Pollock’s stature as a heroic figure in the world of mid-twentieth century art and cultural history is inescapable and transformative. As the immediate precursors of the final breakthrough to his epochal “drip” technique in 1947, paintings such as The Blue Unconscious of late 1946 are definitive and eloquent proclamations of Pollock’s bold assault on painterly norms. In scale, composition, palette and gesture, The Blue Unconscious and its fellow paintings of the late 1940s ushered in an entire new world of aesthetic concerns in 20th century art. Pollock paved the way for radical explorations into the limitless possibilities of modern abstract art. Previously owned by the Belgian collector, Philippe Dotrement, and residing in the current private collection since 1965, The Blue Unconscious is the largest of the seven paintings in Pollock’s “Sounds in the Grass” series of 1946 which internalize his profound response to the landscape of his new home in Long Island. It is one of only two works from the series still in private hands: three of the series are in the Peggy Guggenheim, Foundation, Venice, while two are in the Tel Aviv Museum and one, Shimmering Substance, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1968.
When The Blue Unconscious was painted in Summer 1946, Pollock’s tenure with Peggy Guggenheim (1943-1947) was approaching its culmination, and the paintings he created for his final exhibition there in January 1947, are an aggressive departure from his earlier work and signal the final chapter in his gradual surrender to non-figurative abstraction. In The Blue Unconscious, his potent images, all-over composition and aggressive painterly technique gave visual expression to a watershed era of reinvention that was stirring in all forms of culture in the late 1930s and 1940s. Young questing minds grappled with new theories, burning to break with the past and create new orders of thought and expression. In his field of painting, Pollock was at the forefront of New York Abstract Expressionism, the historic movement that both celebrated and then surpassed the earlier advances of European and American Modernism. The Blue Unconscious embodies Pollock’s search for an organic integration of both imagery with abstraction as well as emotive impulse with technique. By 1946, Pollock had mastered the muscular and invigorating painterliness inherent to his work, while imagery, vibrant color and energetic physicality press the boundaries of this monumental 8 x 5 ½ foot canvas. With the dazzling confidence and bravura of works such as The Blue Unconscious, Pollock became the first American to gain public, media and critical recognition as a modern master on par with the Europeans, skyrocketing to a position of fame that grew to mythic proportions throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. The famous Life magazine article in August 1949, with the title “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” heralded not only Pollock’s personal acclaim as an artist, but his role as the standard bearer for American art on the international stage. Although Pollock was not alone in his desire to fuse the challenges of Modernist art into an individual artistic identity, none other than his fellow giant, Willem de Kooning, acknowledged Pollock’s role when he stated, ``Pollock broke the ice.’’
The association of Pollock and Peggy Guggenheim was the engine behind this rise in prominence, and as such was essential to the history of contemporary art. Leaving Europe and its troubles, Guggenheim moved to New York where she would realize her dream of a museum for her growing collection of European modern art which she had shipped from France in 1941 and continued to augment on her arrival to New York. Guggenheim’s first thoughts – a revival of an idea she first proposed in London – were of a showcase for the European avant-garde that were the focus of her social life and collection. Many of these émigré artists continued to flock to her home as the unofficial salon of Surrealism in America, and her circle of advisers for her museum gallery – to be called Art of This Century –- were primarily European: her husband Max Ernst, his son Jimmy Ernst, André Breton and the avant-garde architect Frederick Kiesler. Once a suitable double loft space was found on West 57th Street, Kiesler designed – with Peggy’s full endorsement – a radical re-imaging of an art space, to “break down the physical and mental barriers which separate people from the art they live with.” (Jacqueline Bogard Weld, Peggy: the Wayward Guggenheim, New York, 1986, p. 285) Paintings were taken out of their frames and suspended out from walls on sawed-off baseball bats, wires and movable stands. The walls themselves provided no traditional vantage point as they bowed and curved. Kiesler’s system of pulsating lights would be abandoned as impractical, but his turquoise floors, multi-purpose furniture and “kinetic” wheel devices for displaying multiple works were the delight of the opening night crowd on October 20, 1942. Peggy had extravagantly announced her presence in the New York art world, declaring her gallery “a research laboratory for new ideas”, yet Alexander Calder was one of only two American artists represented in Guggenheim’s modernist collection. The art enthusiast Howard Putzel was the sole American in her inner circle, but that circle was changing rapidly as Ernst began an adulterous affair with artist Dorothea Tanning and Breton’s relationship with Peggy also soured. Soon James Johnson Sweeney, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, supplanted Breton, and he joined Putzel and the painter Matta in encouraging Guggenheim to turn her attention to American art and Jackson Pollock in particular. She held a Spring salon in 1943 for young artists to submit work to a jury of both Americans and Europeans, and Piet Mondrian’s comment on viewing Pollock’s Stenographic Figure - that “this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America” - was the ultimate endorsement in Peggy’s eyes. Through the duration of her gallery and despite tensions in the relationship, Pollock would be her central focus and her main protégée.
