‘In a certain way, it is back home,’ says Peggy Guggenheim Collection communications director Alexia Boro of the recent, albeit temporary, installation of Jackson Pollock’s colossal 1943 Mural in the galleries of one of Venice’s most revered museums. Boro has a right to her proprietary sentiment — although the nearly 8-by-20-foot Mural has ostensibly been the centerpiece of the University of Iowa Museum of Art’s collection for nearly 65 years, spending the last two in residence at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, it was originally commissioned by the legendary collector for the entry of her New York residence.
But before returning to its current custodians in the American Midwest, Mural will be feted during the Venice Biennale in the exhibition, Jackson Pollock’s Mural: Energy Made Visible, which puts the piece in context with another recently restored piece, 1947’s Alchemy, along with art by Pollack contemporaries, including Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Barbara Morgan, Aaron Siskind, and David Smith. Together these works communicate the notion of action, the term that now embodies Pollock’s career.
‘It looks as if it were painted in an incredible burst of spontaneity without too much hang-wringing or second guessing,’ says Robert Manley, head of Post-war & Contemporary Art at Christie’s New York. ‘It was painted at a time when Pollock’s work was vacillating between abstraction and figuration,’ he follows. ‘It has this sort of abstract rhythm throughout. It’s one of my favourites.’ To get a better handle on this seminal work, show curator and AbEx authority David Anfam answers a few questions.
Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943. Reproduced with permission from The University of Iowa Museum of Art. Photograph courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2014
In the 1930s, murals were seized on by many artists as a form. How does Pollock’s version fit into the context of that contemporary moment as well as the trajectory of art history?
David Anfam: There is a definite sense in which Pollock’s Mural is the consummation of his admiration for the murals of Thomas Hart Benton during the 1930s as well, of course, as those by the Mexicans David Alfaro Siquerios, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. But it is also Pollock’s response to Picasso’s Guernica, which he had studied much more recently. Crucially, the latter was a portable mural, rather than one painted directly on the wall. The same applies to Mural and all of Pollock’s subsequent very big canvases through to Blue Poles of 1952. What Pollock achieved with Mural was to synthesize the intimate touch of the easel picture with the grand sweep of an architectural scale.
The piece was made for a residence rather than a public place, and although it could be assumed that didn’t really affect Pollock’s ambition for the canvas, what can be drawn from the nature of the commission?
Again, this reinforces the hybrid nature of Mural, which belongs to a different cultural continuum compared to the WPA murals and other public commissions of the previous decade. What had happened is that the focus for radical art had moved from a social context to a far more private one. Similarly, Mural was intended to be seen close-up rather than from the greater distance that most of the public murals of the 1930s demanded. This helps to explain the sheer intricacy, freshness, and range of its mark-making.
Did the making of this work lead directly to the drip process?
Not directly, because between 1944 and 1946 Pollock continued to use brushes and so forth in a daring yet still relatively conventional way. However, the sheer array of brushwork evident in Mural was a breakthrough for Pollock and it is highly significant that the year of its execution also witnessed Pollock’s first experiments with the poured technique. Mural’s sheer audacity was a breakthrough both technical and ideological that the poured technique of 1947 to 1950 would bring to ultimate fruition.
The fact that the work was painted from right to left has been cause for scrutiny. Is there anything to be drawn from this seemingly calculated movement?
The motion of Mural is embodied in the way that the forms modulate from relatively stiff, upright marks and personages at the right of the canvas to much more curvaceous arabesques at the left. Just as Pollock’s early canvas Going West proceeds from right to left, so does Mural unfold with increasing momentum in the same direction. By comparison, most of Pollock’s major pourings of 1947 to ’50 tend to be ‘written out’, as it were, in the opposite direction — that is, from left to right.
The direction of the piece has been assigned a symbolic meaning of westward movement, which is a brilliantly American statement. Might one view it as both a nod and a thumb to the previous achievements of Western art history?
In a nutshell, yes. With Mural, Pollock at once looked back to European art, especially that of Picasso, and imperiously marched away from it. It’s a work strongly informed by an aura of personal destiny — one reason why, uniquely, Pollock chose to be photographed in front of the blank canvas before he began work on it. To recall de Kooning’s famous words, this is where Jackson broke the ice.
Jackson Pollock's Mural: Energy Made Visible by David Anfam (Thames & Hudson) is out now. The exhibition Jackson Pollock’s Mural: Energy Made Visible is on show at The Peggy Guggenheim Venice until 9 November before touring
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