Vertical Composition I, 1950, is among Pollock's most lyrical and opulent canvases--an intimately scaled essay made at the peak of his artistic powers. Inhering in the alternation of soaring and cascading loose chromatic skeins against the stable plane of darkened raw canvas, aquamarines melt into greens and yellows, like liquid magna cooled to form igneous terrain. Migrations of airily dripped paint contrast with congealed pools of high-valued buff tones, against which dark whorls and hollows contrast with an all-over crystalline luminescence. Undulating, overlapping skeins coalesce and dissolve into the blackness of their support; the roiling surface is allayed.
The poet Frank O'Hara spoke of Pollock's canvases as "a map of sensual freedom," and nowhere is this more in evidence than in the present work, where a mastery of technique is displayed in elegant pouring, tight rhythmic counterpoint and luscious textures. An evocation of natural phenomena, Vertical Composition I projects--within a more restricted arena--the grandeur of Pollock's achievement in its emotional thrust, technical mastery and enchanting opticality. Asserting its material surface and rectangular shape through a directional force addressed to its four corners, Vertical Composition I nonetheless stresses the artist's own physicality and touch. Gesturing in mid-air above a horizontally laid plane, paint cascades in patterns of intricate netting, crisscrossing and looping in response to the artist's movement as he hovered above. Pollock's presence can be sensed in the traces of his impress, its transparency or opaqueness, quickening the work's expressive power.
Vertical Composition I is central to Pollock's oeuvre, made in 1950, the year of his greatest achievements. Ranging from extravagant mural-sized statements--One: Number 31, 1950, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art; Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Lavender Mist: No. 1, 1950, housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.--to several more modestly proportioned vertical canvases, 1950 represents the peak of Pollock's extraordinary creative output. Originally conceived as part of six vertical compositions on a continuous canvas over seven feet in length, each work was subsequently separated from its near neighbor by the artist. The series was executed at the same moment as two similar series of vertical works, (Black and White Polyptych) and Red Paintings I - VII (Catalogue numbers 299 - 309, in Jackson Pollock: A Catalouge Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, ed. F. O'Connor and E. V. Thaw, Vol. 2, New Haven and London, 1978, pp. 120 - 122). These three series show Pollock examining various techniques in discrete self-standing rectangular formats each separated by spaces speckled with traces of paint. Moving from violent spatters, drips and swirls in the first continuous canvas, the second series, posthumously referred to in the Pollock catalogue raisonné as Vertical Composition I-Untitled, 1950, is the first vertical rectangle-presents a melting calm, as if linear tension had been relaxed, the network of interwoven movement lulled by the gentle sway of arm and hand drifting over the painterly surface. The second, third and fourth rectangles of this group are less resolved, moving from the relative calm of the present work, through more activated iterations into virtual opaqueness in the last of the group.
A radical abstraction such as Pollock's emerges from many sources, and the literature is rife with theories of its origin. In America, the Surrealist painter Max Ernst had invented a technique that he called "oscillation." Spontaneously flowing from a can punctured with holes and suspended over a canvas spread on a table or floor, the oscillations caused paint to flow as if uncontrolled. Underlining the chance or automatic procedures at the center of Surrealism, these "oscillations" created "accidental compositions," which allowed Ernst and others to counteract the influence of years spent practicing traditional composition and modeling (L. Alloway, "Introduction," Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, New York, 1961, n.p. and Marcel Jean, History of Surrealism, London, 1960, note 2). Others look to Pollock's exposure to Navaho sand paintings in 1941, when the artist John Graham took him to view such work in the making. Allowing sand to flow freely through their fingers onto the ground, tribal shamans worked from a horizontal perspective and often destroyed their symbolic representations after use. There is a sense in which painters throughout the centuries had experimented with their materials. In 1877, the British critic and theorist John Ruskin in a review of James McNeil Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, famously accused the artist of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" (Pam Marcil, Detroit Institute of Art, http://www.dia.org/exhibitions/whistlersite/nocturne.htm). But beyond the over one-thousand-year-old Sung dynasty's tradition of splashed-ink brush painting, no artist until Pollock had made it the basis of their artistic practice. By 1946, Pollock had firmly moved the canvas from the easel to the floor, freeing himself from the traditional vertical orientation of painter to surface, which then encouraged an unrestricted approach to the canvas from all sides. As he famously stated, this spatial freedom allowed him to "be in the painting" (J. Pollock, "My Painting," Possibilities, New York, Winter 1947-48). By opening the spatial field and rejecting traditional tools such as brushes by which to manipulate and control "marks" on canvas, as the critic Clement Greenberg made clear in his forward to the first retrospective of the artist's works in 1952, Pollock became the catalyst through which the main tradition of painting in America was determined.
Pollock's achieved painterly style is entirely apparent in Vertical Composition I, 1950. Consisting of poured paint on a horizontal surface, the luminous coloration interpenetrating the interwoven skeins functioned expressively to enrich a surface, which extends in all directions across and beyond the outer reaches of the canvas. In Laurence Alloway's telling prose, "By covering the surface with branching, flowing, crossing, exploding marks, Pollock made a painting into a highly responsive field" (Ibid., n.p.). The trace of the artist's presence in Vertical Composition I, his response to the weight, color and direction of the flow of paint are recorded in their most elegant form. Inhering in the notion of "branching" is that of the artist's response to such factors as gravity and resistance--an assertion of his presence in the interplay of seeing and acting. The artist Alfonso Ossoria recognized the protean character of Pollock's work and described it as 'violently interwoven movement so closely knit as almost to induce the static quality of perpetual motion" (A. Ossoria, exh. cat. Jackson Pollock 1951, Betty Parsons' Gallery, New York, 1951, n.p.).
Vertical Composition I, 1950, represents, paradoxically, Pollock at his most investigational and his most authoritative. It tracks an artist's complete mastery of technique, yet one who perpetually searched for ways to dissolve the worked surface into a continuous optical experience. With great speed, Pollock melded paint with canvas, creating a matrix of expressionistic gestures that evoked, as the artist Michel Tapié remarked, "a new feeling, a new scale of sensibility, a new psychic key an art capable of going beyond the psychological limits currently in place within the Western tradition" (M. Tapié, "Jackson Pollock avec nous," exh. cat., February, 1952, in Paris, New York, 1908-1968, p. 677).