Jackson Pollock`s action painting “Number 1, 1949” reflects a deeply personal experience for the artist. Explore this connection between artist and artistic process.
Paul Jackson Pollock was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose work became influential among American painters that culminated in the abstract expressionist movement. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming on January 28, 1912, with four older brothers. His early life was influenced by Native American culture until he moved to New York City in 1930. Thomas Hart Benton was a major influence on Pollock since Benton taught him the rhythmic use of paint. Pollock developed a new form of painting called the ‘drip’ technique where he laid out canvases on the studio floor, and painted colorful images using hard brushes. The drip technique required a fluid viscosity paint which led Pollock to create alkyd enamels which he applied on the canvases using hardened brushes, sticks and also basting syringes (Saunders, 2000).
Pollock literally poured and dripped paint onto the canvases as a form of artistic expression leading to the term ‘action painting’. After his death on August 11, 1956 Pollock was accorded a memorial display exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, in December the same year before another more comprehensive exhibition at the same venue in 1967. His work was to later be publicized through another extensive exhibition at MoMA and The Tate in London in 1998 and 1999.
Pollock began to formally study painting at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1928. However, he had been initially exposed to Native American culture while still young and the Native American art became a form of foundation for his early art and most of his paintings had innuendos of Native American elements. Pollock later studied at the Art Students League in New York City in 1929 under the guidance of Thomas Hart Benton (Naifeh & Smith, 1989).
His tutor Benton taught him how to analyze paintings as well as the fundamentals of drawing and composition and the teacher’s influence was clearly visible in Pollock’s early paintings of the realistic portrayal of life in America. Pollock however felt the need to express his true emotions through art which led him to opt for different techniques which were self oriented consequently creating more colorful but abstract paintings (Saunders, 2000). By 1945 Pollock’s paintings were completely abstract with his work evolved from an impressionist into a pure introspective art which portrayed the immediate and insightful expressions of the artist’s mentality (Naifeh, 1991).
It is at this point that Pollock deviated from conventional techniques to introduce the ‘drip’ method of applying paint to canvas. In Portrait and a Dream of 1953 for instance, he intertwined streams of black paint on the left side of the canvas which are completely abstract (Saunders, 2000). The right side however bears black lines that form a woman’s head, which Pollock then shaded with the colors red, yellow, pink, and gray. Several critics believe the paintings completed during this period were the best Pollock ever produced. They were of the opinion that the conventional techniques lacked depth and art needed in the subjective perspective of the artist in order to be fully understood and appreciated (Naifeh, 1991). That is why he stopped naming his paintings in the conventional format and started numbering them instead. He was of the view that titles greatly limited the expression of a painting but through numbering, observers would approach the painting with an open mind (Varnedoe & Karmel, 2001). The success of the ‘drip’ technique led him to change his lifestyle which eventually led to a period of profound depression brought upon by marital problems to artist Lee Krasner, crisis and doubt in his life in the early 1950s (Riedman, 1995).
He had a major problem of alcoholism which threatened to destroy his career and his marriage. Soon after, he discontinued the ‘drip’ technique to return to traditional brush painting but this time he used black-and-white canvases and the paintings suggesting a turning point in his life after overcoming the depression (Naifeh & Smith, 1989). He however did return to using color after his audience started expressing doubt about the success of his newly adopted form of art. The doubt cast upon him by his audience brought back the acute depression he had suffered and he once again receded to alcohol. Alcoholism proved to be a tough challenge for Pollock to tackle especially after the death of the doctor who had counseled him through withdrawal process and by 1955 he had stopped painting altogether which resulted to heavy drinking. Pollock died in a car crash on August 11, 1956 while driving drunk, after he overturned his convertible, killing himself and a passenger (Cernuschi, 1992).
Painting Number 1, 1949
A visual/analytical description
Pollock’s poured patterns on Painting Number 1, 1949 differ from the conventional shapes of the straight lines, triangles and the wide range of other artificial shapes belonging to Euclidean geometry.