For his part, the relationship meant that Pollock could at long last make a modest living as a painter with a contract for a $150 monthly stipend advanced toward the sale of his paintings; an unprecedented arrangement for a young American artist. Guggenheim offered him a one-man show in November 1943, and the paintings hung in the so-called "Daylight Gallery" that faced the street and included Peggy's desk. Thus, Pollock would be the first American artist to have a show at Art of This Century. By the time Peggy closed the gallery in Spring 1947, Pollock would be fully acknowledged as the leading American painter of the post-war period and The Blue Unconscious would take its place among the paintings in his highly regarded last show at the gallery in January 1947.
The November 1943 exhibition was the first in-depth public showing of Pollock’s volcanic and instinctive talent. He painted with a raw power that confounded, dared and aroused viewers, most potently as he moved onto larger canvases over 50 inches in 1942. In that year, Pollock painted only three works on canvas and they were highlights of the 1943 exhibition. All three now hang in prestigious public collections: The Moon Woman (Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice), Male and Female (Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Stenographic Figure (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). James Johnson Sweeney wrote the text for the exhibition’s brochure and praised Pollock’s work as “lavish, explosive”, while he also lamented the cautious nature of many young painters, “who tend to be too careful of opinion. Too often the dish is allowed to chill in the serving. What we need is more young men who paint from inner impulsion without an ear to what the critic or spectator may feel… Among young painters, Jackson Pollock offers unusual promise in his exuberance, independence, and native sensibility. If he continues to exploit these qualities with the courage and confidence he has shown so far, he will fulfill that promise”. (Exh. Cat., New York, Art of this Century, First Exhibition: Jackson Pollock, Paintings and Drawings, November 9-27, 1943) Arguably, Pollock did fulfill his promise with the expansive Mural that was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, also in 1943, for the entry to her home, which she later gifted to the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1951. Painted in a fifteen hour session, Pollock’s figurations stampede across the canvas, with curves and swirls from edge to edge, as it fills a span of nearly 8 x 20 feet. Hints of the drip technique and the vigorous edge-to-edge composition of the paint strokes bear tantalizing proof of the other masterworks to follow. Painted seven years prior to Willem de Kooning’s monumental 81 x 100 inch Excavation from 1950, Mural shares affinities with the fractured figurations of his fellow artist’s later masterpiece and Pollock’s paintings of 1946 that were exhibited in January 1947 alongside Mural were cited by critics as fulfilling the promise of his paintings of 1943.
The Moon Woman and other subsequent paintings such as Pasiphaë of 1943 (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) all give ample visual testimony to the critical influence of Surrealism and Cubism in Pollock’s development, as acknowledged by both the artist and critics alike. In a text written by Pollock for the February 1944 issue of Arts & Architecture, he referenced the European artists who had immigrated to New York during the previous decade: “They bring with them an understanding of the problem of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious. The idea interests me more than these specific painters, for the two artists I admire most, Picasso and Miró, are still abroad.” (“Jackson Pollock”, Arts & Architecture [Los Angeles] 61, no. 2, p.14) In the 1930s and early 1940s, Pollock struggled heroically toward such an inner vision, combining the subconscious content of Surrealism with the formal structure of Analytic Cubism.
