Jackson Pollock executed his powerful and evocative painting Eyes in the Heat II at the beginning of period of intense creativity for the artist, when he produced works that would define his career and cause tremors throughout the art world. As one of his first "poured" canvases, Eyes in the Heat II is an early example of the artist's exhaustive working of the canvas's surface, and pulsates with energy. No part of the canvas is untouched by Pollock's swoops and swirls of thick impasto, causing the eye to rise and fall as it traces the movement of the paint across the encrusted surface. His canvases from this period start to bring together many ideas that Pollock had been developing during his early career. As an important example of work from this period, Eyes in the Heat II contains a mix of the exuberant brushstrokes of Van Gogh's Post-Impressionism, the flattening of the picture plane developed by Cubism and the automatism of the Surrealist painters, all brought together into one intoxicating work.
With this work, Pollock revels in the freedom of technique that would come to characterize his "classic" paintings of the next few years. The critic Frank O'Hara fully appreciated the power of this painting, which he described in his 1959 monograph of the artist: "Eyes in the Heat II is a maelstrom of fiery silver; it is one of those works of Pollock, like Shimmering Substance, 1946, and White Light, which has a blazing, acrid, and dangerous glamour of a legendary kind, not unlike those volcanoes which are said to lure the native to the lip of the crater and, by the beauty of their writhings and the strength of their fumes, cause him to fall in. These smaller paintings are the 'femmes fatales' of his work" (F. O'Hara, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1959, p.23)
In 1945 Pollock moved out of New York City into a house on Long Island and early the next summer began using one of the bedrooms as a studio. This dramatic change of environment, from the grit and grime of the city to the relative wilds of rural Long Island, heralded an exciting change in Pollock's work. In January 1947, Pollock arranged with Peggy Guggenheim to hold his fourth one-man show at her Art of This Century Gallery. As part of this exhibition, and inspired by his move out of the city, he worked on two series, Sounds in the Grass and Accabonac Creek, in which he tried to capture the essence of his new surroundings. Among the works he completed at this time were Eyes in Heat (now in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) and Shimmering Substance (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The critic Clement Greenberg wrote a glowing review of the work produced during this period in a review of the exhibition published in The Nation.
"Jackson Pollock's fourth one-man show in so many years...is his best since his first one and signals what may be a major step in his development - which I regard as the most important so far of the younger generation of American painters. He has now largely abandoned his customary heavy black-and-whiteish or gun-metal chiaroscuro for the higher scales, for alizarins, cream-whites, cerulean blues, pinks and sharp greens...Pollock has gone beyond the stage where he needs to make his poetry explicit in ideographs. What he invents has perhaps, in its very abstractness and absence of assignable definition, a more reverberating meaning" (C. Greenberg, The Nation, February 1, 1947)
Eyes in the Heat II, although not included in the 1947 exhibition, was given its title at the time of its first exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1958. Dated at that time by Pollock's widow, Lee Krasner, the title was clearly inspired by its striking affinity between this canvas and the version now in the Guggenheim Foundation. Both paintings share a considerably greater freedom and luminosity than his preceding works. Pollock no longer applies the paint to the canvas with just a brush, and introduces the hard edges of a palate knife and even his fingers into his arsenal of expressive implements as well as applying pigment directly onto the canvas from the tube. This technique produces a thick crust which results in a highly textured relief giving the surface a sense of depth and mystery concealing the very soul of the canvas deep within. This texture contrasts with flashes of gem-like color that shine through from beneath the thickly applied aluminum paint that dominates the surface.
This dense working of the canvas hints at a possible link to the enigmatic title. Inspired by the light and the abundant natural surrounds of his new home in Long Island, the impenetrable layers of impasto seem to evoke a sense of unidentified animal life hiding in the long grass, sheltering from the intense sun of a hot summer. A series of thinly painted ellipses - the "eyes" of the painting - stare out from beneath the surrounding peaks of paint. These glimpses of life captured through the concealing layers of paint mimic the restless movement of the eye as it darts across the surface of the canvas. This sense of movement evokes the work of Pollock's teacher, the artist Thomas Hart Benton whose busy scenes of American life are bustling with activity which sends the eye on a glorious voyage of discovery across the canvas. The all over composition of Eyes in the Heat II also mirrors the Surrealist painter Joan Miró's earlier Constellation paintings with their mystical, biomorphic forms expanding out of the surface of the canvas and the work of Arshile Gorky, whose painterly spontaneity so inspired the artists of Pollock's generation. Pollock's move to the rural idyll of Long Island seems to have liberated his mind and allowed him the freedom to let his artistic expression run wild, with spectacular results.
1947, the year he painted Eyes in the Heat II, proved to be a pivotal year for Pollock. The pouring technique he was beginning to develop in Eyes in the Heat II was not a rabbit pulled out of a hat; Pollock had seen the practice tested in David Alfonso Siqueiro's studio in the late thirties and Hans Hofmann had flirted with it in the early forties. However, when Pollock turned to the drip as the exclusive means of his pictorial vocabulary, it was because it provided an unprecedented foray into the unconscious, allowing it to spill through the medium of paint and register its mark on the canvas. Drawing directly on automatism, and through it, an unfiltered idea of the self which traditional painting - with its composition, stops and starts - inhibited. For Pollock, the drip was incredibly liberating and Eyes in the Heat II stakes its claim to a unique feeling and never lapses into formulaic repetition.
This painting's pivotal role in the development of Pollock's unique style has meant it has been admired by connoisseurs since it was first exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1958 and has been included in several significant private collections. Acquired by the New York collectors Dr. and Mrs. John A. Cook, the work took pride of place alongside important works by Willem de Kooning and Alberto Giacometti. A noted psychoanalyst, Dr. Cook was attracted to the work of artists who broke free and defied the conventions and boundaries of visual representation. The work was then acquired by Heinz Berggruen, the prominent German art collector and founder of the Berggruen Musuem in Berlin. Eyes in the Heat II was part of a grouping of over one hundred works that formed the core of Berggruen's personal collection and included masterpieces by Matisse, Braque, Klee and Giacometti.
Pollack's skill as an artist was in part due to his skill at harnessing accident. More accurately, while he was interested in the artistic power of his unconscious - everything that he had absorbed knowingly and unknowingly from life and his artistic practice, he refused it primacy over his will. In a rare personal note about his seemingly chance-driven technique, he stated that he was always in total control. He further commentated, "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).