Jackson Pollock's Blind Spots

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Jackson Pollock - Yellow Islands 1952
Yellow Islands by Jackson Pollock, 1952© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015.

A rare look at the American artist's lesser known "black pourings" opens at the Tate Liverpool

Who? Jackson Pollock's early “drip paintings” tore up the traditional relationship between painter, paint and painting and made the whole world pay attention. In 1948, Life Magazine asked, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”. But Pollock’s iconic canvases of splattered colour – his “action painting” – are not the whole story. The Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition, Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, show the painter’s lesser known works from 1951 until 1953.

What? If you flashbacked to 1951, you would find Pollock as a middle-aged man, painting furiously in a repurposed barn on Long Island. With a furrowed brow, his blackened hands wielded a turkey baster that flicked, squeezed and scraped enamel paint onto 20 feet of unprimed canvas on the floor beneath him. These were the black paintings, or “black pourings” that make up the majority of the exhibition.

Pollock’s work in the barn during this later period (1951 to 1953) is barely recognisable from that which had made him so famous. By 1951, gone were the colours in his iconic paintings Summertime: Number 9A, 1948 and Number 34, 1949 (which also appear in the show, as a contrast). Now there was only black, or variations thereof, and Pollock’s famous lack of figuration has been replaced with forms and even faces, as in Portrait and a Dream, 1953. His turkey baster poured on large, unbroken fields of paint and evenly created lines, a first for the artist. The effect was brutal and arresting, and viewers at Pollock’s first showing of the works, at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, were shocked.

Why? Pollock once said, “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” Nowhere are those feelings more evident than in the black paintings. Pollock suffered from alcoholism for much of his adult life, but coming to the end of 1950, he had reportedly been sober for two years – years of immeasurable, colourful creativity. But the period of calm ended when, enraged during a spat with his photographer Hans Namuth in November, Pollock overturned a fully laden dinner table, treating his dogs to a meal of gravy and smashed glass. He returned to the bottle, abandoned painting with colour and went on to produce these remarkable “black pourings”. Tragically, after Pollock had been drinking in 1956, the artist drove himself and two passengers into a tree, killing himself and one other.

Whether the work he produced in the darkened emotion of those late years signalled the beginning of a bold new phase or a decline in creativity is contended – and this is the central question of the Tate Liverpool exhibition. In 1965 art historian Michael Fried argued that at his death Pollock had been “on the verge of an entirely new and different kind of painting… of virtually limitless potential.” And Gavin Delahunty, the show’s curator, points out that, “He was making monochromatic paintings before any other artist in America.”

Certainly, Pollock anticipated the colour field painting of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and others that followed shortly afterwards. Yet some felt that in abandoning his unique style, Pollock had taken a backward step. The black pourings are the lesser known of Pollock’s works, and they have had little impact on his popular legacy. When they were first shown in New York, rival gallerist Charles Egan asked, “Good show, Jackson – but could you do it in colour?” Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that Pollock, as ever, succeeded in expressing his feelings, and that these are the paintings of a tormented soul.

By exhibiting these “blind spots” in Pollock’s career, the Tate Liverpool hopes to inspire new ways of thinking about the man Time Magazine called “Jack the Dripper”. The paintings are presented as a kind of “black period” akin to Picasso’s rose or blue period, and the gallery hopes that, uninfluenced by their preconceptions of his more iconic works, viewers can decide for themselves whether this radical figure was indeed the greatest American artist of his generation or, as historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued, a symbol of avant-garde art’s lost power in the 20th century.