Of all the Abstract Expressionists working in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, Jackson Pollock was undoubtedly the most conspicuous. Even within a radical group that took abstraction to new heights, shifting the attention of the international art world from Paris to New York, Pollock’s mercurial personality and unique mode of painting stood out. Once referred to by Time magazine as “Jack the Dripper,”(1) Pollock is widely remembered as the man who appeared to perform a ritualistic dance over a canvas stretched out on the floor of a converted Long Island barn, flinging paint from the end of a stick or brush. Pouring, dripping, brushing, and splashing paint from edge to edge, Pollock created a new type of pictorial field, producing images that have evoked comparisons ranging from Walt Whitman to chaos theory.
In 1985 the Modern acquired twenty-one works by the pioneer Abstract Expressionist, among them three paintings done between 1938 and 1952, four drawings, and fourteen prints. The works represented in the Museum’s collection reflect the artist’s evolution from constructing personal symbols that could have broader mythic meaning to pure abstraction and finally a return to an abstract/figurative hybrid just prior to his premature death in 1956 at the age of forty-four.
Drawing was a critical force in Pollock’s development, and he used it effectively early in his career to sort out aspects of his life as well as his art. Although much of his efforts concentrated on large-scale paintings, the artist produced a number of rare drawings and paintings on paper, the Museum’s Untitled (Collage I), ca. 1951, being a superb example. Untitled (Collage I) represents Pollock’s understanding and appreciation of the concept of scale; that is, the ability to make something small, even intimate, seem big. On a sheet of illustration board measuring twenty-one-and-three-quarters-by-thirty inches, the artist has created a pictorial galaxy using black enamel and silver paint infused with small pebbles. Discreetly dripping the paint near the corners and at times over the edges of the paper, the artist created lines of visual energy that suggest movement beyond the paper ground. Although flatness of the picture plane has often been a characteristic associated with Abstract Expressionism, Pollock’s best works oscillate between surface and deep space, as in Untitled (Collage I). Here, the clusters of pebbles peek out of the pools of paint, enticing the eye to the surface, while also suggesting a telescopic view of a far-off planet or star clusters; a kind of Milky Way in enamel and rock.
It was also around 1951 that Pollock’s abstractions began to mutate, the dark gestures of paint again suggesting a figurative presence. Number 5, 1952, was made during the artist’s controversial black-and-white period, in which he eliminated color and once again began drawing ambiguous figures into abstract fields. Lee Krasner Pollock, the artist’s widow, explained his technique: “...using sticks, and hardened or worn-out brushes... and basting syringes, he’d begin. His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough, but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it he had to control the flow of ink as well as his gesture.”(2) Number 5 demonstrates this control. A seated female figure, whose head, breasts, and legs seem spontaneously articulated, is embedded in a rush of lines and pools of black enamel. It is difficult to discern whether the figure has emerged from the overall field or the reverse, which creates a tight linkage between representation and abstraction.
— Michael Auping
(1) Dorothy Sieberling, “The Wild Ones,” TIME 67 (20 February 1956): 73.
(2) Lee Krasner Pollock quoted in “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock by B. H. Friedman,” in Jackson Pollock: Black and White (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1969): 10.