Composed of a myriad of interlaced swirls and streaks of vibrant color that weaves a constantly moving, almost evolving, complex pattern of painterly form and energy, Composition with Red Strokes is a seemingly complete world unto itself—a self-contained cosmos of painterly rhythm. Conceived during the apex of the artist’s career, 1950 witnessed the genesis of some of the most defining paintings of Jackson Pollock’s oeuvre.
Along with Composition with Red Strokes, the iconic works of this period include such masterpieces as: Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; One: Number 31, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Number 32, 1950, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen; Number 27, 1950, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. While Pollock’s signature prowess of 1950 had largely been realized in the genesis of some of his largest works, here Pollock resorted to the challenge of an easel format—trading in balletic full-arm gestures for the delicate choreography of the wrist. Ever the impresario, Pollock orchestrated painterly energy from above his floor-tacked surfaces, drawing in mid-air with paint-laden sticks and hardened brushes in a way that remarkably cohered towards an all-over unity of cosmic proportions. Indeed, Composition with Red Strokes stages an unrivalled drama that is remarkable for its intimate proportions and attests to the artist’s supreme ability to create alternate worlds distinct to themselves.
The fluid lines of chromatic brilliance that dance across the surface of Composition with Red Strokes are a physical manifestation of the artist at the height of his creative authority. The agitation of Pollock’s constantly moving hand is traced throughout the surface of the work, as lace-like trails of pigment coexist alongside more substantial passages of thick white impasto together in a delicate yet deliberate dance. These seemingly contradictory elements—bold and brash yet at the same time delicate and refined—collide but never clash. Composition with Red Strokes is a testament to Pollock’s abilities that this seemingly automatic application of paint is in fact very deliberate and precise. 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 ‘gesturally 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). Hans Namuth, the photographer who documented Pollock’s working practice, recounted the artist would, “take his stick or brush out of the paint can 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.). Indeed, Pollock reveled in this new way of painting and its ambiguous reception by critics of the art establishment. “There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or end,” Pollock once recalled, “He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.” (J. Pollock, quoted by T. J. Clark, “Pollock’s Smallness,” in ibid., p. 21).
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 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 the 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, 1947-1948).
Emulating the techniques of the Navajo Indian sand painters that Pollock had known as a child, the placing of his canvas 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 freeing the painting from its traditional vertical place on the easel completely opened Pollock’s painting to the spatial field within which it was best worked. Not only did placing his canvas on the ground actively encourage drips and spills of paint onto its surface, but it more importantly enabled and encouraged the artist to work around the picture from all sides and treat its entire surface equally and non-hierarchically—as a holistic, totemic and ritualistic entity. The simple features of this unorthodox manner of painting were to have a profound impact on the radical break-away from the tradition of European easel painting that Pollock’s great “drip” paintings of the late-1940s came to represent. Furthermore, these processes with their apparent link to Native American tradition, have the added advantage of placing Pollock’s work in a distinctly American tradition.
Pollock intuitively followed 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, the artist experimented with the dripping and pouring of paint as a more direct and automatic language of self-expression. Whereas before Pollock’s painting had been a convoluted mixture of half-conscious imagery subsequently veiled and obscured by overpainting and calligraphic gesture—such compulsive creation and correction, stating and then obscuring—now have come 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 subsequently given quasi-mystical titles such as Alchemy, Enchanted Forest, Cathedral and Lucifer at the suggestion of his friends.
Indeed, indigenous cultures, especially those of the American Southwest, greatly informed the artist’s conception of spirituality and his creative process. Pollock was born in the plains of Cody, Wyoming, and grew up between the arid deserts of Arizona and the farmlands of Northern California. He always identified with the West and its associations with the new frontier: gun slinging cowboys, Native Americans who dressed in buffalo hide and lived an idyllic existence unaffected by the incursion of European settlers, like Edward Curtis’ staged photographs of suggest. Pollock’s affinity for the West became exaggerated during his tenure at the Art Students League of New York where he studied under the acclaimed American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, a mentor of Pollock’s, comported himself like a machismo swashbuckler who “curried an image as a no-nonsense son of the soil.” During this period, Pollock adopted the outward affectation of a Western frontiersman, “transforming from longhair California swami into Manhattan cowboy” complete with a Stetson hat and boots (K. Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1998, p. 23). This homage to the intrepid settlers of the American landscape arguably forecasted his own trailblazing, as he would come to chart vast new territories of creative possibility for all artists that followed. Pollock’s allegiances, however, resided more with the indigenous cultures and their artistic expressions, than with the European descendants who settled there.
Yet, at the same time, these works are evidence of a keen interest in the latest modernist styles and techniques—an effort to understand the problems of modern painting so as to overcome them. The New York art scene, still reeling from the splash made the by 1913 Armory show, was very much under the influence of European modernism, brought to the US during the late 1930s by the European avant-garde as they fled the Nazis. Thus, in New York, Pollock was exposed to the work of André Masson and the Surrealists. This idea of projecting the creative impulse directly onto the canvas unrestrained by conscious control would become central to Pollock’s physical relationship to painting, functioning as a mechanism for channeling his tormented psyche-a process. The artist’s brilliance was in part due to his skill at harnessing accident by denying it. More accurately, while he courted his unconscious—everything that he had absorbed knowingly and unknowingly from life and his artistic practice—through Surrealist automatism, he refused its primacy over his will. In rare personal notes about his seemingly random or chance-driven technique, he stated that he was in “total control.” He further illuminated: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, easy give and take, and the painting comes out well" (J. Pollock, quoted in E. Frank, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1983, p. 68).
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).
Pollock’s career reached a pivotal point in 1949 when he mastered the pouring technique that he had been perfecting for the two preceding years. In August of that year, Pollock was featured prominently in the pages of Life magazine under the banner headline “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Across four pages, the magazine chronicled the painter’s meteoric rise to fame, stating that “Pollock was unknown in 1944. Now his paintings hang in five U.S. museums and 40 private collections. Exhibiting in New York last winter he sold 12 out of 18 pictures. Moreover, his work has stirred up a fuss in Italy, and this autumn he is slated for a one-man show in avant-garde Paris, where is fast becoming the most talked-of and controversial U.S. painter” (Life, August 8, 1949, p. 42). Further showcasing this development were several high-profile exhibitions at Betty Parson’s eponymous gallery in 1949 and 1950. It was his critical reception in Europe that cemented Pollock’s reputation and finally, after centuries of domination by the European fine arts, the center of the art world had shifted westwards to the United States.
Indeed, this meteoric rise to international stardom seems to perfectly coincide with Pollock’s near prophetic claim of 1950: “My opinion is that new needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements. It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique… Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement” (J. Pollock, quoted in W. Wright, “An Interview with Jackson Pollock,” 1950, in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, New York, 1999, pp. 20, 23).