Surging with the inimitable dynamism that has come to define Jackson Pollock’s prodigious legacy, Number 12, 1950, encapsulates the pure essence of his art. Executed in 1950, at the chronological apex of the artist’s indelibly significant career, Number 12 belongs to an elite cycle of fifteen paintings on Masonite that Pollock created in that year. He obtained the sheets of Masonite, all measuring twenty-two inches square, from his brother Sanford McCoy. Inspired by the textured surface of his new material, and how it interacted with his impassioned splatters differently from the smooth paper ground that he had previously used for works of this scale, Pollock feverishly created this series of intimately scaled masterworks. Other examples from this illustrious group today reside in the world’s most prominent museum collections, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Number 15); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (Number 18); the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (Number 16); and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Number 22). Focused to a point of sensational intensity, Number 12 epitomizes the chromatic vibrancy, heroic drama, and thrilling dynamism of an artist at the height of his groundbreaking prowess. The past quarter century has witnessed only an exclusive handful of Pollock’s drip paintings offered at auction, marking the occasion of this painting’s appearance for sale as a spectacularly rare and historic event that befits its status as an exquisite vestige of one of Abstract Expressionism’s most profound and momentous legacies.
1950 was a hugely significant and transformative year in Jackson Pollock’s career. In January, on the day before his thirty-eighth birthday, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the artist’s 1948 canvas Number 1A. In June, he was chosen by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and Alfred Frankfurter as one of six artists to participate in an exhibition of young American painters in the U.S. Pavilion at the XXV Venice Biennale. In July, the photographer Hans Namuth asked Pollock if he could photograph him while he painted, thereby initiating a series of studio visits that resulted in the most resounding and iconic images of the artist at work on his eponymous drip paintings. And, from November to December, Pollock showed the present work alongside a selection of other 1950 masterpieces such as Lavender Mist: Number 1 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); One: Number 31 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); and Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in his fourth solo exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which was subsequently designated as one of the three best shows of 1950 by ARTnews. Not publically shown for nearly sixty years, Number 12 appears today as a singular memento of an historic moment when the eyes of the world looked to New York for the most revolutionary creative innovations and the forging of contemporary Art History.
In this work the technically diverse layers of material accretion, accumulations of brilliant red, yellow, green, and black tempered by the shimmering aluminum paint that courses through the dense tempest of drips, deliver an all-over effect that is at once aesthetically arresting and infinitely subtle. Our sustained experience of the painting is rewarded with a sublime catharsis, as its compositional complexity continually fluctuates between the shadows of rhythmic patterns and the disorganized chaos of action painting unrestrained. Number 12 exemplifies the innovation that most defines Pollock’s achievement as embodied in the phrase “drawing into painting,” coined by William Rubin in 1967 to describe the liberation of line from figuration into abstraction. Distinctions between artistic practices did not exist for Pollock whose radical technique married paint to the freedom of draftsmanship in order to express his innermost artistic impulse. Pollock's pursuit was immediacy and the fluid union of material and creativity as one. In his mature oeuvre, neither brush nor any other tool applied paint to his support surface; instead, he placed his chosen ground on a flat surface and with his quick wrist and flowing movement dripped, splattered, and pooled paint from the can, creating complex, all-over patterns. Here, Pollock’s intensely-hued pools unite with the textured Masonite ground to imbue the work with an ever-heightened dimension of material vivacity. While the enthralling surface encourages the eye to examine its detail, the density of overlapping pigments creates a dynamism that presses outward toward the Masonite edge.
However, although often considered an essentially graphic artist preoccupied with the primacy of line, the present work is also a major demonstration of Pollock’s mastery of color. Indeed, the combination of the harmony of pure color and the tensile strength of linear design positions this painting in the highest order of Pollock’s oeuvre. The skeins of material interweave to build the structure of a picture that seems almost to possess an inner life and ultimately a sense of wholeness emerges from the combination of physical abandon and aesthetic control. Enlisting a technique of chance that would subsequently influence generations of the Twentieth Century’s most prominent artists, from Francis Bacon’s famous throwing of paint, to Gerhard Richter’s entire dependence on the arbitrary squeegee spatula for his abstract paintings, Pollock faced an unprecedented dilemma in deciding the moment at which a picture arrived at its crescendo of resolution. In this respect Number 12 is yet again a definitive example of Pollock’s genius. Kirk Varnedoe has described how Pollock determined the success of a work or its arrival at its final form: "Like many other modern artists before and since, he was drawn to explore edge conditions, extreme boundaries where coherence might give onto its opposite, and where fullness of meaning and total emptiness rubbed against each other." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jackson Pollock, 1998, p. 51) Number 12 exists for perpetuity in precisely such an “edge condition”: harboring a fundamental order yet poised on the very precipice of utter dissolution.
Pollock proved that if art was defined by the artist, then the individual's subconscious and instincts directly influenced the technique, composition, and content of the art. He revolutionized easel painting by asserting that material and medium could fundamentally replace subject matter in painting. It is true that there were some distant precursors, such as the innovative use of collage and found objects in the works of Picasso, Braque, and Duchamp, as well as the automatism of the Surrealists and the conceptual subversions of Marcel Duchamp. Yet Pollock demonstrated unequivocally that the material was the means by which he expressed his message while working in the most traditional of mediums, oil paint. As Varnedoe observed, " 'How?' would take over from 'What?' as the prime point of genesis. Changing his self-awareness from a search for buried icons or totems to a reliance on more pragmatic instincts about how it felt best to work, Pollock would unblock the way to a fundamentally personal, original art. And a great deal more." (Ibid., p. 48)
Pollock's innovations were elemental and instinctive, born of many years of struggling with the tension between figure and ground, abstraction and representation, content and technique. Beginning in the winter of 1946-47 when Pollock first placed his canvases on the floor of his Long Island barn, he pushed the boundaries of painting beyond his earlier Surrealist and Expressionist work. Standing above the painting surface, Pollock worked from all four sides to drip, pool, and fling pigment from sticks, brushes, and other implements. From 1947 to 1951, Pollock's brush seldom touched his paintings, but his dexterity and total physicality orchestrated the fluidity, density, speed, and rhythm of his medium into an all-over composition of cohesive expressiveness. This golden period witnessed the genesis of a sublime body of work, including the present painting. As one of the most iconic figures of twentieth-century Art History, Jackson Pollock’s long shadow cast a protean myth that has almost obscured his monumental achievement in creating an independent aesthetic that revolutionized artistic practice during and after his lifetime. Yet a few works of genius such as Number 12 transport us directly to the crucible of that revolutionary enterprise, and stand as enduring testament to this master’s sheer brilliance.
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