"My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. 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. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West. I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added. 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, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well" (J. Pollock, 'My Painting,' Possibilities I, New York, Winter 1947-48.)
Painted in the last months of 1951, Number 28, 1951 is the first of a series of dense, heavily-worked drip-technique paintings that Pollock made between 1951 and 1952. This series executed immediately after the year-long departure of the 'Black-and-White' paintings that dominated Pollock's work throughout 1951 marked the artist's dramatic return to color and a material deepening of his drip technique in a way that was ultimately to culminate in such pictures as Convergence in the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo and Blue Poles (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra).
Perhaps originally conceived to be a part of the Black-and-White paintings of 1951, Number 28, 1951 is an altogether different work. Comprised of a surprisingly densely textured, swirling mass of dramatically conflicting and counterbalancing marks that collectively build to form a thick, dynamic and almost animate material surface, Number 28, 1951 is a painting that seems to mark both a return to the gestural explorations of his triumphant 1950 paintings and to signal the beginnings of the new direction that reached its apogee in Blue Poles. Combining the lightness and fluidity of the skeins of his 1950 masterpieces with the dark brooding energy and chthonic power of the Black-and-White paintings, the prevailing characteristic of Number 28, 1951 is of an apparent struggle between conflicting forms. It is a struggle that, in this work, as in only relatively few others from what was to prove this last heroic period of Pollock's career, is finally resolved successfully using an increasing variety of technique including, most probably, the application of paint through syringes of the kind used for turkey basting - a complex technique that Pollock had recently mastered in the creation of the Black-and-White paintings earlier in the year.
Indeed, it is, in fact, only the brilliant, darting, lightning-like flashes of radiant white paint so applied to the very surface of this work that ultimately serve, in the manner of the eight vertical blue posts of Blue Poles, to hold the ominously bubbling morass of painterly energy beneath them into a unique and dynamic unity. Giving birth to an entirely denser, complex and extraordinarily rich, varied and multidimensional surface-one that Frank Stella was to compare to both Pollock's earlier Number 1A, 1948 and Piet Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie-the seemingly writhing and wrestling surface of Number 28, 1951 is also indicative of the general deepening at this time, of Pollock's painterly struggle in the face of the demons of his alcoholism which, in 1951, had returned to haunt the artist and his work.
In 1951, at the very height of his creative power and artistic achievement, Pollock had suddenly changed direction. Abandoning the vast scale, epic format and subtle color of the large, and now famous masterpieces such as Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist that he had exhibited at the Betty Parsons' Gallery in November 1950, Pollock had embarked on a series of more graphic, drawing-like paintings made solely in black enamel paint on raw cotton duck canvas. For the first time in many years, in these radically new works known as the Black-and-White paintings, vague figurative elements reminiscent of his earlier work had begun to reappear amidst the dramatic rhythmic swirls and convoluted skeins of his dripped paint. As he wrote to his friends Alfonso Ossorio and Ted Dragon at this time, "I've had a period of drawing on canvas in black - with some of my early images coming thru - think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing - and the kids who think it simple to splash out a Pollock" (J. Pollock, 'Letter to Alfonso Ossorio and Ted Dragon, ' June 7, 1951, quoted in F. V. O'Connor and E. Victor Thaw, (ed.) Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings Drawings and Other Works, vol. 2, London, 1978, p. 261).
