Boasting an aesthetically arresting but subtly nuanced surface of intricately dripped layers of poured oil, enamel, and aluminum paint, Number 32, 1949 radiates with one of the richest and most fully painted surfaces of the entire series. Brilliant bursts of red, bright orange, yellow and green enamel punctuate a nearly impenetrable thicket of black and ochre splatters extending to the very edges of the composition. The numerous layers of deep black and delicate eggshell paint build up a rich, fully covered surface so that the ground is completely obscured. Atop this boldly painted palimpsest, silver skeins whisk across the surface in a frenzied and gestural dance of iridescent reflections. The metallic luster of the aluminum paint scintillates in thin spangles, creating a luminous glimmer that shifts in varying lights. Each flick, pour and puddle of paint reveals the velocity with which it was flung, yet Pollock’s genius is in the boldly and seemingly spontaneously splashed and dripped paint that belies an extraordinary degree of control. As brilliantly captured in Hans Namuth’s now famous photographs of the artist, Pollock treated his surfaces as a stage for artistic performance. In contrast to his best-known monumental canvases of the previous years, Pollock executed Number 32, 1949 within a more intimate format, confining his broad sweeping gestures to more controlled flicks of the wrist. These smaller scaled works allowed Pollock to more closely investigate the ingenuity of his drip technique and the subtleties of his artistic practice: chromatic nuances, the vigor of his gestures, the density of his paint, and the way the many layers of his drips coalesced in the final work.
In 1949, Betty Parsons mounted two exhibitions of Pollock’s work, each featuring approximately 35 paintings on canvas and paper; the latter show mounted in November included works exclusively from 1949, among them Number 32, 1949. In reviewing the latter of these two shows in the December 1949 issue of The New Yorker, Robert M. Coates declares: “Jackson Pollock…has been an artistic mystery since he came to general attention, five or six years ago. He paints in an odd abstract style, made up of overlapping swirls and skeins of brilliant color. Till now, there has been a suggestion of forceful, rhythmic movement about his work that, taken in conjunction with its deliberate avoidance of content, is curiously baffling. His new show may clarify things somewhat. The forcefulness is still there, but better controlled, as the color is less strident, and although he still avoids anything approaching the representational, the new work has a feeling of depth and a sense of stricter organization that add greatly to its appeal. The pieces are not titled, so I won’t try to list them. They seem to me the best painting he has yet done.” (Robert M. Coates, The New Yorker, December 3, 1949) This more disciplined and controlled approach that Coates celebrated is visible in the present work, manifested in the dense network of taut strokes and looping lines of enamel paint interspersed by vibrant accents of colored pigment. The tensile lines of black paint seem to articulate architectonic scaffolding, against which the looser, more freely applied pours of silver paint reverberate lightly across the surface. Gossamer strands of silver slash across the frenetic ribbons of paint in tangles of light, creating a tantalizingly exhilarating vortex that contracts outward in trajectories of elegant physical abandon. Yet, the dynamic activity of this painting remains balanced and controlled, structured and anchored by the skeletal black lines harnessing its zealous energy. Coates was not the only critic to praise the show at Betty Parsons, nor was he the only visitor who appreciated Pollock’s new work; indeed, works from this exhibition would later enter significant museum collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Boldly forging his own path within an art historical canon and effortlessly embodying the protean myth of artist as tortured and misunderstood hero and genius, Pollock is arguably one of the most profoundly original and iconoclastic artists in the history of art. 1949 marked a mature peak in the artist’s prolific career, when, after two years of developing his pouring method, he truly mastered the technique, applying a more disciplined approach to his painting. This level of control is manifested in the dazzling and tight weave of whisked and flung paint across the rich surface of Number 32, 1949. Inspired by the Surrealists’ ‘automatic techniques’ and spurred by the Cubists’ cleaving of the picture plane, Pollock created an entirely new method that pushed pictorial space farther than any other artist. From the Surrealists Pollock borrowed a desire to express an innermost and repressed self; he had entered Jungian analysis in 1939 as a way to combat his alcoholism, and would delve into the deepest recesses of his mind to produce numerous Surrealist-inspired paintings and drawings. Taken one step further, Pollock developed his radical technique of dripping, splattering, and pouring paint onto the canvas or paper, relying on chance and gravity to describe his kinesthetic movements on space. The trajectories of flung paint created varied lines that became expressive elements in their own right, now elevated to a record of the artist’s inner energy and gesture. Pollock proved that if art was defined by the artist, then the individual’s subconscious and instincts directly determined 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. Beginning with his first drip painting in 1947, Pollock’s brush seldom touched the canvas, yet his dexterity and total physicality orchestrated the fluidity, density, speed, and rhythm of his medium into an all-over composition of sheer resolution and cohesive expression.
Pollock’s reinvention of the practice of painting was neither immediately celebrated nor widely accepted; both Pollock’s rearrangement of the canvas on the floor and his use of commercial paint that was readily available in most hardware stores was a mode of artistry decreed as blasphemous. Yet, Pollock began to receive critical and commercial acclaim by 1949, the year when he began to experiment more with the full potential of his pouring technique. Having achieved his signature drip in 1947, Pollock continued to develop this method, harnessing the graphic flow of energy from mind to body to picture plane. It was in 1949, however, that Pollock executed a much smaller number of large-scale works on canvas, and instead turned to exploring the possibilities of painting in a smaller format on paper, merging the vigor of painting with the freedom of draftsmanship to more succinctly express his innermost impulses. Like his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Pollock prioritized the urgency and immediacy of his work, eschewing the notion that his drawings differed in value or quality from his paintings. Testament to the significance and artistic crescendo Pollock reached in 1949, in August of that year, Life magazine featured the now iconic article of Pollock under the banner headline, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Virtually unknown in 1944, Pollock had skyrocketed to international acclaim by 1949, by which time his work resided in five national museums and forty private collections. Of the works created at this crescendo of Pollock’s career, Susan Davidson writes: “During the height of Pollock’s mature phase of poured paintings, his further eradication of the delineation between painting and drawing based on the receptor surface – canvas or paper – continued. Approximately 25 small-scale paintings on paper were probably executed flat during 1948 and 1949 (most lack the tacking holes that are left in paper then attached vertically to a studio wall). As many as fourteen of these paintings on paper were mounted onto canvas or composition board sometime after their execution, giving them a prominence not afforded any of his previous drawings.” (Susan Davidson, “The Gesture of Intimate Scale: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper,” Exh. Cat. Berlin, Deutsche Guggenheim, No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper, 2005, p. 17) This golden period witnessed the genesis of a sublime and rarefied body of work, which includes the present painting.
Pollock’s innovations, still irrefutably relevant over half a century later, were born from years of struggling with the tension between figure and ground, abstraction and representation, content and technique. Number 32, 1949 represents the moment in Pollock’s career when the artist perfected his signature technique, a break in tradition that challenged the boundaries of painting beyond his previous Surrealist and Expressionist output. Indeed, the present work bears all the hallmarks that characterize the very best of Pollock’s oeuvre: a fully painted surface, the inclusion of the incandescent aluminum paint, a densely built-up composition of expressively applied paint, and a dynamic energy that bursts forth from every drip, implying an infinity extending beyond the confines of its edges. The nuances Pollock worked through in the present work presaged such masterpieces as Autumn Rhythm, 1950 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950 (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and One: Number 31, 1950 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Stunning, vigorous, delicate, rapturous, and a forceful “no” flung as violently as his paint in the face of a centuries-long tradition in painting, Pollock’s Number 32, 1949 endures as a paragon from one of the most iconoclastic figures of the Twentieth Century, one who has cast a long shadow across the history of art.
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