A chorus of fluid calligraphic marks and vibrant splashes dancing across the paper, Untitled radiates the energy of an artist at the peak of his expressive powers. Executed in 1947, it is one of the first works on paper to prelude the groundbreaking ‘drip’ paintings that ‘broke the ice’ for American painting, as Willem de Kooning’s phrased it, and would revolutionize modern art in the twentieth century. Echoing the startlingly radical technique of pouring and dripping paint onto canvas from above that Pollock devised to create these groundbreaking paintings, the intricate layering of drips, flicks and splashes of dense black and bright color in this untitled work on paper is an exemplary demonstration of how Pollock was able to achieve a masterly balance between chaos and creativity. The unpredictable, physical movements of the artist are directly reflected in every mark, and yet the effect is a delicate web that engages the viewer with its complex spatial depth and compositional sensitivity. It was in creating paintings like these that Pollock was able to break away from a conventional reliance on figurative and geometric form as well as traditional techniques, in order to make boundless art that was radically and fearlessly subjective.
Pollock believed that his works on paper deserved as much attention as his paintings. In his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s influential gallery, Art of This Century, in New York, he insisted that both were shown. As with his paintings, he used traditional media, such as ink, watercolor and pencil, but he employed a similar innovative technique and infused them with the same emotional charge. His paintings did not have preparatory drawings; each work he did was a significant event in itself. Pollock’s nearly seven hundred works on paper are an integral part of the brilliant and profoundly influential legacy he left behind, after a life cut tragically short by a car accident in 1956.
Pollock greatly admired the drawings of the Old Masters, and he filled his sketchbooks with studies after El Greco, Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt. It was the power of their lines that he responded to, as well as the underlying rhythms, geometric forms and essential structures behind the figures. Although the figurative and narrative aspects of his predecessors’ drawings are entirely absent, the control Pollock exercises over each gesture in Untitled pertains to their expert ability to reduce three-dimensional reality into eloquent and dynamic flat form. El Greco, for instance, would often build his paintings up from jagged, triangular shaped forms and angular lines and vivid areas of contrasting dark and light tone; Pollock’s work conveys a similar rhythmic pace and use of white to unify the picture plane, giving the entire work its sense of movement and dynamism.
1946 marked the beginnings of Pollock’s decisive move away from the figurative image as a basis for his work, and towards his distinct personal style of extreme abstraction. Whereas his work from the preceding years had been characterized by human and imaginary beings, influenced heavily by the burgeoning Surrealist movement, by 1947 Pollock began making purely abstract work. In the manner of Untitled, it emphasized the primacy of the painting, specifically the action of painting, itself. “When I am in my painting,’ he said in a rare early statement of that year, ‘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, quoted in Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 48).
In the spirit of surrealist automatism, where subconscious gesture takes precedence over reason and intellectual judgment, Pollock’s intention was to convey the state of transcendence achieved when making these paintings. His early work was certainly influenced by the surrealists’ quest for authenticity in art via accessing the inner psyche, often containing figures inspired by mythical and archaic symbols that pertained to the collective subconscious, and his later work was concerned with obtaining a directness of personal expression. He was part of a generation of artists who sought such universal images to make art that was important, and he found their premise, that the source of art was the unconscious, particularly impressive. ‘The modern artist’ he once said, “…is working and expressing an inner world-in other words expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces” (J. Pollock, quoted at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/pollock-summertime-number-9a-t03977).
Pollock’s work, however, was more controlled than the art derived from the type of automatic exercises that the Surrealists were expounding by the early 1940s. In 1947, his game-changing decision to do away with easels, boards and stretchers and work with his canvases flat on the ground enabled him an unprecedented level of holistic control. He was able to patrol the painting in a deliberate manner, ensuring that every part of its surface was given equal attention, and that any compositional hierarchy was nullified. In a unique series of almost revelatory notes to himself that he made about this new technique, he described his activity as “States of order—Organic intensity—Energy and motion—Made visible—Memories arrested in space, human needs and motives—acceptance.” What was essential, Pollock also asserted in these rare personal notations, was “total control—denial of the accident” (J. Pollock, quoted in Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 57). This method, so clearly anticipated in Untitled, was a carefully thought-out response to the changes wrought by contemporary society. In pursuing this method, he outlined a new path for artists that would remain forever etched on the landscape of art history. “It seems to me,” he said in the early 1950s, “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” (J. Pollock, quoted in Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, pp. 56-57).