Evidently recognizing the culminatory nature of his achievement in the masterpieces he had shown at the Parsons' show Pollock had needed to move onto something new. As his wife Lee Krasner later expressed it: "After the '50 show, what do you do next? He couldn't have gone further doing the same thing I haven't a clue what swung him exclusively to black and white at that point ... but it was certainly a conscious decision' (L. Krasner quoted in O'Connor, op. Cit. p. 263). Throughout 1951, Pollock appears to have returned to his roots somewhat, exploring in a sparser, more direct and raw style made with predominantly black paint on largely unprimed canvas, the nature of the relationship between the figurative and the abstract forms that his unconscious mind seemed to prompt his painting arm to create. Knowing, in the wake of the magnitude of his recent achievement, that he had once again to create something new, for the first time in several years Pollock allowed the figures that often emerged in his work to remain visible, hovering, in these monochrome canvases, between representation and abstraction. As Lee Krasner recalled, such forms had always been present in Pollock's work. "For me," she said, "all of Jackson's work grows from (the period in the mid-thirties when he first began to break free); I see no more sharp breaks, but rather a continuing development of the same themes and obsessions. The 1951 (paintings) seemed like monumental drawing, or maybe painting with the immediacy of drawing - some new category. There's one other advantage I had: I saw his paintings evolve. Many of them, many of the most abstract, began with more or less recognizable imagery-heads, parts of the body, fantastic creatures. Once I asked Jackson why he didn't stop the painting when a given image was exposed. He said, 'I choose to veil the imagery'" (Lee Krasner quoted in O'Connor, op. Cit. p. 263).
It seems likely that Number 28, 1951 marks Pollock's return to the veiling of his imagery that had preciously led to the free-form of the first drip paintings. As a photograph of the work hanging unstretched but completed in Pollock's studio alongside some Black-and-White paintings and an early unfinished version of another abstract drip painting, Number 1, 1952 (begun in 1951) reveals, Number 28, 1951, was painted on the same role of canvas as many of Pollock's other 1951 Black-and-White paintings and, judging by the underlying paint at the raw and more open edges of the work, may even have begun its life in a similar manner before the gradual build up of its surface led to its becoming something wholly abstract and very different. For, over an original skein of loose black graphic form similar to that in other Black-and-White paintings, extraordinarily dense thick swirls of grey, and subsequently yellow, red and flickers of blue, paint have been liberally applied to the point where the entire surface of this work has become a unique, complex and autonomous magma of living energy. As Donald Judd was later to write of Pollock, it was this manner of painting, this wholly original response to and appreciation of the specific and autonomous material nature of paint that was one of the most revolutionary features of Pollock's work. Pollock "used paint and canvas in a new way" Judd declared, "everyone else, except Stella for the most part, used them in ways that were developments upon traditional European or Western ways of handling paint and canvas. This use is one of the most important aspects of Pollock's work, as important as scale and wholeness" (D. Judd, 'Jackson Pollock', Arts Magazine, 41, no. 6, April 1967, pp. 32-5).
Unlike in Pollock's early drip paintings when the artist had used thinned paint poured directly from the tin, or dripped and splattered with a brush or stick, here, the paint appears to have been applied in thick rivulets as if squeezed from a syringe. Anticipating the thicker surfaces and impenetrable mesh of painterly form that would appear later in the larger and more ambitious Convergence and Blue Poles, the surface of Number 28, 1951 seems, because of this, to operate halfway between these works and the semi-forming states of some of Pollock's earlier transitionary-state paintings such as Eyes in the Heat of 1946. As Lee Krasner has recalled, this technique was also a product of the approach Pollock had used in the creation of the Black-and-White paintings. "All the major black-and-white paintings were on unprimed duck. He would order remnants, bolts of canvas anywhere from five to nine feet high having maybe fifty or a hundred yards left on them. He'd roll a stretch of this out on the studio floor, maybe twenty feet, so the weight of the canvas would hold it down - it didn't have to be tacked.. his 'palette' was typically a can or two of... (paint)..., thinned to the point he wanted it, standing on the floor beside the rolled-out canvas. Then, using sticks, and hardened or worn-out brushes (which were in effect like sticks), and basting syringes, he'd begin. His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough, but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it he had to control the flow of ink as well as his gesture. He used to buy those syringes by the dozen. With the larger black-and-whites he'd either finish one and cut it off the roll of canvas, or cut it off in advance and then work on it. But with the smaller ones he'd often do several on a large strip of canvas and then cut that strip from the roll to make more working space and to study it. Sometimes he'd ask, 'Should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom?' He'd have long sessions of cutting and editing, some of which I was in on, but the final decisions were always his. Working around the canvas - in the 'arena' as he called it - there really was no absolute top or bottom. And leaving space between paintings, there was no absolute 'frame' the way there is working on pre-stretched canvas" (L. Krasner quoted in O'Connor op. cit., p. 264).
