Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots
30th June till 18th October 2015
Adult £10 / Concession £7.50
Jackson Pollock was massively important in the development of Abstract
Expressionism and technical innovation. His famous "action paintings"
- like Warhol's screen prints and Matisse's cut-outs - have long been
absorbed into popular recognition. The Blind Spots
exhibition addresses Pollock's work at a time of transition from this
widely known abstract painting to a more figurative monochrome phase.
For both he used his innovative drip technique, perfected in the years
1947 - 1950, which involved him pouring and flicking paint onto a canvas
placed on the floor. However, the paintings of the new phase are relatively
unknown. This might be because these "black pourings" received
a mixed critical reception, one art historian, Michael Fried, saying they
were of "virtually limitless potential", whilst another begged
him to do them in colour!
The first room of the Blind Spots show greets
you familiarly with what most people would regard as a 'typical' Pollock.
Summer Time Number 9A, 1948, is a long painting
with repeated looping abstract motifs, giving the work a rhythmic kinetic
power: an impression enhanced as you walk alongside it. In terms of composition
there is not a main focal point, but evenly distributed, predominantly
warm- coloured areas on which the eye rests in turn: the reds, yellows
and oranges advancing, the blues and greys receding, giving some depth
to the picture plane. The monochromatic pourings of linear nerviness,
so characteristic of Pollock's Abstract Expressionist style, represent
the unconscious forces with which the artist worked, whilst the colours
are areas of conscious artistic intervention. It is this balancing that
gives the paintings their dynamic equilibrium.
In an era when all artistic conventions have been challenged, it is easy
to overlook the radicalism of removing the canvas from its traditional
vertical easel position to the horizontal floor position. The Orientals
had done this but it was unusual in contemporary Western art. What this
facilitated was an aerial viewpoint, rather than the post-Renaissance
perspectival vista, and there are four paintings in the Blind
Spots exhibition which illustrate this: Two-Sided
Painting, 1950-51, Number 4, 1950, Number 3 "Tiger", 1949
and Number 34, 1949. They all combine the
clarity of something emerging with the obscurity of complex, unspecified
detail. It's a bit like Google Earth.
Even more radical was Jackson Pollock's method of application, which
counted on gravity as an agent. In moving his body over the canvas to
pour, spray and flick paint, he was using more than just the energy of
his hand, arm and shoulder - he was engaging his whole body. He could
apply paint in a multi-directional way; he could step inside the painting;
there needn't be a right way up; there needn't be one focus. Of course,
some control is there; it isn't the anarchy of an infant running amok
with paint and freedom, but in relinquishing the hand/brush/precision
of tradition, by creating a gap between paint and its eventual surface,
he is embracing a greater element of chance in his mark-making, though
he didn't want to eliminate precision either - hence his use of the syringe.
A particularly good example of the virility and versatility of such a
practice is Untitled (Black and White Polyptych),
1950, in which there are impactful areas of thrown black paint,
then spatter marks outwards and thinner lines, in which the directional
energy of the flicked paint is pervasive, but to a certain extent controlled.
The unconscious - as well as conscious - energy of mind and body, untrammelled
by restrictive painterly conventions and abetted by gravitational force,
thus plays an increased part in the painting. And this is what Pollock
had perfected and this is where Pollock found himself when he allowed
photographer Hans Namuth to film him working in 1950. This is Namuth's
account of the shamanic event:
A dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor
was complete silence
His movements, slow at first, gradually became
faster and more dance-like as he flung black, white and rust colored paint
onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there: he did
not seem to hear the click of the camera shutter
session lasted as long as he kept painting, perhaps half an hour. In all
that time, Pollock did not stop. How could one keep up this level of activity?
Finally, he said, "This is it".
