‘I don’t use the accident – ’cause I deny the accident’
‘His assuredness at that time is frightening to me. The confidence, and the way he would do it was unbelievable’
With its opulent, marbled galaxy of dripped, splashed and spattered paint, Number 21, 1950 is a beautiful and important work from the peak of Jackson Pollock’s iconic ‘drip period’. It was included in the artist’s seminal third solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, which opened on 28 November 1950. Now recognised as the crowning moment of Pollock’s career, this exhibition contained several of his greatest large-scale masterpieces, all of which were painted that year: Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); Number 27, 1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); One: Number 31, 1950 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); and Number 32, 1950 (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf). Number 21, 1950 was among thirteen square-format works in the exhibition. Each roughly 22 x 22 inches in size, these were painted on the reverse sides of Masonite boards given to Pollock by his elder brother Sande McCoy, a commercial screen printer who had a stock of panels left over from the manufacture of a baseball board game in 1948. Other examples of this singular, jewel-like series are held in major museum collections worldwide, including Number 15, 1950 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Number 16, 1950 (Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro), Number 17, 1950 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), Number 18, 1950 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Number 20, 1950 (University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson), and Number 22, 1950 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
The unity and energy achieved in Number 21, 1950 exemplifies Pollock’s total mastery over his medium. A liquid nimbus of silver shimmers across the whole composition, fringed with soft stains and splashes toward the raw Masonite border, which Pollock has preserved with impressive control; threadlike red bolts zip through a central nebula of malachite green; spots and tendrils of black and white dance in dramatic counterpoint, softened by subtle arabesques of ochre and peach. Trading the balletic sweep of the arm for skilful flicks of the wrist, Pollock charges his intimately-scaled ground with nuclear intensity. Contrary to any early dismissals of his approach as anarchic or chaotic, the work is a triumph of both kinetic freedom and formal concentration. Its interplay of metallic splendour and stormy drama creates a fabric of complex, spectacular beauty, at once seemingly telluric and cosmic, mineral and ethereal, and utterly, radically unhindered by the task of figuration.
While he had been experimenting with dripping paint since 1943, it was in 1947 that Pollock made his crucial breakthrough to the completely dripped, all-over, non-hierarchical veils and networks of abstract line and colour that would come to redefine the landscape of twentieth-century art. His work of 1950, as displayed in the Betty Parsons show, has been aptly described by Kirk Varnedoe as ‘the massively confident culmination of Pollock’s three-year engagement with this manner’ (K. Varnedoe, ‘Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work’, in Jackson Pollock, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 52). Parsons, whose pioneering gallery also sold the work of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg, represented Pollock throughout these glory years. After Peggy Guggenheim, who had championed Pollock throughout the early 1940s, closed her Art of This Century gallery to return to Europe in 1947, Betty Parsons was among the only dealers in New York willing to work with such unconventional artists, many of whom were at the vanguard of what would later be known as Abstract Expressionism.
The 1950 Betty Parsons show concluded a period of great creative success for Pollock. Painting in the bucolic environs of Springs, East Hampton, where he and his wife Lee Krasner had brought a homestead with a loan from Peggy Guggenheim in 1945, Pollock had been sober since 1947. Shielded from the temptations of the city and free of the self-destructive alcoholism that so often plagued him, he spent these years productively evolving and refining his drip technique. Works such as Number 21, 1950, alongside the vast, lyrical paintings like Lavender Mist and Autumn Rhythm which now stand among his most celebrated creations, were the fruit of Pollock’s newfound focus. His brother Marvin Jay, who was living in New York with his wife at the time, wrote a rather envious letter to another brother, Frank, after the exhibition’s opening in November. ‘The big thing right now is Jack’s show. Alma and I were there and it was bigger than ever this year and many important people in the art world present. Lee seemed very happy and greeted everyone with a big smile, Jack appeared at home with himself and filled the part of the famous artist. Must be great to be talked about in newspapers and magazines and recognized by them as one of the leaders in the non-objective art field’ (M. J. Pollock, letter to Frank Pollock, 3 December 1950, in Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, Vol. 4, New Haven, 1978, p. 255).
Pollock, who had been profiled in an August 1949 Life article with the subheading ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ was certainly a ‘famous artist’ by 1950, and the show’s opening was indeed packed with spectators. Out of the thirty-two works available, however, just one was initially sold: Lavender Mist, to Pollock’s friend, the artist Alfonso Ossorio. Today, when Pollock’s works are among the most sought-after paintings in the world and many are enshrined in international museum collections, this seems almost incredible. Yet the disparity between sales and celebrity illustrates an important truth about the emerging status of American modern art at the time. While there was much excitement and controversy surrounding Pollock’s work, and a steady drumroll of praise from major critics such as Clement Greenberg had long been building, many viewers found the work disturbing or incomprehensible – and those who cared at all were few in number. Compared to the artistic community in Europe, the audience for avant-garde art in America remained relatively small and elite until the later 1950s. Only gradually would Pollock and the New York School’s vital importance be recognised, the United States supplant Europe as the global centre for modern art, and the way be paved for the Pop and Minimalist innovations of the 1960s onwards. Pollock, both before and after his death in 1956, played a central role in this critical shift. He had always been determined to achieve greatness. In a 1944 interview, he said he had never visited Europe, and had no desire to go abroad: ‘I don’t see why the problems of modern painting can’t be solved as well here as elsewhere’ (J. Pollock, quoted in ‘Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire’, Art and Architecture, vol. 61, no. 2, February 1944, p. 14). Works like Number 21, 1950, which weathered storms of misunderstanding to push the medium of paint into previously unimaginable new territory, stand as triumphant vindications of his confidence.
