Upon viewing Jackson Pollock’s 1951 solo show in which he debuted his now famed ‘black paintings’, friend and fellow painter Alfonso Ossorio commented that the pieces, ‘demand alertness and total involvement…Without the intricacy of colour and surface pattern…they reawaken in us the sense of personal struggle and its collective roots’.
With the departure of Pollock’s usual colourful, textured and lyrical style, in Tate Liverpool’s latest exhibition of Pollock’s work the viewer is forced to confront their own ‘blind spots’ in the artist’s oeuvre. Pollock’s method alternated between sticks and a turkey baster which, according to his widow Lee Krasner, he used like giant fountain pens to apply black enamel paint to unstretched, unprimed canvas. This creates the impression of dark and controlled disintegration, contradicting the mythic ‘Jack the Dripper’ image, showing instead the work of a troubled man and troubled artist.
The exhibition opens with Pollock’s more familiar works. Summertime: Number 9A, with its streams of black, blue and yellow, is the visual equivalent of hearing musicians improvise; rhythmic and arching, the paint is allowed free movement across the vast expanse of the canvas. The juxtaposition with the black paintings which follow is therefore harsh, more striking. Although the artist refuted the claim that the black paintings marked a ‘return to figuration’, Pollock, along with other abstract expressionists, sought to express an inner landscape of the unconscious mind, hence his acknowledgement that ‘when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.’
In paintings such as Number 14, 1951 therefore, the viewer is presented with what can be described as a Jungian dreamscape. Within Pollock’s calligraphic, curling and coiling lines can be found either two writhing bodies that call to mind Picasso’s Guernica, or two startlingly confrontational faces, framing the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, the two images could, conceivably, be engaged in a fight to secure greater prominence. The paintings that follow are similarly suggestive; Number 7 offers a broad face, lop-sided breasts and sturdy legs that speak strongly of Picasso, while Number 15, a vortex of faces delivered in thick, black slicks, appears to be inspired by Goya.
The exhibition concludes with Portrait and a Dream (1953), considered one of Pollock’s final artistic statements, created as his battle with alcoholism worsened and his productivity was declining. On the painting’s left-hand side, the dream: a knotted black graphic of frenetic, scratchy energy, with stick-like figures and obliterated faces. On the right-hand side, the portrait: a grey, yellow and orange face, half covered with a mask. The two images are dangerously close to overlapping and perhaps we are to interpret it, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, the desire to overcome the conflict of order versus chaos, positivity versus negativity, the personal struggle of Pollock himself and perhaps, as Ossorio noted, the personal struggle within each of us.
The black paintings are certainly intriguing, more mournful in style when compared with the freedom of his earlier drips and pours, yet they offer unequivocal proof of Pollock’s originality.
By Catherine George
To find out more about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition which runs till 18th October 2015 visit their website here.