Introduction to Jackson Pollock's Over-Splatter
Jackson Pollock's Over-Splatter,
How They Happened, Where They are Located, Why They Went Unnoted for More than Fifty Years, and How They May be Understood and Put to Use
By Sandy Kinnee and Lauren Kinnee, Ph.D.
Once You See the Drips You will Always See them
The following was written in 2002 and published in the online magazine Life Sherpa, April 2003
Art DNA: Pollock's Extra Drips
by Sandy Kinnee
Redwood trees belong in California. What would you make of the discovery of a stand of six redwood trees in an east coast forest surrounded by the expected indigenous deciduous oaks, maples, elms, and the odd birch thrown in for bio diversity? The following relates to my experience in front of some of my favorite paintings in the Museum of Modern Art.
Just like you, when I look at an artwork, I come with my own baggage. What I've seen previously, what I know from school and my experience of working in museums, relationships with similar artworks, all come into play. Connections in many forms tumble out of my suitcase right in front of the artwork and within view of any museum guard who happens to be standing nearby. The same unpacking of personal baggage doesn't transpire when I look at illustrations of paintings in books. There you just turn the page and poof, what was visible before is covered with another page. Same thing with postcards, flip them over to read the message. Illustrations have no significant physical or emotive presence; they are at best small scale reminders, stand-ins, or shadows that act as reference for the real object.
Communicating with an artwork requires being physically face to face with the work of art. A reproduction won't do. This can only happen in a place where artworks reside; a museum, gallery, studio, church, or collection. Viewing art today is seen too much as public entertainment, even as spectacle, as a blockbuster cultural event. But each art object is imbued by their creator with intentions not limited to entertainment value: it was made by a single soul to reach us each individually. That's a tough job from either side. The artist has produced the work, almost always in the solitary, contemplative, environment of the studio; a place where one is alone to study. Once the work is out of the hands of the maker, it requires a recipient to complete its purpose.
Art demands, needs your attention, to complete the task of creation started in the studio. It's as if the painter picked up a telephone and dialed the future. Who will answer the phone, assuming anyone can hear the ringing? If you pick up the receiver, what do you do about the person standing next to you asking who the phone is for? This is part of the problem in crowed museums, very little space is allowed for proper contemplation. Hey, could you turn down the noise, someone is trying to concentrate?!
No experience may seem needed to look upon an artwork. Sorry, contemplation is required. Ok, walk right on by, tune out, be distracted by other people or answer the phone. Looking at an artwork is a lot like looking at a telephone. The key is to listen to it ring to your eyes, then answer it.
Art has no size requirement; a tiny intimate work can have a commanding presence, as seductive as a whisper in your ear at the right time. A large scale piece might be assumed to bellow, shout, and command from sheer size, and then again it might not. Each unique painting has something to interact with, to respond to. An illustration or post card reproduction of an artwork functions with the same effectiveness as an illustration of a telephone. Go ahead and answer the phone, it's a call from the past.
What follows speaks to experience that could never be gained from a photograph of an artwork, anymore than a redwood tree in an eastern forest might be spotted in a LandSat image taken from space. It is possible, but not likely.
October weather can be bright and crisp in New York. It can also be very nasty, stormy with a premature taste of winter or just plain grumpy about no longer being summer. This was a shiny apple day. It was red delicious.
This was a day to be outside, to go to the park or walk around the streets. Weather this beautiful is meant to be celebrated. This was a day to sit in an outdoor café, maybe even sample the fare of the street vendors. Leave the taxi, bus, and subway for another day. Instead, walk and walk and walk. When the weather is this beautiful it is perfect museum time for me. Not that I don't love wonderful sunlit days, I do, but a day like this empties the museums, beckoning crowds to enjoy the out of doors, leaving me the museums, almost to myself. This gives me time and space to spend with my old friends; Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Pollock.
I take the time to pick up the invisible telephone calls of my own choice. I am in one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants that don't exist except in your dreams, where every calorie has been negated and each mouthful is the best you've ever rolled over your tongue. But time ticks away and there is not enough room in your belly to take it all in. You have to make choices. In my dreams I head to the dessert first. In the Museum of Modern Art I head to see Matisse.
