Please note that this work has been requested for inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, at the Tate Liverpool and the Dallas Museum of Art, June 2015-February 2016.
Distinguished by its enticing assembly of enigmatically fluid forms, Jackson Pollock's Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady' is a pivotal work that unites two of the most important periods of the artist's career. Painted in 1951 as he was struggling to conquer some of his most pernicious demons, this work sees the artist triumphantly returning to the amorphous forms with which he started his journey into abstraction in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It also acts as a precursor to his last, great period of work before his untimely death in 1956, a period defined by some of his greatest paintings. 1951 also marks the most productive and significant moment in Pollock's career as a draughtsman, and works such as Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady' articulate a new and more sophisticated approach to his famed dripped technique. This work belongs to his celebrated series of black paintings, examples of which can be found in the permanent collections of some the world's major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and has come to signify a period during which he completely disregarded centuries of artistic tradition to produce paintings that not only challenged the accepted conventions of the genre but also marked the apotheosis of Pollock as one of the defining artists of the century.
Across its expansive surface, Pollock draws together an enticing combination of lyrical lines and more enigmatic forms in a visual symphony. Some are restricted to self-contained areas of the canvas, as if carrying on their narrative oblivious to what is going on nearby, while other passages seem more adventurous--expanding out beyond the limits of their confinement to explore the full dimensions of the canvas. Bold motifs, such as the serpentine form that inhabits the upper left portion of the painting, are counterbalanced by the winding lines that meander down the right-hand portion, all cohabiting in perfect harmony. All the time, throughout this constantly shifting surface, the viewer's eye is encouraged to seek out images and figures, yet is constantly brought back to the surface on which the passage of the artist's hand has dripped and poured its trace.
In the months prior to 1951, in an attempt to try and rekindle his creativity after a period of self-doubt, Pollock began to work on a series of drawings using black enamel dripped directly onto his chosen support. In a letter to his friend and mentor Alfonso Ossorio in January 1951, Pollock announced, "I've had a period of drawing on canvas in black-with some of my early images coming through--think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing--and the kids who think it's simple to splash a Pollock out" (J. Pollock, quoted in K. Varnedoe with P. Karmel, Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 326). Following his radical intervention into the artistic canon with his iconic 'drip' paintings, this return to his earlier interest in automatic drawing provided the artist with a new approach to the drip. In works such as Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady,' Pollock reduced its means to the bare minimum: colors are expelled in favor of black, and lines are used sparsely. During this period he also began to use new tools with which to deliver the paint to its surface, including a turkey baster, which, with its tapered tip, gave him much more control over the direction and velocity of his drips. In addition, he also began to use commercial clear glue known as Rivit to size his canvases, which allowed the rawness of the canvas to show through without letting the black paint absorb directly into the canvas itself. By letting the dripped lines define themselves against this hardened surface, Pollock seems to be encouraging patterns and forms to emerge independently. Although not properly figurative, these paintings began to move away from the abstract, atmospheric feeling of the drip paintings, in which lines, colors and space fuse into wholeness. As Kirk Varnedoe suggests, Pollock disliked being thought of as a 'known quantity' and with these new works he relished the opportunity to surprise people again by revisiting some long abandoned habits of the hand.
Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady' was included in a number of important early exhibitions for the artist, including the influential New Images of Man show curated by Peter Selz at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959. The exhibition included works by artists such as Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning, who, as the press release announcing the exhibition explained, were "aware of a time of dread, [and] have evolved a new human imagery unique to the twentieth century." In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Frank O'Hara extolled the virtues of Pollock's work, particularly its originality and richness. "One of the dramas of these paintings is the intolerable conflict between an artistic intent of unerring articulateness and a medium which is seeking to devour its meaning. In the traditional sense, there is no surface, as there is no color. There is simply the hand of the artist, in mid-air, awaiting the confirmation of form" (F. O. Hara, quoted in P. Selz (ed.), New Images of Man, New York, 1959, accessed via www.archive.org, December 11, 2013).
