Number 19, 1948 is one of the great 'drip' paintings that Jackson Pollock made in a legendary three-year burst of creativity between 1947 and 1950. It was these startling, original and accomplished paintings that, in Willem de Kooning's phrase, finally 'broke the ice' for American painting, completely revolutionizing it and in the process reshaping the entire history of twentieth century art. Displaying a fascinatingly dense, intricate and animated abstract surface--one that reveals the extraordinary mastery that Pollock had over his radical new medium of pouring, dripping and flicking enamel paint onto an unprimed ground--Number 19, 1948 is one of the richest most engaging and successfully resolved of all these famous works. Indeed, along with the larger painting Number One A also of 1948-the first Pollock 'drip' painting to be purchased by New York's Museum of Modern Art--this work, Number 19, 1948, was singled out as one of the finest of Pollock's achievements to date by the great pioneering champion of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, when it was first shown at the artist's second solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in January 1949. "The general quality that emerged from such pictures," Greenberg wrote, "especially (Number) Nineteen, seemed more than enough to justify the claim that Pollock is one of the major painters of our time" (C. Greenberg, The Nation, 19 February, 1949, reproduced in J. O'Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2 Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949, Chicago, 1986, pp. 285-6)
Despite Greenberg's laudatory praise for this show and for works such as Number 19, 1948 however, it was to take another six months and another exhibition at Betty Parson's Gallery later in the year before more mainstream critics were to recognize the scale and importance of Pollock's achievement and the artist was to begin his meteoric rise to success and notoriety.
Pollock had first begun to experiment with the pouring and dripping of paint in his work around 1943 but it was not until 1947 that he made the all-important break away from applying paint directly onto the canvas plane to create completely freeform works composed solely of a complex veil-like surface of drips, splashes and spills made from above. In his early experiments of 1943 Pollock had, following a spirit of automatism then common amongst many Surrealist and avant-garde American painters, briefly explored a pouring technique with the aim of freeing further the code-like figurative calligraphy that both distinguished and often overlay his work of this period. Central to the development of his painting in respect of these works was his decision around 1946 to begin painting his works on the floor. "On the floor I am more at ease," he later said. "I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting" (J. Pollock, 'My Painting', Possibilities, New York, Winter, 1947-8)
Emulating the techniques of the Navajo Indian sand painters that Pollock had known as a child, the placing of the painting on the ground made a surprising degree of difference to Pollock's working practice. Not merely in terms of enhancing the ritualistic and totemic nature of his picture-making, but in freeing the painting from its traditional vertical place on the easel, it completely opened Pollock's painting to the spatial field within which it was to be worked. Not only did his placing of the canvas on the ground then actively encourage drips and spills of paint onto its surface rather than direct application with a brush but, most important of all, it enabled and encouraged the artist to work around the picture from all sides and to treat its entire surface equally and non-hierarchically--to treat the canvas and its image as an holistic as well as a totemic and ritualistic entity. These relatively simple features of this comparatively unorthodox manner of painting were to have a profound impact on the radical break-away from the tradition of European-orientated easel painting, that Pollock's great 'drip' paintings of the late-1940s came to represent. And, with their apparent link to Native American tradition, they had the added advantage of placing Pollock's work in a distinctly American tradition.
Intuitively following the fluid, material nature of his paint as if it were a guide that led him to a pure, unmediated painterly outpouring of his inner thoughts and the often turbulent emotions that welled up inside him, throughout 1947, Pollock experimented with the dripping and pouring of paint as a more direct and automatic language of self-expression. Where before Pollock's painting had been a convoluted mixture of half-conscious imagery subsequently veiled and obscured by subsequent overpainting and calligraphic gesture, such compulsive creation and correction, stating and then obscuring, now came to be fused into a single act with the new process of painting gesturally in the air above the canvas and letting the thinned paint fall and splatter onto the surface below. As if to suggest the almost ritualized nature of this practice many of these first works were, at the suggestion of his friends subsequently given quasi-mystical titles such as Alchemy, Enchanted Forest, Cathedral and Lucifer.
