Well I tried, didn’t I? I have to admit, I’ve always had a blind spot where Jackson Pollock’s concerned. So I was not that keen on seeing Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool. But I was persuaded by my daughter – who was blown away by the Pollocks she saw in MoMA a few years ago – to give it a go. I came away still unconvinced.
The Tate’s exhibition is the first in more than 30 years to explore the artist’s black pourings, a lesser known period of his work that came to have considerable influence. The Tate have brought together the largest number of Pollock’s black pourings ever assembled in the UK and have displayed them alongside a few representative works from his better-known, more characteristic and more colourful drip paintings. The critics have been ecstatic; in the Guardian, Laura Cummings wrote:
Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots is a sensational exhibition – grand, exhilarating and so unexpected as to make the painter’s career look altogether different.
An introductory section is a bit like a decompression chamber, easing you in gently before you get to the hard stuff. On display here are examples of the colourful, lyrical and non-figurative drip paintings that Pollock made in the four years before the black pourings.
I really liked two works in this room: Summertime: Number 9A and Number 23 – both painted in 1948. In the latter piece (which, like all his paintings, you have to see in the gallery to appreciate properly) Pollock has dripped streams of black and white enamel paint onto the surface of a canvas spread on the floor. It’s the visual equivalent to hearing a bunch of jazz musicians improvise. The liquid black paint has been dripped in sweeping arcs, over which the thicker white paint has been woven in a rhythmic but controlled manner. It exudes energy but is at the same time quite delicate.
Immediately, though, I’m confronted with a puzzle: how much of what I’m seeing is random, the result of chance? How much is due to decisions made by Pollock as he acted? One thing’s for sure; the mockers are wrong: any child could not do this.
Three years later, Pollock had changed direction. After nearly four years of colourful, lyrical and non-figurative drip paintings, the black pourings marked a major turning point in Pollock’s style. Explanations for the change remain speculative: perhaps Pollock had been hurt by much of the reaction to his fourth solo show in 1950; maybe he was responding to warnings such as that made by one critic that a Pollock picture ‘comes very close to decoration – to the kind seen in wallpaper patterns that can be repeated indefinitely’; or possibly the black paintings reflect his state of depression at this time.
In the first room the Tate have re-assembled Pollock’s fifth solo show in which he first exhibited the black paintings. Put on at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in November and December 1951, it came at the end of a bad year for Pollock: he had been hurt by critical reaction to his previous show, was drinking heavily, and suffering from depression. Pollock’s bleak mood may have contributed to the exclusion of colour from many of the paintings he made in 1951, although, as the exhibition guide points out, ‘such a conclusion is speculative’.
It isn’t just the lack of colour that makes these paintings different to the rest of Pollock’s output: critics have also claimed that they can make out shapes and forms in the swirls of black that suggest a degree of representation. Pollock himself said:
I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.
Certainly, Pollock changed his technique for these paintings, replacing the many encrusted layers of dripped paint with ‘a more direct relationship between raw canvas support and black enamel, often using a basting syringe to ‘draw’ directly with the thinned paint’.
But, more than that, some critics have discerned a profound change of direction, a return to representation. For example, the Tate caption to Number 14 (above) reads:
The subject of the painting has been variously interpreted and there is no general agreement as to exactly what is depicted. Broadly speaking there appear to be at least two and possibly three horizontal forms and possibly two or three vertical forms, all of which may or may not represent human figures.
In other captions it is suggested that Number 19 ‘offers a cello-shaped body’, and Number 7 ‘a broad face, lop-sided breasts and sturdy legs, that speak strongly of Picasso’ and Number 14 ‘is clearly influenced by the Spaniard’s Guernica‘. Meanwhile, Number 15, ‘a vortex of faces delivered in thick, black slicks, is Goya-inspired.’
But, this seems to beg the question: were these random or intended effects? Did Pollock intend us to see these forms, or are our eyes just playing tricks? While the meaning of Goya’s ‘Black Paintings‘ may also be enigmatic, they mostly represent identifiable things such as a child being eaten, a dog drowning in sand, and two men fighting with cudgels. You can argue about what these representations might mean, but no-one could doubt that there is a child, a dog, two men fighting, and so on. And I defy anyone to find so clear a political meaning in Number 14 as that Picasso presented in Guernica.
After the exhibition of black paintings closed in December 1951, Pollock reintroduced bright, primary colours into his work. The exhibition concludes with Portrait and a Dream, painted in 1953 and considered one of Pollock’s last major artistic statements. During the final years of his life, as his battle with alcoholism worsened, Pollock painted only a handful of works. According to the Tate guide, in this painting, the large, multi-coloured visage on the right has been interpreted as a self-portrait (anecdotally described by Pollock as a self-portrait under the influence of alcohol), while the left half of the painting ‘contains a knotted black graphic of frenetic, scratchy energy, which may represent the ‘dream’ of the painting’s title.’
