Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition is an important early work by an artist who revolutionized the twentieth century art historical canon. It is one of the first paintings in which Pollock freed paint from the interference of his brush, allowing it to take on its own form and in the process becoming a manifestation of true abstraction. The intoxicating range of painterly black gestures, fissures of electric blue and thin wisps of golden yellow—all set against a dramatic red ground—permeates the surface with a sense of animated dynamism and marks the beginning of one of the most famous bodies of work in modern art. In addition to playing an important role within his own artistic development, Red Composition also embodies some of the important relationships in Pollock’s personal life too, having been owned by his great friend and mentor, Peggy Guggenheim. Executed at the beginning of a period of intense creativity for the artist, no part of the canvas is untouched by Pollock’s swoops and swirls of thick impasto, making it a remarkably prescient painting that foretold of the seismic changes to come.
Against a striking red ground, Pollock’s rich assortment of highly expressive painterly gestures fills the entire painting; wide substantial brushstrokes, delicate drips of liquid pigment, splotches of viscous color, and thin trails of vibrant hues all combine to create a highly animated surface. The effect is carefully choreographed so that no one element consumes another. Dense passages of black paint effortlessly coexist next to ethereal threads of vibrant yellow, and broad sweeps of Pollock’s brush sit alongside the drips and pours of paint that would become the artist’s signature painterly device. In abandoning the traditional figure/ground relationship, Pollock’s all-over composition forces the eye to constantly scan the surface, exploring the minutest detail of every gesture before returning to consider the entire composition as one harmonious whole. The result was a shocking departure from centuries of artistic convention, resulting in what has been described as “a continuous field of uniform accents where it is impossible to distinguish between scrolling lines of paint and phantasmagorias, between the near and the far, the symbolic and the plastic” (S. Hunter, J. Jacobus, D. Wheeler, eds., Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, New York, 2004, p. 274).
The origins of Pollock’s signature style emerged in 1946, in what has come to be regarded as the artist’s annus mirabilis. This was the year when, along with Red Composition, Pollock produced his seminal Sounds in Grass series; these seven paintings mark the first time Pollock abandoned applying his paints exclusively with the aid of a brush, and began instead to smear the pigment directly from the tube. Using a blunt instrument, he pushed and dragged the thick paint directly across the surface, resulting in a textured layer of heavy impasto. This important series of paintings includes Eyes in the Heat (Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection, New York), regarded as one of the artist’s most important early paintings as it heralds the ‘poured’ paintings that Pollock initiated in the winter of 1946-47. Directly following the Sounds in the Grass paintings are two related paintings; the first is Free Form (Museum of Modern Art, New York)—a lyrical painting with flowing black and white trails of liquid paint traversing a familiar red ground—which the museum states is “very likely Pollock’s first’ drip painting” (https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80170). Directly following Free Form is the present work, thus Red Composition becomes instrumental in the trajectory which propelled Pollock to become one of the most groundbreaking and important artists of his, and subsequent, generations.
In addition to its pivotal role in Pollock’s oeuvre, Red Composition is also distinguished by its exceptional provenance. The painting first belonged to the legendary dealer and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most important figures in the development of Modern art in America. As a member of the wealthy Guggenheim family, she used her inheritance to establish one of the greatest collections of early modernist European art during the 1920s and 1930s. She was particularly interested in the work of the Surrealists and Dadaists and later married Max Ernst, and counted Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp as close friends. In addition to championing the most exciting art from Europe, she also advocated the art of America and became one of Jackson Pollock’s earliest and most ardent patrons. She was introduced to Pollock in 1943, and impressed by his own interest in the Surrealist traditions of European Art, she offered him a contract with her new Art of This Century gallery in New York. The gallery became one of the most important venues for exhibiting Modern art in America, and introduced collectors to the work of many important European painters including Leonora Carrington, Giorgio de Chirico, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Max Ernst. It also exhibited a new generation of American artists including Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell and Clyfford Still.
As well as exhibiting Pollock’s works in her gallery, Guggenheim also commissioned him to produce a large-scale painting for her New York apartment; the resulting canvas, Mural (1943, Stanley Museum of Art, University of Iowa), measured over eight feet tall and nineteen feet wide, and has become one of Pollock’s most celebrated works. Its meandering serpentine forms bear the hallmarks of the Surrealist Automatic Drawings, yet they also begin to reveal the freedom and spontaneity that is later evident in Red Composition, and which would eventually evolve into the iconic ‘drip’ paintings for which Pollock would become so celebrated. Guggenheim claimed she spotted Pollock’s potential early on, in her autobiography writing: “When I first exhibited Pollock, he was very much under the influence of the Surrealists and of Picasso. But he very soon overcame this influence, to become, strangely enough, the greatest painter since Picasso” (P. Guggenheim, quoted by D. Wigal, Pollock: Veiling the Image, New York, 2011, p. 116).
Guggenheim then gave the painting to Jimmy Ernst, son of the Surrealist painter Max Ernst, as a wedding present in 1947. Ernst Senior was one of the most influential voices of the European avant-garde, and after a tumultuous courtship was married to Guggenheim between 1941 and 1946. Early in the 1950s, the painting was acquired by the successful New York businessman Marshall Reisman and his wife Dorothy, and remained in their personal collection for over forty years until it was donated in 1991 to the Everson Museum of Art, in Marshall’s hometown of Syracuse, New York. Proceeds from the sale of this painting will be used to acquire works by artists currently under-represented in the collection, and further bolster the museum’s reputation as one of the most important and diverse regional institutions in the United States.
Soon after they first appeared, Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings became some of the most radical interventions in Modern art. His skill as an artist was in part due to his skill at harnessing accident. More accurately, while he was interested in the artistic power of his unconscious, he refused it primacy over his will. In a rare personal note about this new 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 through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there 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).
Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings have become some of the most seminal paintings of the twentieth century, laying the foundational groundwork for both contemporaries—like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning—and progenies alike. Red Composition was painted at a pivotal juncture when the artist was shifting his focus away from the more figurative elements of his earlier practice before eventually choreographing the pouring and dripping of pigment directly onto the surface of the canvas. Red Composition represents the period during which the paint becomes liberated from the brush, as can be seen in the lyrical trails of bright yellow paint that dance across the surface. When combined with the areas of more substantial paint, Pollock builds an ‘architectural’ framework which would revolutionize the practice of painting forever. With a work such as this, Pollock had taken an important step in freeing himself from the influences of his interest in Surrealism, and standing on the verge of becoming—in the words of his great champion, Peggy Guggenheim—“the greatest painter since Picasso” (Ibid.).