The poured painting can more accurately be described as organic because the painting in a larger perspective alludes to nature. Euclidean shapes have a smoothness which the painting lacks, rather it consist of patterns that reappear on finer levels that help build up shapes of enormous intricacy (Varnedoe & Karmel, 2001). A similar example is that of Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 which has the proportions of size as 210.4cm by 486.8cm (Cernuschi, 1992). Painting Number 1, 1949 is an exceptional example of Pollock’s style of gesture or action painting.
Painting Number 1, 1949 illustrates Pollock’s ‘drips,’ or flung paint, which he painted in a rhythmic, undulating style (Riedman, 1995). By the time Pollock completed Painting Number 1, 1949, he had moved the canvas from the easel onto the floor, allowing him to relate uniformly with all the four sides of the canvas. Pollock had pushed aside the paintbrush a few years earlier and opting to apply paint with non-conventional tools such as sticks and spatulas (Saunders, 2000). The position of the heavily encrusted paint resulting from the movement of Pollock’s body through space aptly records his routine (Cernuschi, 1992). It is possible for an observer to follow and copy an individual string of paint through its random twists and turns so as to reconstruct the artist’s movement. The painting as a consequence pulsates with the presence of the artist and echoes with Pollock’s movement as the artist transverses over and across the canvas. Completed in the late 1940s, Painting Number 1, 1949 is an example of the work Pollock produced when he was sober. Painting Number 1, 1949 is an early illustration of his ‘drips,’ technique for it maintains a tentative eminence due to the fact that the technique was still emerging to Pollock (Naifeh & Smith, 1989).
Painting Number 1, 1949 symbolizes the wholesome abstraction Pollock had achieved by the end of the 1940s. Painting Number 1, 1949 forms an all-over image in which lacks the focal point, thus all parts of the painting bear comparable significance (Saunders, 2000). There is no color which is prioritized; yellow, black, pink, blue and white paints are evenly distributed but the pink and blue paints are more subtle only in the areas that the other colors overlap them.
The absence of a focal point also allows the observer to wholly view the entire painting, denying the observer’s effort to remain perceptive on one particular area of the painting and moreover, the eye perceives the painting as a single unit rather than in segments.
The theme of Painting Number 1, 1949 as well as other Pollock’s paintings completed in the late 1940s is contemporary self-preoccupations. Pollock used the abstracts to define the way he was thinking at a subconscious level and not his impression of the world (Naifeh & Smith, 1989). He intentionally allowed the observers of the painting to understand the perception of the artist rather than let the observers comprehend the social perspective of the artist.
Pollock therefore used Painting Number 1, 1949 to express the occurrences in his life and mind unlike conventional artists. Pollock had for a long time been searching for a technique that would defy conventional painting techniques since he felt that conventional techniques did not represent art. His first painting to attempt to break this barrier was Mural in which he vaguely applied the “drip” technique.
Early life experiences with Native Americans can be said to have played a crucial foundational role in the inception of the Paul Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ technique. The Going West painting was among the first paintings which illustrated the commencement of Jackson Pollock’s inclination towards abstract paintings.
Pollock was still a student of Thomas Hart Benton, but it was already apparent that they differed in terms of perception. She-Wolf, which was completed in 1943, was Jackson Pollock’s first abstract painting. Benton had already influenced him in that Pollock was no longer interested in conventional paintings, rather he needed to venture out like Benton and create art that not only represented people but of life itself (Saunders, 2000). Pollock abandoned the Regionalist style and opted for abstracted images, color contrasts and dense surfaces that were identical to the work of Picasso (Naifeh, 1991). In She-Wolf, Pollock integrated elements that reveal his interest in mythology. The painting was based on the story of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a female wolf and from this painting; Pollock would specialize in the abstract technique (Riedman, 1995).
Subsequent paintings were not widely received, for instance Mural of 1943-1944 which is the largest painting that was created by Pollock. This is also the first painting that was taken off the easel and onto the floor (Saunders, 2000). In addition, the Mural painting was the first painting that Pollock used the “drip” technique on. From Mural, Pollock would only get better at his technique and he followed up mural with Composition (White, Black, Blue and Red on White) in 1948.
It is in Composition that Pollock completely discontinued the illustration of identifiable images and this painting had no representation of human or animal form.
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Varnedoe, Krum. & Karmel, Pumes. Jackson Pollock: Essays, Chronology, and Bibliography. New York: Macmillan Press, 2001. Print.