Working on the floor, moving around the unstretched canvas, working usually from the middle of the picture outwards to try to find and define the edges of the work itself through the process of painting, Pollock in this way was continuing to develop and move along the path he had set for himself of attempting to take the apparent 'tidiness' and precision of easel painting towards a more open, direct and mural-like form of expression. Despite his recent successes, the apparent peak he had reached in the large drip paintings of the year before, and the return of his doubts and insecurity that accompanied his frequent relapses into alcoholism, Pollock was, in these works of 1951, bravely still attempting to create new and meaningful work. It was to be a struggle he would repeat with regrettably almost ever-decreasing success over the subsequent four years of his life. But, as in Blue Poles, Convergence and a few other paintings from Pollock's last years such as The Deep, 1953, (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) and White Light of 1954 (Museum of Modern Art New York), Number 28, 1951 is one of Pollock's last great pioneering paintings. It is a work that reveals how Pollock was clearly attempting to push even further beyond the extraordinary breakthrough of his great paintings of 1949 and '50 and to operate both with and within the multidimensional space that these paintings had revealed.
It was this aspect of Pollock's work and of Number 28, 1951 in particular that Franck Stella recognized, writing in his book Working Space: "A modest leap of the imagination will link Mondrian's late paintings with the famous drip paintings of Pollock, especially paintings like Number 1, 1948 and Number 28, 1951. What is interesting about this link is the way in which it shows us the marriage of rhythm and structure, the salient feature of Broadway Boogie-Woogie being repeated a few years later with what appear to be surprising results. From Mondrian's very tight and worked-over painting came Pollock's very loose and expansive painting, painting in which everyone could discover 'freedom'. This link manifests itself in the playing off of various pictorial elements against each other in both Mondrian's late paintings and Pollock's drip paintings. The rhythm of sensation and mass (color and pigment) mingles with the beat of descriptive two-dimensionality, where the moving line dressed as a black bar defines a plane, and the moving plane, in turn, defines a volume. In this dance, abstraction may discover its potential to overcome modernism's spatial inferiority. There is no doubt that Pollock, like Mondrian, enlarged the space available to abstraction by spanning the surface of painting with his enhanced tracery. But how is this tracery tied to the edges of its support? Can the skeins be self-supporting? Do they float from the edges of the picture surface, or do they float in front of them? The paint skeins appear to do two things at once: first they float billowing up from the surface of the picture apparently attached only to the edges; and second, they float freely in front of those same edges parallel to their surface, apparently unattached. The question where the paint skeins are in relation to the painting's surface is an important one because it seeks to define the working space of abstract painting. The fact that this working space is defined by a contradiction that allows the paint skeins to be in two places at the same time should give us pause. The notion that we see the paint skeins sometimes on the canvas surface and sometimes floating in front of it leaves the space surrounding the skeins with an ambiguous but strangely compelling set of coordinates which essentially describes a location in motion...When Mondrian realized that the freeing of his spanning grid had the simultaneous and equivalent effect of freeing the background, he put these discoveries to work in Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victor Boogie-Woogie, but he did not live long enough to face, as Pollock had to, the inevitable consequences of these ideas. It is certainly possible that Pollock never saw that Mondrian's grid could be 'in front of itself' and that paintings like Blue Poles and Autumn Rhythm, which seemed so expansive and so surely to be pointing to a wider vision, were anomalies. But we have to wonder, because it seems wrong to sell Pollock's talent short" (F. Stella, Working Space London, 1986, pp. 83-4)