Matisse schools me on methods of refinement, while I sit and listen with my eyes. Matisse marks the path he has taken to make each painting. His adjustments are all there, really. Rarely does he cover his tracks, if I can't see the tracks I might not be looking closely enough. His corrections are lessons not only in painting and drawing, but in living. He whispers over my ghost telephone that there is great joy in life if we will work to find it. With Matisse beauty is in the details. Any other artist might lay down line, color and be done. Matisse digests his own work, savors it, then returns later, makes adjustments, and leaves evidence of his modification. He does this in his paintings and more so in his collages. It is enlightening to sit in front of the big collages and see how he has snipped a piece here and added a hunk of paper there; adjusting and tweaking. That's what I look forward to most when I visit a museum and a Matisse pops into view across a room; what will be revealed this time? Imagine if William Shakespeare polished his prose, but included the scribbled deletions or overwrote creating a palimpsest, so you really saw how his brain worked; then offered it as the finished play? Finding an early script or scribbled notes wouldn't be the same as what Matisse sets in front of us. Besides, to do this in written form would be very confusing. But, the way Matisse handles it, painting actually becomes less confusing. It isn't a question of ironing out wrinkles or applying cosmetics to warts. It unveils a history of a journey taken, suggesting that the key to the treasure is the treasure. Few artists are such prolific teachers. Pablo Picasso gives us entirely different things to consider, sure, but once he tells us he moves on, if he revisits the idea it is on a fresh rectangle of paper or canvas.
I watched a film which showed Claes Oldenburg working on a series of drawings. His procedure was to work on several pieces at the same time, to lay down his design on paper, one sheet at a time, then to walk away and do something else while the paint or ink dried. He would then attack each sheet a second time, if he deemed it necessary, and walk away. On his third visit to each sheet of paper he would start an editing process: Keep/Finished, Rework, or destroy. It was gratifying to see him both breathe life into near dead pieces and, even more satisfying, to see him shred the terminal, beyond hope objects. Having seen the film I understood Oldenburg's process. However, Oldenburg's completed work showed no sign of how it had been created, at least not the blueprint version of detailed construction that Matisse presents us.
So, after viewing a string of Matisse's paintings I moved on to the adjacent gallery and was confronted by a wall of paint, bellowing to me. There I was, standing in front of Jackson Pollock's floor to ceiling and as wide across as three people joining hands could reach - One: Number 31, 1950. Bare canvas seen through skeins of paint, drizzles of oil; laid down fifty years ago by my boyhood idol, Jackson Pollock, king of the action painters. Should I pick up the ghost phone? The ringing, bellowing was unavoidable. It was spelling my name in Morse code. Dots and dashes, no more like dots and drips.
I wasn't yet nine when I saw my first Pollock, this was painting so unlike anything I'd seen before. Something about the images of spattered paint grabbed me, and this was only a shadow of reflection of a real painting I was responding to, illustrations in a magazine! Boy, the idea must have been familiar. What was this kind of painting that didn't rely upon images, but instead focused upon the action of painting? The idea was instantly appealing.
The date of Pollock's whale of a canvas before my eyes coincided with my own epic adventure with a gallon of oil paint, as a three-year old. My father was preparing to paint the front porch of our house. He walked away, maybe to get rags or a tarp; leaving me unsupervised with an open, full gallon bucket of forest green paint and a four-inch wide brush on the front porch of our house. Not that there was any connection between my activity and Jackson Pollock's intent, but we had both covered approximately the same amount of horizontal surface area. There was, in spirit, a parallel. We had each surely lost ourselves to the act in the unconscious flow of the event. My activity, however, would have culminated in a spanking or murder if not for the intervention of my grandmother. As Hans Namuth photographed Pollock before, during, and after painting One: Number 31, 1950, my mother documented the aftermath of my act. I was as completely green as the porch floor.
Standing in front of the gigantic One: Number 31, 1950, I asked myself: could Pollock, like Matisse, reveal secrets to life and art-making or otherwise thrill me with something new on this day? Could I discover a truth or have a lesson disclosed to me? I answered my own question, putting Picasso, Oldenburg, and Pollock into the same category of "lay it down and move on" painters. The lessons one learns from that school of painting come from following a sequence of products, finished paintings. That is the usual way one learns from art. Compare one object to another and see what can be gleaned from the comparison. That is normal. So, here I was betting that Pollock wasn't going to give me anything like the satisfaction of discovery one finds when a Matisse painting strips itself bare in front of your eyes. But, rather than leaving it at that, I decided it would only be fair to spend as much time in front of the Pollock as he had probably taken to paint it, not counting the drying time, of course. In a small way maybe I could allow myself to be open to learning something. Maybe I should have considered drying time. I stepped back to take it all in. I walked up as close as I could without attracting the guard's ire. I scanned the painting, walking edge to edge, scrolling down and back and forth like reading a boustrophedon.
A boustrophedon was an early solution for setting down long written text. The name is derived from the agricultural-based civilization context of plowing land with an ox, turning the ox back in the other direction at the end of a row. So, one reads right to left, left to right, right to left, not at all like this text is presented.
