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Friday, March 4, 2011

Jackson Pollock

As painters, we are most conscious of "what" we paint, the subject matter, the colors, the composition, the textures, the shapes, and the psychological and emotional impact of "what" we paint. Next we are most conscious of what we paint with. We talk endlessly about canvases, brushes, paints, mediums, fat versus lean, transparent versus opaque, and so on, and so on, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps what we are least conscious of as painters is how we paint; and I think this is largely due to the fact that how we paint is often difficult to put into words. It's learned behavior, but it has little to do with oral instruction and much to do with personal trial and error. It's learned to the point of being instinctive. We don't think about it because we have so much else to think about as we struggle to create.

Pollock painting, photo by Hans Namuth

Jackson Pollock thought about it, though. Working on room-size canvases, spread out on the floor, his painting technique had more to do with choreography than brush strokes. The gestures, to him, were more important than color, more important than lines, shapes, space, certainly much more important than subject matter.  He felt that if he could manage the gestural  body movements in applying the paint, all the other things would fall into place. Unlike our more common approach to painting, he thought about how he painted and left the rest to instinct. This was a revolutionary approach, radical even to the Abstract Expressionists.

Painting Choreography,
photo by Hans Namuth
Pollock was born in 1912 near Cody Wyoming, and died in an auto accident in 1956. He came to New York to study with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. He worked for a time painting murals with the WPA, and one would have to guess that perhaps his work after the war was in rebellion against the straight-jacketing demands of producing "appropriate" public art.  We know that he was under psychoanalysis during much of the time his "Jack the Dripper" paintings were done and therefore it's likely he was quite conscious of his inner-self, in effect "pouring" it out onto the enormous canvases he made his paint dance across. Critic, Clement Greenberg, used words like volcanic, undisciplined, explosive, and compulsive, in describing the man and the way he worked. "What we need more of..." Greenberg said, "[are] painters who will risk spoiling a canvas to say something in their own way.  Pollock is one."

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