Along with other American artists, Pollock sought to express the turmoil of modern times through symbols of the most eternal and universal nature. Surrealism’s emotive content and organic figuration were tools to liberate an artist’s psyche, and the title of The Blue Unconscious is a concise and elegiac confirmation of Pollock’s belief in the creative richness that could be sourced from an artist’s own nature. Primitive and tortured creatures abound in his psycho-analytical drawings of the 1930s as well as the early abstract canvases such as The Moon Woman and Male and Female (1942). Also, many of his paintings from 1942 to 1946 have a distinct mythological and ritualistic character as evidenced by titles from this period such as The She-Wolf (1943, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), The Guardians of the Secret (1943, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Totem Lesson II (1945, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra). The male and female forms, often at the edges of the canvas like sentinels at the gates, were one of his most powerful motifs in the 1940s, but Pollock’s goal – achieved in the Sounds in the Grass series of 1946 – was to “veil” his imagery in order to universalize and abstract his concept.
Paintings of the early 1940s such as Mural and Pasiphaë of 1943, There were Seven in Eight (1945, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Troubled Queen (c. 1945, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) display the black calligraphic tracery, jagged edges, vivid color and agitated brushwork that would persist in the 1940s, but they are more densely composed. Pollock’s Surrealist images are presented in the shallow, tilted and unspecific space of the Cubist picture plane and filled to brimming with compacted energy. In May 1938, Picasso’s monumental Guernica and its preparatory sketches were shown at the Valentine Gallery on 57th Street. Pollock repeatedly visited this show, often sketching, and his profound admiration for the Spanish master is evident throughout the 1940s and integrated most persuasively in the latter half of the decade. Just as Picasso’s figures in his contemporaneous The Charnel House (1944-1945, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) writhe in sinuous rhythms while pressed to the picture plane, Pollock’s fragmented sentinels, eyes and limbs oscillate and pulsate within the geometric framework and the shallow Cubist space of The Blue Unconscious. The bravura technique and confident composition of this 1946 painting was a beacon toward Pollock’s imminent progression to the all-over drip technique, and both were occasioned by the liberating change of venue in Pollock’s life.
By the time of Pollock’s second one-man show at Art of This Century in 1945, the critic Clement Greenberg had become a true champion of Pollock’s work, commenting that the recent exhibition “establishes him, in my opinion, as the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest to emerge since Miró.” (Clement Greenberg, “Art”, The Nation 160, April 7, 1945, no. 14, pp. 396-398) Pollock, who had begun his relationship and creative partnership with the painter Lee Krasner in Winter 1941, must have been gratified by such favor, but the pressures and activity of the New York art world were wearing. So in October and November of 1945, Pollock and Krasner married and moved to Springs, East Hampton, Long Island. When he held his fourth and final one-man exhibition at Art of This Century, the show would include the monumental Mural of 1943 and the two groups of works painted in the first glorious year at Springs: the Accabonac Creek series named for the waterway that could be seen from Pollock’s Long Island property and the Sounds in the Grass series which includes The Blue Unconscious. Lee Krasner and Pollock’s friends all noted his affinity to the return to the countryside. The wide vista of the ocean and dunes reminded him of the expansive Western landscapes of his youth, and his wife commented on the pleasure he took in strolling along the shore and sitting with her on their porch for countless hours. As Ellen Landau observed, “eastern Long Island became an integral part of Jackson Pollock’s consciousness; specifically attracted to this horizontality and the concomitant feeling of open space, he extrapolated from these a new sense of freedom and potential.” (Ellen G. Landau, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1989, p. 161) The dealer Julien Levy recounted comments by Pollock that are immensely important in relation to the Sounds of the Grass series. “These words of his stay with me …’You can hear the life in the grass, hear it growing. Next thing there’s a dry spell…and the life is gone. Put your ear to it then and all you hear is the wind’.” (Ibid., p. 159)
In the beginning, Pollock stopped working during the harsh winter of 1945-1946 but when warm weather returned, he set up a makeshift studio in their upstairs bedroom. The Accabonac Creek series was painted in these cramped quarters, yet one can sense the vibrant inspiration of nature in the exuberant color palette of works in this series such as The Water Bull and The Key. There is a kindred spirit here of Wassily Kandinsky as both artists use color to express their interior experience; moreover color is largely independent of form and each hue is given equal value in the Fauvist tradition of the early Twentieth Century. Pollock was again painting in a large scale and The Key, measuring (59 x 84 inches) was mounted on a curtain strainer and painted while on the floor. By mid-summer, Pollock had relocated the barn on their property and repurposed it as a studio, thus moving out into the land and commencing the period of greatest inspiration and fame in his oeuvre. Guggenheim had announced that she was closing Art of This Century in Spring 1947 and returning to Europe. Although Pollock had just exhibited there in April 1946, he prevailed upon her to give him one final show in the only open spot on her schedule – January 1947. He launched into a creative and productive frenzy in a desire to create a strong group of works to populate the exhibition and ensure the progress of his career.