I recalled Hans Namuth's film. In it, Pollock was working on this particular painting, the very one in front of me. His gestures, in the film, were also back and forth, then a layer on top of another layer. His concentration was not limited to a portion of the canvas, as one might be if one was placing an object into a field. He was building the field. As documented in the film, Pollock held a single can/color of paint at a time. The history of color sequence is caught both on canvas and in the black and white film. So, I retraced, as best I could, considering the formerly horizontal orientation of the canvas on Pollock's studio floor, examining layer on top of layer. I followed the lacework, web, of color. Just so you know, I wasn't role-playing Pollock. No one in the gallery seemed to notice, especially since I was taking a very long time, moving slowly. I was approaching the bottom edge.
Then without warning that row of redwood trees marched into full view. One pink spot at a time, all completely unexpected. What was a row of pink drips doing in this picture? There was no pink anywhere else. These were also drips and not dots. They had directional tails and were the top-most layer on a canvas which had more or less dried in a horizontal position. The ghost telephone was ringing wildly. It was a pink telephone, decorator pink. The color of pink was 1950's classic pink, a color commonly used in any American family dwelling, even in my family's home. Pink was the color of our dining room on Pine Grove Avenue, in 1954. My dad painted the walls pink, I wasn't allowed near the open bucket of pink. My mother selected the wall phone, the real, non metaphorical, wall phone that hung in our pink dining room. It was turquoise.
The question was, who put the pink drips there in the Pollock, and why? Was this over splash from someone's home decoration project? Could the spots be seen in the Namuth film or photos? Wasn't Pollock known to have avoided specific shapes, figures, arrangements? Even rubbed them out? These dots may not have been purely geometrical in arrangement, but they were definitely a color anomaly. Was this vandalism that had gone unnoticed? Maybe it was a subtle hoax. Perhaps this was just unique sloppiness caused by Pollock or someone later. I was curious. I photographed the pink drips. This configuration was unique in Pollock paintings, or so I believed at the time. Was this an unintentional result of moving a wet canvas or brush above a completed work? It wasn't splatter from slung paint, was it? Pollock's paint delivery was gestural and gravitational, not, bombastic and projectile. I tried to think of accidental accretions in art forms from Pollock's contemporaries. Glenn Gould was famous for adding extra musical utterances, during recording sessions, to the notes Bach or Beethoven had written. But, here, neither Bach nor Beethoven had a say in Mr. Gould's post compositional vocal embellishments. Practically speaking, the recordings show us that Glenn Gould's vocalizations are concurrent with his piano playing. In a sense, they are drip-like, scattered here and there, and neither the intention of the composer nor a conscious action of Gould. As Pollock lost himself in the act of painting, Gould drifted along, carried by the music he was summoning from the keyboard. Had he added his humming accidentally to one record while playing music for another recording, then we would have something more akin to this situation. Pollock's extra drips, although not commented on by the artist, had to have been accepted by him during his lifetime. Certainly that assumes he is responsible for the drips or was aware of them. He had to have made them, not mentioned them, and simply accepted them as an unconscious byproduct of his actions. Even Pollock's contemporary, composer John Cage's acceptance and encouragement of indeterminacy isn't a fit parallel. Cage went out of his way to pursue chance operations in his music. Pollock seems merely to have let them blend into the forest with all the other trees, and make no comment about their unintentional and unconsidered part in his paintings.
As I said I thought this was unique, this Jack "the Dripper" was looking like Jack the careless dripper. It would make sense to see evidence of stray paint splatter, should we call it collateral damage, or accidental additions to paintings sitting in the studio while a fresh canvas was being attacked? Paint flung here and there landing where it may. Certainly if one is open to the unconscious, one can easily accept happy accidents, even after the fact accidents. The second supernumerary drip Pollock I found was in Paris, at the Beaubourg. The surprise on Number 26A, 1948: Black and White was not a row of redwood trees, but a few globs of dimensional red paint riding on top of Pollock's signature and scattered in other locations. This time with certainty, the maverick color has wandered onto a piece already confirmed as finished by Pollock's own hand.
I am not on a crusade to locate paintings with bonus splotches and drips, so it is entirely coincidental that two have tumbled into view. Perhaps someone has already inventoried and charted this inconsequential anomaly. Because Jackson Pollock's works were so well documented and sequence of creation easy enough to ascertain, it is probably not necessary to take advantage of "crime scene" evidence to confirm exactly which paintings the drips really belong on.
Like a bit of Art DNA, a drop of paint from one painting found on another painting goes a long way to confirming which came first. I suppose, going back to that row of redwoods growing deep in the Green Mountains of Vermont, we could tell by the age of the trees if they'd been planted by man. It wouldn't tell us why, however. That's not so bad. Some mysteries, big or little, are fine left open ended.
Art historian Marilyn Lavin introduced me to the term and the possibility of applying the "as the oxen plows", back and forth, format of the boustrophedon to visual art.
I attended a lecture she gave about her frustrated attempts to understand the sequential order of painting arrangements in churches until she noticed they followed one another the same way as this early writing format worked; right to left to right to left, etc.