The early history of Number 21, 1950 itself provides a fascinating insight into the crusade – which had been gathering pace since the activity of patrons like Peggy Guggenheim in the 1940s – for modern American art to be promoted and purchased on the same level as art from Europe. Records from the Betty Parsons Gallery indicate that Number 21, 1950 was sold in 1953 to a Mrs Edith Porter, who had initially rented the work for two months through the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Art Lending Service’, to which Parsons lent works on consignment. Established in the autumn of 1951 with the aim of stimulating the purchase of contemporary art, this initiative offered rentals of works of art, ranging from $5 to $52 a month, with an option to buy. Used by over two thousand people between 1951 and 1960, the service was a resounding success, with almost twice the number of rentals in its eighth season as in its first year, and four times as many sales. A 1960 press release notes that ‘A survey conducted a few years ago revealed that 20 per cent of the first time borrowers and 35 per cent of the repeaters visited commercial art galleries more frequently after using the Art Lending Service, thus indicating that many people reached by the Lending Service subsequently became more interested in the purchase of modern art … well-known collectors and two museums, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, have purchased work from the Lending Service as well as young men and women who are just beginning their collections’ (Museum of Modern Art, New York, ‘Art Lending Service special exhibition of 54 paintings, prints, drawings & sculpture on view from Jan. 27 through March 20 in Auditorium Gallery’, press release, 27 January 1960, pp. 2-3). Betty Parsons, Pollock himself, and forwardthinking early adopters such as Mrs Porter were all clearly beneficiaries of the Museum of Modern Art’s initiative, whose own success speaks volumes about the changing popular climate surrounding modern art in mid-century America.
Pollock’s work has meant many things to many people. Like other Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko, he has variously been seen in relation to the sublime tradition of Northern Romanticism, his works resounding with the howls of a roaring, primordial nature, or as a unique product of New York in the 1950s, embodying the sophisticated, molecular buzz of his city as the Impressionists embodied the spirit of nineteenth-century Paris. For Clement Greenberg, archformalist and Pollock’s greatest critical champion, the artist’s freedom of line, no longer imprisoned by pictorial structure or bounded by figure, was part of a modernist progression from Impressionism towards a promised land of dematerialised, all-over ‘opticality’ that would reach its peak in the pure chromatics of the Colour Field painters in the 1960s. For Greenberg’s rival Harold Rosenberg, Pollock’s action in the ‘arena’ of the floor-bound canvas – ‘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’ (J. Pollock, ‘My Painting’, Possibilities no. 1, Winter 1947-48, p. 79) – was his most important innovation, and would lead to the ‘happenings’ of Allan Kaprow, public acts of painting such as Yves Klein’s Anthropométries, and the proliferation of performance art more widely. All these viewpoints are unified in their recognition that what Pollock accomplished was to step completely outside painting as it had been traditionally conceived, opening a vast field of entirely new possibilities in the process.
‘My opinion’, said Pollock in 1950, ‘is that new needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements. It seems to me 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 … Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement’ (J. Pollock, quoted in W. Wright, ‘An Interview with Jackson Pollock’, 1950, broadcast on radio station WERI, Westerly, Rhode Island, 1951, in Jackson Pollock. Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, New York, 1999, pp. 20, 23). Pollock’s ‘technique’ would come to define his age. It remains unclear, however, precisely how he arrived at the dripped idiom. As a young artist, he had been inspired by Picassoid figuration, the grandeur of the Mexican muralists, the rhythmic energy of the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton (who taught him in the 1930s), the primordial forms and automatic writing of Surrealists such as André Masson, and the ‘sand painting’ of Native Americans, which he had seen in a live demonstration at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941, and to which he would later relate his own painting on the floor. All of these influences struggled together noisily in his early work, before a fierce, honest originality finally broke through in 1947. The formal liberties of modernist painting, a Surrealist fascination with the depths of the psyche, and the totemic power of tribal art were distilled as if by magic into his dripped works, which were drawn in mid-air above floor-tacked surfaces, uniting form and colour and breaking with centuries of easel-bound painterly tradition. Just as he painted many of his larger works on unstretched commercial fabric with household enamel and acrylic paints, his repurposing of the baseball game board in Number 21, 1950 – he would later use some of the same panels to refloor his studio and house in 1953 – is an appealing example of his disregard for conventional artist’s materials, and shows that he was just as adept working within a ground of predetermined scale as with a canvas he sized himself. Pollock was a renegade, but he was no anarchist. As he telegrammed in angry response to a November 1950 article in Time magazine, ‘NO CHAOS DAMN IT’ (J. Pollock, ‘Letters to the Editor’, Time, 11 December 1950, p. 10).
In the years following 1950, Pollock would become the first modern artist in America – and one of the first in the world, after Picasso – to attain the status of a media icon. During the summer of that year, Hans Namuth had photographed him in his studio painting works including One: Number 31, 1950; these photos, published and widely disseminated in 1951, emphasised the drama and force of Pollock’s intensely physical, dancelike movements around the canvas on the floor below him. After Pollock’s death in a car accident five years later, public fascination with the artist would only increase. Namuth’s photographs became inseparable from the myth of the man and the method, reinforcing an image of the tragic, romantic iconoclast who poured his inner tumult out into his vast, ritualistic, radically original works. Yet even as they demystify his process, these photos convey only a narrow notion of what Pollock’s dripping entailed. The works of 1950, clearly the high point of his practice, were more than records of the grand, sweeping, largely linear motions that Namuth captured. The diverse, virtuosic and carefully controlled markmaking in Number 21, 1950 – its fluid range from filament to splash, its dilute drops and crackling flashes of vivid hue, its webs and clusters of lilted line and flowering vapours of different viscosity and weight – is laced with both profundity and joy, and represents the dazzling zenith of variety, subtlety and mystery that Pollock had achieved in his new language of paint.