As the artist's wife, the painter Lee Krasner recalled, Pollock's radical new technique of painting was primarily a way of "working in the air" gesturallly creating "aerial forms which then landed" (L. Krasner, quoted in S. Naifeh and G. White Smith, Jackson Pollock. An American Saga, New York, 1989, p. 539) Pollock would, "take his stick or brush out of the paint can," the photographic documenter of his working practice, Hans Namuth recalled, "and then, in a cursive sweep, pass it over the canvas high above it, so that the viscous paint would form trailing patterns which hover over the canvas before they settle upon it, and then fall into it and then leave a trace of their own passage. He is not drawing on the canvas so much as in the air above it" (H. Namuth, ibid)
In many cases Pollock appears to have still been working within a kind of figurative tradition, drawing in places, specific forms spontaneously suggested by his unconscious mind in the air above the canvas. He told Nick Carone for instance, that "he wasn't just throwing paint, he was delineating some object, some real thing, from a distance above the canvas" (N. Carone, ibid). Accepting of the results of this strange, balletic fusion of figuration and abstraction, now taking place in mid-air above the canvas rather than flatly on it, Pollock explained that "when you are painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge...I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all the time" (J. Pollock, quoted in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1961, p. 8)
The spontaneity and immediacy of this method of working in space at a remove from the canvas plane not only liberated Pollock but also quickly led to the artist developing a surprising to degree of control and even graceful mastery over the new technique. It was this mastery that in turn led to the creation of new freeform compositions of surprising energy and diversity such as Number 19, 1948, that appear to chart a dynamic balancing act between order and chaos. In a unique series of almost revelatory notes to himself that he made about the new works he described these paintings as "States of order-- Organic intensity--Energy and motion--Made visible--Memories arrested in space, human needs and motives--acceptance." What was essential, Pollock also asserted in these rare personal notations, was "total control - denial of the accident." Confident that these works represented a major step forward in art, Pollock, was fearful of being wrongfully dismissed as a mere agent of automatism or worse, a Surrealist-imitator. It was of crucial importance, he felt, to make the public aware that although he might enter a kind of transcendent state when he painted, whereby his actions were often prompted by the apparent demands of the painting itself, these actions and his brushwork were never left to mere chance. After gaining control over the technique in 1947, Pollock subsequently developed the practice to such a refined degree of mastery that he claimed to know exactly where the drips would fall even after the wildest of gestural splashes. In support of this, Lee Krasner recalled that Pollock's "assuredness at that time is frightening to me. The confidence, and the way he would do it was unbelievable" (L. Krasner, 'Jackson Pollock at Work: An Interview with Barbara Rose,' Partisan Review 47, No.1. (1980): 82-92 p. 45). Indeed, running contrary to the creative self-doubt that he suffered from throughout much of his life, in the great years of creativity, boldness, energy and sobriety of 1947 to 1950, Pollock's self-confidence in his art was running on such a high that he confided to Krasner in all sincerity, that he believed jazz music, particularly in the form of the Bebop of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie 'Bird' Parker, to be the "only other creative thing happening in this country" (L. Krasner, quoted in R. G. O'Meally, Cool Jazz and Hard Bob: Painting and Picturing the Jazz Experience, New York, 1998, pp. 178-179.)
Reflecting to some extent a similarly exhilarating high-wire act to 'Bird's' own improvisational flights of musical genius at this time, Pollock's drip-paintings were themselves often dazzling virtuoso performances and precarious balancing acts that teetered on the brink of chaos. Forged from a similar spirit of risking it all in the name of spontaneity, improvisation and unconscious impulse, Pollock's radical new working practice of painting in the air with thrown, splashed, flicked and splattered paint was one that marked the development of the language of painting into the realm of a performance or what would soon be termed 'action painting'.
Miraculously, Pollock's paintings of this period almost never dissolved into chaos but, as in Number 19, 1948 appeared to hover delicately and intriguingly on the edge of an abyss. More than merely two-dimensional records of the balletic three-dimensional movements in space that the artist's hand, wrist and arm had gone through in order to create the work, Pollock's paintings mysteriously seemed to transfer something of the spatial acrobatics that had gone into their making onto the picture plane itself. As the endlessly mysterious and fascinating spatial depth of a work such as Number 19, 1948 shows the expansive nature of Pollock's unique painterly practice in fact opened up the flat picture plane to powerful evocations of an entirely new dimension of space.
Distinctive for its dense all-over web of fine gossamer-like dripped lines vying with one another in a shimmering but united field of energy and seemingly motional fluid form, Number 19, 1948 is one of the finest of a series of medium-scale paintings that Pollock made at the height of this tumultuous period of creativity and outward expression. Beginning with a series of strong meandering black lines dripped onto a stiff, white-primed paper surface, Pollock has overlain these initial marks with a fine white lattice work and then a sequence of differing muted tones again including white and black as well as red, turquoise and finally gray in a way that anticipates the delicate color schemes of the vast, later masterpieces such as Lavender Mist and Autumn Rhythm. From this gradual build-up of spiralling interactive form a dense, dynamic and febrile web of exquisite painterly form has been made that radiates with energy and establishes an extraordinarily rich and complex spatial field.
Here, as the Greenbergian critic Michael Fried once wrote of Pollock's work, all the conventional functions of line, space, color and composition have been denied in favour of a wholly new way of working in which each element, line especially, becomes a purely constructional part of a universal whole. "Pollock's finest paintings" he wrote, "reveal that his all-over line does not give rise to positive or negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure, whether abstract or representational, against another part of the canvas read as ground. There is not inside or outside to Pollock's line or the space through which it moves. Pollock has managed to free line not only from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, on the surface of the canvas" (M. Fried, Three American Painters, exh. cat., Cambridge, Mass, 1965, p. 34)
Rare among Pollock's paintings for being able to generate a uniform, all-over feel of painterly action usually confined to larger canvases such as One, Number 31, 1950 or Lavender Mist, here, in Number 19, 1948, space, form, color and depth of field all merge into one another to generate a dense, universal, landscape-like plane of painterly energy. Comprised solely of lines, dribbles and splashes, the intricacy and complexity of the work is, in fact, too great for the eye to comprehend in any one glance. It gets seduced and then lost in the painting's frenetic and spectacular myriad of detail. Pollock's field of vision and extraordinary ability to have juggled all these possibilities and yet kept control of the over-all cohesiveness of the work in the midst of such ever-developing depth and complexity is simply dazzling. The entire composition--if indeed composition is the right word to describe such a volatile entity--is, in the end, held together solely by the artist's final act; the extraordinarily fine twisting calligraphy of the last color he applied, gray. It is this gray, like the 'blue poles' with which he later resolved his famous late painting of the same title that ultimately unites Number 19, 1948, holding both itself and all them myriad of spiralling forms beneath it into a fascinatingly tumultuous, non-hierarchical, non-representational, egalitarian whole. "Abstract painting is abstract," Pollock once said. "It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was" (J. Pollock, quoted in 'Unframed Space,' Interview with Berton Roueché, The New Yorker, 5 August, New York, 1950, p. 16).