PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
"I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing; that is, it's direct.'' Jackson Pollock interviewed by William Wright, Summer 1950
The Black Paintings mark a period of audacious courage in Jackson Pollock’s acclaimed career. Begun in the spring of 1951, they are the products of an artist unwilling to repeat himself, intent on pushing forward against obstacles and hindrances. The earlier monumental poured paintings, with their lyrical webs of subtle coloring, had reached the heights of their abstraction the previous year. With the emergence of the Black Paintings, multi-colored harmonies were exchanged for the deepest black and unprimed linen, and decorative coloring gave way to hard edged draftsmanship. Complex layered veils of dripped and splattered paint were pulled back to reveal a skeletal armature. And in perhaps his most astonishing move, Pollock allowed hints of figuration to break through the pure abstraction. Just when the colored abstractions had reached full fruition, Pollock boldly decided to innovate, rather than recycle the theme. Black and White Painting epitomizes this desire to consolidate lessons learned and to extend the oeuvre. Painted circa 1952, and having remained in the same private collection since it was acquired from Sidney Janis Gallery in 1958, the present work is chronologically situated at the absolute apex of a critical moment of stylistic examination and reassessment in Pollock’s career.
This painting, like the early drip paintings, remains an index of process, recording the lacy movements and pools of hesitation in enamel applied across the canvas. In the Black Paintings, however, Pollock focused and refined his technique, stripping away the delicate finery to show an austere interior. Rolling out large sections of canvas across the floor of his barn studio, Pollock worked in the manner of an Oriental scroll painter, moving around all sides of the canvas and creating a continuous cycle of quasi-figurative forms with only small spaces left in between. The elegant control of line which remained largely hidden in the layers of previous works is on display here, as Pollock used a kitchen baster as a fountain pen, moving from drip to pool to calligraphic arabesque seemingly at a whim. Sticks and dried brushes, meanwhile, moved paint into the hollows of the hard canvas texture like a drypoint etching. Once the vast composition was complete, Pollock and Lee Krasner, his wife and fellow painter, spent hours deciding how to group and crop the scroll-like final product into individual paintings. His creative process in these paintings was as wholly automatic as it had been in his allover abstractions of the previous years, and thus he perceived pictures such as Black and White Painting not as a disruption to his development, but rather as a continuation of his enduring aesthetic and conceptual practice.
Black and White Painting represents an exquisite example of the seminal series of Black Paintings and, as such, epitomizes the aesthetic innovations exhibited by the very best of the cycle. Most essential to the Black Paintings is the re-emergence of figuration. Pollock refused to subscribe to abstraction as a dogmatic imperative, as many critics of the time did. Instead, he sought a space between figuration and literal abstraction in order to advance his work. The critic John Ashberry would later say, “In Pollock’s case it is as though he would question and transform the basis of his art as it had been realized in major drip paintings like Number 1, 1949 and Lavender Mist. Like de Kooning, he had reached a point where literal abstraction was no longer satisfactory. For abstraction is not just substituting ‘non-objective’ shapes for illusionistic ones; it implies holding up to the light everything that happens around us, substituting that reality for the false, wooden, two-dimensional idea of reality that is constantly trying to get itself recognized as the authentic one.” (John Ashberry, “Black Pollock,” Art News 68, no. 1, March, 1969, p. 66) Hints of figuration are embedded within the present work as Pollock’s expressionist swirls and drips of paint seem at intervals to resolve themselves into compositional forms. Unrestricted flowing black slips elegantly into and out of abstraction, oscillating between pooling pigment and impossibly thin and staccato dashes and scrapes. Unlike his allover drip paintings, the bare canvas of Black and White Painting possesses a strong compositional presence, acting as the ultimate contrast for Pollock’s impassioned gestures. The resulting visual experience is endlessly fascinating, with our eye encouraged to travel freely through the forest of pigment created by Pollock’s looping lines, which variously seem to burst forth from and soak into the canvas surface.
In Black and White Painting, we witness again Pollock's continual pursuit of the technique and style that best expressed his innate aesthetic instinct of the moment; from the early figurative drawings, to the grand mythical works such as The She-Wolf, 1943, through to the breakthrough formal language of monumental drip paintings like Autumn Rhythm, 1950 and the sophistication of the Black Panintings. In the same year of the present work’s execution, renowned critic Clement Greenberg distilled the essential aspects of Pollock’s new style in the following way: “The references to the human form in Pollock’s latest paintings are symptoms of a new phase but not of a reversal of direction. Like some older masters of our time he develops according to a double rhythm in which each beat harks back to the one before the last. Thus anatomical motifs and compositional schemes sketched out in his first and less abstract phase are in this third one clarified and realized… Even so, the change is not as great as it might seem. Line and the contrast of dark and light became the essential factors for Pollock in his second phase. Now he has them carry the picture without the aid of color and makes their interplay clearer and more graphic. The more explicit structure of the new work reveals much that was implicit in the preceding phase and should convince anyone that this artist is much, much more than a grandiose decorator.” (Clement Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock’s New Style,” Harper’s Bazaar 85, No. 2883, February 1952) Greenberg, a great champion of Pollock’s, thus recognized works such as Black and White Painting as epitomizing the fundamentals of the artist’s inimitable conceptual and aesthetic project and irrefutably proving his unmatched significance to the development of twentieth century art.
The present work stands as an artist’s guide for how to move beyond the drip paintings, both for Pollock and for a generation to follow. Cy Twombly’s signifying lines, both abstract and figurative, scratched across the canvas seem indebted to these Black Paintings. Brice Marden’s calligraphic paintings and even Frank Stella’s 1960s Black Paintings, can be said to approach Pollock through these late works. In combining lyrical abstraction with the suggestion of figuration, Pollock opened new possibilities. Indeed, as Michael Fried said in his landmark 1965 article, “…in a series of remarkable paintings…Pollock seems to have been on the verge of an entirely new and different kind of painting, combining figuration with opticality in a new pictorial synthesis of virtually limitless potential…” (Michael Fried, “Jackson Pollock,” Artforum 4, No. 1, September, 1965)
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