And this is what Pollock did next: after two years of sobriety, he started
to drink. Thus began his 'black period': in retrospect, a pivotal moment
in which he turned away from colour and in which he brought figurative
elements into his work. This isn't to say that Pollock was a colourist;
his coloured paintings tend to have a lot of black and white and grey
in them. And it isn't to say his work was entirely non-figurative: there
is a definite presence in the nervy, linear delicacy of the motifs in
Untitled (Silver Square), 1950, for example.
Just as the conscious and unconscious elements co-exist, so it is with
the abstract and the figurative.
|Portrait and a Dream, 1953
However, as we get into the post-1950 works, the sense of encroaching
darkness increases and the laboured emergence of the figurative becomes
more prevalent. Is it emergence or obliteration? Just how prescient is
the monochrome figurative piece: Untitled, 1944,
where the artist has used a found collotype print and partially covered
the mother and child with ink? There is some over-drawing to highlight
but the main impression is not this detail. It is the obscuration. Among
the later 'black paintings' there is some colour use, as in Number
2, 1951, but how the black dominates the areas of dried-blood red,
dark green and dulled yellow! And although Yellow
Islands, 1952, sounds cheery, it has a focal area of black: black
dripping downwards. Number 7, 1952, which
has a focussed sense of portraiture, has splashes of red and yellow paint
as if by accident.
It is this sense of heavy-handedness that one experiences in Untitled,
1951, after Numbers 19, 22 and 9. These are three black and white
screen prints on laminated Strathmore paper, which contain limbs and faces
and are reminiscent, in their black heaviness, of German Expressionist
In terms of the emergence/obliteration balance, Number
23, 1951, Frogman, leaves little doubt: the 'eyes' are just about
there, but threatened by the omnipresent swirling black. Although one
can find exceptions, where there is a return to abstraction, such as the
craggy Brown and Silver 1, 1951, and the tumultuous
Number X 1951, there is an increasing use
of the figurative. Although we find more optimistic colours, such as Number
12, 1952, with its sunlit green and its balance of blue and yellow,
where the areas of black have been reduced to floaters in the eye, and
there is even a bit of reflective silver, we are invariably back to black.
There is an awareness of physicality; a sense of the claustrophobic darkness
of the realms of hell; and an expression of mental turbulence in the nervy
lines and swirled paint. Spiritual drowning is the main event here. Some
of these images are reminiscent of Goya and almost Mediaeval in their
expression of fear and pain: look at the self-loathing in the defaced
portrait, Portrait and a Dream, 1953. In terms
of the function of the artist to examine the human condition, by swinging
the balance away from the abstract and towards the expressionism, Pollock
has done his job well, but unlike the paintings in an age of faith, there
is no redemption.
Nothing redemptive then?
Jackson Pollock expressed an interest in specialising in sculpture, turning
to it when under pressure. He made about twelve three-dimensional pieces
and there are a few examples in the exhibition: maquettes, which would
be the models for larger pieces. They do not offer much in terms of optimism:
there's a small head: stone and dark and still, like a death mask. What
is depressing is the smallness. There is an abstract piece in plaster,
sand, gauze and wire, displayed on mirror so you also have the underneath
perspective. It is like something hung out to dry; something from a desert.
Yet, who knows? Perhaps the process of making
the sculptures large scale would have been exhilarating for him and might
have helped him with his demons by counterbalancing the edgy hyperactivity
of action painting with the slow, precise, meticulousness of sculpting.
The last room of the exhibition allows you to leave on a lighter note.
It contains some small, intimate, essentially decorative pieces that have
a sense of oriental restraint, balance and minimalism wholly in keeping
with the Japanese paper on which they are made. There is some joy in the
controlled spontaneity of these ink and water colour works, which indicates
the extent to which the textured paper raised Jackson Pollock's spirits,
even in the dark days of 1950 and 1951.
Jackson Pollock died in 1956. His death was, in effect, a constructive
suicide, though driving whilst drunk does allow an element of lucky chance.
But chance decreed his death and we are left wondering if he would ever
have worked his way through to a resolution in which the frogman emerged
from the slurry rather than drowning in it.
Blind Spots presents an effective experience