"I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing; that is, it's direct.''
Jackson Pollock interviewed by William Wright, Summer 1950, cited in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 144
Worthy of the highest critical acclaim, yet readily surpassing the inadequacies of mere written description, Jackson Pollock’s Number 4, 1951 encapsulates on one canvas the pure essence of his art and is, quite simply, a resounding and incontrovertible masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism. The occasion of this painting’s appearance for sale is a spectacularly rare and historic event: in the past quarter century only an elite handful of drip paintings on canvas by Pollock have been offered at auction. Executed in 1951, this work epitomizes the chromatic variance, heroic drama and thrilling dynamism of the 1950 masterworks that had just been exhibited at Betty Parsons' Gallery in New York from November to December, 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). Focused to a point of sensational intensity, the layering here of brilliant red, blue, yellow, green and ochre oil color is tempered by the metallic aluminum paint that seeps into the raw canvas, which in turn is overlaid by the frenzied poetic chaos and flecked matrices of shiny black enamel. This painting thus represents the heightened epitome of Pollock’s preceding definitive period, and anticipates the creation of such works as the more monochromatic Brown and Silver I (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and the subsequent graphic severity of the black enamel on unprimed canvases that occupied the artist for the remainder of 1951.
The painting has resided in the present owner's collection for over thirty years, prior to which its provenance was highly prestigious. Its first private owner was Dr. Ruth Fox, the distinguished psychoanalyst and expert on the treatment of alcoholism, who treated Jackson Pollock in 1951-2, near the time of the work’s execution. Following other distinguished subsequent owners, Stephen D. Paine was an eminent collector, museum benefactor and trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for over twenty years. His collection included a number of Abstract Expressionist masterworks, including the Willem de Kooning pastel Woman of 1952 that set a world auction record for a drawing by that artist when sold by Sotheby’s in November 2002. Barely seen for forty years, Number 4, 1951 appears today as the rare vestige of an historic moment when the eyes of the world looked to New York for the most groundbreaking creative innovations and the forging of contemporary Art History.
In this work the technically diverse layers of material accretion, readily apparent from the soaked-through reverse of the canvas, 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 the compositional complexity of the work continually fluctuates between the shadows of rhythmic patterns and the disorganized chaos of action painting unrestrained. Pools of intensely-hued pigment have stained the rectilinear canvas weave beneath misty aureoles of reflective metallic silver; all superseded by a looping matrix of black tendrils slicked onto the uppermost paint strata. While the enthralling surface encourages the eye to examine its detail, the density of layered pigments creates a dynamism that presses outward toward the canvas edge.
The present painting 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 ground-breaking 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 the canvas 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.
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 the present work is yet again a definitive example of Pollock’s genius. Kirk Varnedoe has described how Pollock judged 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 4, 1951 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 forerunners, 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 medium was the 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 4, 1951 transport us directly to the crucible of that revolutionary enterprise, and stand as enduring testament to this master’s sheer brilliance.