The Blue Unconscious and the other six paintings of the Sounds in the Grass series were the first paintings completed in the barn studio that would later witness the choreography of dripping paint of such works as Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950. Beginning with The Blue Unconscious, this series is progressively less figurative than the Accabonac Creek paintings with richer paint handling and more all-over compositions until any imagery is completely “veiled” and Pollock’s signature style – his true voice as an artist – emerges. The Sounds in the Grass canvases are triumphant examples of Pollock’s complete melding of figuration and painterly abstraction, with early "all-over" compositions of swooping and colorful brushwork. His figures become less discernible in The Blue Unconscious, their shapes so abstracted as to be almost as mysterious as the symbols surrounding them. In the subsequent Sounds in the Grass paintings, imagery is even more fractured into densely composed expressive strokes than The Blue Unconscious but they retain the same sense of liberation, primal energy and audacity that link Pollock to the surroundings of water, marshland, and expansive sea and sky reflected in their titles. Croaking Moment, Eyes in the Heat, The Dancers and Earthworms are all evocative of nature or figuration but perhaps Something of the Past, Shimmering Substance and The Blue Unconscious are the most poetic and soulful.
The thickly applied colors of The Blue Unconscious are scored with Pollock’s deep, agitated and bold strokes that so uniquely activate the surface of his paintings. The color palette of The Blue Unconscious is distinctive in the Sounds of Grass series and shares a kinship with The Water Bull and other Accabonac Creek works, yet it is even lighter and airier. In his review of the January 1947 show Clement Greenberg would comment on Pollock’s move away from darker palette choices toward “the higher scales, the alizarins, cream-whites, cerulean blues, pinks, and sharp greens.” (Clement Greenberg, “Art”, The Nation 164, no. 5, Feb. 1, 1947, pp. 137-39) Ellen Landau and others have drawn strong parallels between Pollock and Matisse at this juncture: “rather more immediately brought to mind are the mixed technique of ‘broken touch’ pre-Fauve works of Matisse. Underlining the parallel is the fact that these, too, were a response to new surroundings; in the years 1905 and 1906 Matisse had left Paris for the south of France, whose light and color beguiled him, inspiring change in his work. ..Both artists applied bright pigments freely and sketchily in fluid areas that would probably make little or no coherent sense without the intermittent broken outlines that tie the composition together. Incorporation of the white of the canvas as a ‘color’ of equal value…causes these new works by Pollock to seem buoyant, expansive, and spacious again characteristics of the style of Matisse.” (Ibid., p. 163)
The Blue Unconscious is the largest of the works in the Sounds in the Grass series, and in its monumentality, one can feel how physicality abounds in Pollock’s thickly applied and gestural brushwork. In the dexterity of movement from wrist to arm to body, the medium of painting had found its master, and Pollock painted with a sure confidence in the fluidity of the paint – always striving toward an orchestration of its quantity, density, speed and rhythm into a completely cohesive unity of composition and expressiveness. When his canvases moved to the floor of his Long Island barn studio in late 1946 and 1947, the exuberance, daring and sheer painterly verve that coursed through paintings such as 1943’s Mural and 1946’s The Blue Unconscious gave birth to the landmark enamel drip paintings that followed.
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