As I said earlier, two paintings leapt out at me in this exhibition – Number 23, and Summertime: Number 9A, both from 1948. Of course, I have no idea what was in Pollock’s mind when he painted Summertime – or chose to give it that name. But, this huge canvas (at 18 feet wide, it’s impossible to reproduce the effect of seeing it on a computer screen) is full of a vibrant, electric energy which seemed to me to be a perfect visual representation of Gershwin’s ‘fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high’. The canvas sings:
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
Someone else similarly taken with it was Laura Cummings in the Observer:
How staggeringly fresh and daring they still look, Pollock’s leaping black lines – apparently describing nothing – as free as a bird to be purely, sheerly visual as they dance across the canvas. They were the liberation of American painting, but they are liberating for the viewer too. You feel your heart lift at their soaring vitality.
I began to think about the parallels between improvisation and abstraction in art and in music, particularly jazz. Perhaps this was because I’d been listening earlier to Geoffrey Smith’s Radio 3 profile of the overlooked British saxophonist Joe Harriott who, after seeing a Picasso exhibition in the early 1960s, was inspired to move away from his bebop roots to create music that relied on intuitive, free-form improvisation, echoing the freedom of modern art.
I recalled, too, seeing an exhibition at MACBA in Barcelona back in 2004 that explored the connections between abstract art and music. I realised then – and it still seems to be true – that I understand and enjoy improvisation in music more than I do in art.
Jonathan Jones in the Guardian has also made the connection between Pollock’s art and improvisation in jazz:
In 1950, the great American painter Jackson Pollock stood at the peak of his achievement. His dripped and poured and flicked galaxies of colour attain a majestic beauty in such paintings from that year as Lavender Mist, One: Number 31, 1950 and Autumn Rhythm. Pollock was painting at this moment like his contemporary Charlie Parker played sax, in curling arabesques of liberating improvisation that magically end up making beautiful sense.
Afterwards, in the Tate shop I noticed they were selling a CD compiled by MOMA called Pollock’s Jazz. Upon inspection it turned out not to be a collection of avant-garde jazz tracks, but selections from Pollock’s own record collection, including recordings by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Coleman Hawkins, and Lionel Hampton.
The Tate was crowded, and going around the Pollock exhibition I heard no-one making dismissive remarks – so maybe it’s just me who has the blind spot about his work. Writing in Time magazine in 1973, Robert Hughes (one art critic whose judgement I always trust) explained what makes Pollock’s painting art:
Lavender Mist, 1950, about sums it up. In it one sees the delicacy – at a scale that reproduction cannot suggest – with which Pollock used the patterns caused by the separation and marbling of one enamel wet in another, the tiny black striations in the dusty pink, to produce infinity of tones.
It is what his imitators could never do, and why there are no successful Pollock forgeries: they all end up looking like vomit, or onyx, or spaghetti, whereas Pollock – in his best work, at any rate – had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous; he would often retouch the drip with a brush. So one is obliged to speak of Pollock in terms of perfected visual taste, analogous to natural pitch in music – a far cry indeed, from the familiar image of him as a violent expressionist.
And, in a blog post by Daniel Siedell entitled Robert Hughes, Jackson Pollock, and Me, I found this passage in which Siedell recalls following Robert Hughes through a Jackson Pollock exhibition while he explains the art to a rather bemused Salman Rushdie:
As he walked the curious writer through his artistic development, he answered Rushdie’s often puzzled questions along the way, I realized that this tour is the essence of Hughes’s art criticism and the goal of all art criticism. He takes the reader on a tour, a tour of the artist’s work, but also a tour of his thinking about the work. We read Hughes or any other art critic, not only to gain an understanding of art, but to gain an understanding of the critic, what he or she is thinking about, engaging or struggling with. Hughes had been wrestling with Pollock’s paintings for decades and he was allowing Rushdie into that relationship, giving him a sense of that pressure, that tension, and experience, allowing Pollock’s work to get Rushdie in a choke hold, and then showing how him how to respond in order to transform a fight into a graceful dance.
Perhaps that’s the lesson I should take away from my encounter with Jackson Pollock: that often art isn’t easy, but a struggle – something you have to wrestle with in order to understand it.
Why Is That Important? Looking at Jackson Pollock
- Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots review – revelations in black (Laura Cummings, the Observer)
- Jackson Pollock review – this is art as nervous breakdown … and it’s majestic (Jonathan Jones, the Guardian)