In 1954, Pollock traded this work-along with another painting from the same period (Number 23, 1951/'Frogman' currently in the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia) for a green 1950s Oldsmobile owned by the famed gallerist Martha Jackson, a move which would have tragic consequences two years later when Pollock crashed this car into a tree near his home on Long Island killing himself and Edith Metzger. As was the practice at the time, Pollock only titled his work with a number and the verbal titles of these two pieces were assigned by Martha Jackson herself. It is not difficult to see how she came up with this particular moniker as the curvaceous line that spills down the right-hand portion of the canvas recalls the seductive outline of a female figure along with the sultry form of two eyes suggested by the bold form that emerges in the upper left corner. Ellen Landau, in her 1989 monograph on the artist's work, notes "'Elegant Lady' and 'Frogman' are good examples of how, in many black pourings, Pollock essentially created more reworkings of identifiable configurations from the past" (E. Landau, Jackson Pollock, London, 1989, p. 214).
While many scholars have been quick to see Pollock's paintings from this period as a return to his interest in Surrealism and autonomous drawings that preoccupied him earlier in his career, others have identified more contemporaneous influences at work. Pollock had long been an admirer of the fluidity of Picasso's line, but the disembodied forms in this particular painting have also been linked to his great rival de Kooning's female portraits from the same period. Kirk Varnedoe, in the catalogue to his 1998 retrospective on Pollock, has also identified another--more oblique--influence on Pollock's work from the early 1950s, that of Henri Matisse. During the period that Pollock embarked on these series of black paintings, he was also working with his friend and fellow artist Tony Smith on a project for a church that Smith would design and in which Pollock's work would be the only source of decoration. Varnedoe poses the question of whether this project reignited Pollock's interest in Matisse--and, particularly, his construction of a chapel at Vence in the south of France, which included, in addition to his colorful stained glass windows, a black-and-white interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, which Matisse produced on one wall of the chapel in black and white tiles. The stark monochrome nature combined with the fluidity of Matisse's hand has clear parallels with works such as Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady' although any direct correlation between the two is much more difficult to establish.
Whatever the starting point for works such as this, it is clear that Pollock's mastery of his medium continued unabated. In 1951, the year the present work was painted, Pollock's fellow artist Robert Goodnough paid a visit to his studio in Springs, Long Island, and captured the magic of Pollock's painterly process in an article that appeared in May's edition of ARTnews. "To enter Pollock's studio is to enter another world," he enthused, "a place where the intensity of the artist's mind and feelings are given full play. It is the unusual quality of this mind, penetrating nature to the core yet never striving to show its surface, that has been projected into paintings which captivate many and agitate others by their strange, often violent, ways of expression." He went on to explain Pollock's painterly process: "After a while he took a can of black enamel (he usually starts with the color which is at hand at the time) and a stubby brush which he dipped into the paint and then began to move his arm rhythmically about, letting the paint fall in a variety of movements on the surface. At times he would crouch, holding the brush close to the canvas, and again he would stand and move around it or step on it to reach to the middle. Within a half hour the entire surface had taken on an activity of weaving rhythms. Pools of black, tiny streams and elongated forms seemed to become transformed and began to take on the appearance of an image. As he continued, still with black, going back over former areas, rhythms were intensified with counteracting movements. After some time he decided to stop to consider what had been done. This might be called the first step of the painting, though Pollock stresses that he does not work in stages. He did not know yet when he would feel strongly enough about the picture to work on it again, with the intensity needed, nor when he would finally be finished with it. The paint was allowed to dry, and the next day it was nailed to a wall of the studio for a period of study and concentration" (R. Goodnough, "Pollock Paints a Picture," ARTnews, May 1951, accessed via www.artnews.com, December 2013).
Pollock's black paintings from 1951 are regarded by many scholars as among the most psychologically charged works of his career. Executed at a pivotal moment for the artist, they display the true DNA of Pollock's painterly practice. They demonstrate the power and visceral energy of his iconic drip paintings with which he made his name, while at the same time acting as a battleground for a deep reconsideration of his art, as they recalled and gave shape to his dramatic unconscious in a more direct and graphic way. The new form of artistic language that Pollock displays in Number 5, 1951/'Elegant Lady'--the strong verticals, replacing the loops of his earlier work--would eventually reach their highpoint in Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 (National Gallery of Australia), his masterpiece from his last great series of paintings completed before his untimely death in 1956.
Pollock's skill as an artist was in part due to his ability to harness 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. "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 throughthere is pure harmony, easy give and take, and the painting comes out well" (J. Pollock quoted by E. Frank, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1983, p. 68).