Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952
On loan to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Gallery of Australia
Painted relatively late in Jackson Pollock’s career, this painting conveys the unique skill that Pollock had by now achieved with his infamous ‘drip’ technique. Executed on unstretched canvas laid flat on the floor, both the artist’s dripping, splashing and pouring of paint onto the work’s surface and the scale of the painting itself, clearly reveals the highly physical aspect of Pollock’s technique. It could equally be regarded as a performance. Pollock believed that his abandonment of traditional painting tools (he preferred to use sticks, cooking basters or pour directly from the paint can) and the paintings he produced reflected the realms of unconscious experience but also responded to contemporary life. As he stated: “The modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any past culture”.
In marked contrast to the artist’s classic works of 1947–50, the electric colours of Blue Poles in no way reflect the palette of nature as earlier paintings had done. Blue Poles is for Pollock an ambitious transitional work where not only colour, but the artist’s handling of composition, mark a conscious move away from previous work. While in many ways continuing his now trademark ‘all-over’ composition, Pollock pushed his endeavours in abstraction further by introducing the bold presence of the eight blue ‘poles’ that intersect the canvas. Pollock uses the prominent slashes of Blue Poles to reintroduce the conventional notion of figure and ground into his work, but without making any concession to traditional concepts of perspective. In Blue Poles, the ‘figure’ is, quite radically, the abstract mark.
Since its controversial purchase by the Australian National Gallery (now National Gallery of Australia), Canberra in 1973, Blue Poles has assumed an iconic place in recent Australian history. Contemporary debates surrounding the painting at the time of its acquisition extended far beyond discussions relating to its artistic merit and position in Pollock’s career. Given the work’s enormous price tag – then a world record for a work by a twentieth-century artist – Blue Poles came to embody, almost by default, a number of issues particularly relevant to Australia. These included the role of art and politics, the validity and global impact of the Abstract Expressionism, as well as questions surrounding the purchase of the painting as a signifier (for Whitlam’s Labor Government) of modern nationhood.
Now a much-lauded and internationally celebrated work, first-hand experience of Pollock’s mesmerising and complex painting serves to reinforce the enormity of the artist’s impact on twentieth century art. While initially ridiculed by the American press in 1949 as ‘Jack the Dripper’, Jackson Pollock is now recognised as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.
Jackson Pollock 1912-1956
With his cowboy persona, characteristically casual attire and appearance in the widely-circulated Life magazine, Jackson Pollock was the first American artist to capture the popular imagination. Brought to worldwide fame after his death in a car crash in 1956, Pollock’s life and art came to be seen to capture both the possibilities and perils of postwar American society. While Jackson Pollock’s untimely death, and the almost mystical intrigue of his abstract paintings, have served to emphasise both the ‘romance’ and ‘heroism’ of the artist’s public persona, Pollock’s achievements as a painter cannot be overshadowed. His friend and patron, the artist Alfonso Ossorio said of Pollock’s career: “Here I saw a man who had both broken all the traditions of the past and unified them, who had gone beyond cubism, beyond Picasso and surrealism, beyond everything that had happened in art ... his work expressed both action and contemplation”.
Jackson Pollock was born in the United States in Cody, Wyoming on 28 January 1912. He was the youngest of five brothers, born into a farming family that struggled financially and moved a number of times during the young boy’s life. After some early art training in Riverside, California and Los Angeles, in 1930 Pollock enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City under the tuition of the figurative painter Thomas Hart Benton. It was during the early 1930s that Pollock first encountered the work of Mexican mural painters Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work was to prove an early influence on his own art. After a period of depression in the late 1930s, during which very little painting took place, Pollock commenced Jungian analysis. He returned to painting with renewed vigour in 1940.
Fellow abstract artist Lee Krasner (who Pollock first met in 1936 and married in 1945) was central to Pollock’s life and instrumental in the subsequent development of his career. Another influential contact was with Peggy Guggenheim, a wealthy art collector who was to become one of the most significant early supporters and promoters of Pollock’s work. Pollock first exhibited at Guggenheim’s ‘Art of this Century’ gallery in 1942.
In 1945 Pollock and Krasner moved from New York to The Springs in East Hampton, Long Island. Pollock initially established his studio in an upstairs bedroom before relocating it to the barn. This move to the Hamptons was to herald a period of relative stability and great creativity in Pollock’s life.
While continuing to produce monumental paintings such as Blue Poles during the early 1950s, Pollock became increasingly despondent about his work and by 1956, the year of his death, had not painted for more than twelve months.