Abstract Expressionists.” in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44 (3) (Winter, 1986–87). [online] Available from www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258715.pdf.bannered.pdf (Accessed 25-December-2013)

University of Iowa Museum of Art [n.d.] More about Mural [online] Available from uima.uiowa.edu/mural/ (Accessed 23-Dec-2012)

White, A. (2002) “Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles” in White, A. (ed.) (2002) Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia.

Other Resources

To many to list! but one I really want to mention – “MoMA’s Jackson Pollock Mystery” uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/may/29/momas-jackson-pollock-mystery/. Discoveries made when conserving One: Number 31, 1950, including a video presentation by the conservators.

UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Annotate an abstract work
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project two: From 1945 to the present
Exercise: Annotate an abstract work – Blue Poles

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