"Pollock's talent is volcanicit has fire. It is unpredictableIt spills itself out in a mineral prodigality not yet crystalized. It is lavish, explosive"--John Sweeney, 1943
In 1947 Jackson Pollock made the dramatic shift from applying paint directly to the canvas and began the seismic shift that would completely reinvent the accepted conventions that surrounded the creation of art. Number 16, 1949 is an exemplar painting that, within its ribbons of painterly color, fluid composition and fizzles of chromatic energy reveals these revolutionary advances that Pollock made to the practice of painting. Painted in 1949, during a remarkable burst of creativity, Number 16, 1949 was executed during one of the rare periods in Pollock's life when he was free from the internal struggles that governed much of his life. Released from these demons, his ingenuity erupted unabashed resulting in some of the most genuinely creative paintings in the history of art. Acquired by Peggy Guggenheim for her legendary collection, Number 16, 1949 was exhibited across Europe, a move that was instrumental in cementing the artist's career and which marked the shift of the artistic epicenter of the world from Europe to the United States and began the supremacy of Abstract Expressionism.
The fluid lines of chromatic brilliance that dance across the surface of Number 16, 1949 are a physical manifestation of the artist at the height of his creative authority. The agitation of Pollock's constantly moving hand is traced throughout the surface of the work, as lace-like trails of pigment happily coexist alongside more substantial passages of color-choreographed together in a delicate yet deliberate dance. Seemingly contradictory elements-bold and brash yet at the same time delicate and refined--collide but never clash. It is a testament to Pollock's abilities that this seemingly autonomous application of paint is in fact very deliberate and precise. As the artist's wife, the painter Lee Krasner recalled, Pollock's radical new technique of painting was primarily a way of "working in the air 'gesturallly creating' aerial forms which then landed" (L. Krasner, quoted in S. Naifeh and G. White Smith, Jackson Pollock. An American Saga, New York, 1989, p. 539). Pollock would, "take his stick or brush out of the paint can," the photographic documenter of his working practice, Hans Namuth recalled, "and then, in a cursive sweep, pass it over the canvas high above it, so that the viscous paint would form trailing patterns which hover over the canvas before they settle upon it, and then fall into it and then leave a trace of their own passage. He is not drawing on the canvas so much as in the air above it" (H. Namuth, ibid). Pollock reveled in this new way of painting, and its ambiguous reception by critics of the art establishment. "There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or end," Pollock once recalled, "He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was." (J. Pollock, quoted by T. J. Clark, "Pollock's Smallness," in K. Varnedoe and P. Karmel (eds.), Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, New York, 1999, p. 21).
Like flares shooting into the sky, effervescent trails of teal blue, red, sunset orange, green and yellow are intermingled with the structural black elements to demonstrate Pollock's adept handling of color. Speaking after seeing Pollock's first exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of this Century gallery in 1943, Clement Greenberg raved; "[Pollock] is the first painter I know of to have got something so positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American painting" (C. Greenberg, quoted by M. Dearborn, Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism, London, 2005, p. 261). Although some of his paintings are defined by their dark, monochromic nature-particularly those painted during his bouts of depression, alcoholism and melancholia-Pollock was extremely skilled in his use of color. Lucifer, 1947, an exemplary example of the artist's developing poured painting technique, is also an essay in his intricate use of color, its decanted trails of green, mauves and creams interspersed with "staccato shots" of yellow, blue and orange all coalescing into one cohesive composition. In Number 16, 1949, painted the year after Lucifer, Pollock appears more confident in his chromatic abilities as he allows himself to let color be the controlling aspect of the composition, rather than a mere accent. Some have traced this bold use of color back to the influence of his mentor Thomas Hart Benton, but here Pollock releases the chromatic value of his pigment from their formal figurative duties and allows them to express their true, unrestricted values.
In 1949, eschewing the almost mural-sized works of 1948, Pollock created paintings in smaller sizes and formats that he hoped would prove more accessible than his largest paintings. Number 16, 1949 belongs to a series of work painted on paper and mounted on masonite. By confining his work onto a smaller scale, Pollock had to adjust, probe and re-examine his ability with the drip technique considerably. Instead of making sweeping gestures in the air with his brush, the nuances of line are created with swift and elegant flicks of the wrist that prompt both finer and more dense concentrations allowing for a fuller range of painterly expression.
As Number 16, 1949 illustrates, the change in scale did not affect Pollock's prodigious mastery and control of the drip technique nor his ability to generate magical images with it. A startling degree of finesse is used to contrast the thicker pourings of color where two different paints have been allowed to flow into one another. These denser, seemingly more earthy collisions are echoed a thousand times over in other parts of the composition by the lighter and more frenetic splattered collisions of swiftly dripped lines of a wide variety of color and globular density. This would eventually reach its peak two years later in the striking painting Number 28 from 1951, where dense and torrid swirls of monochromatic pigment are expertly overlaid with a gossamer thin web of pure white strands. Writing in several years after Number 16, 1949 was painted, the critic Frank O'Hara eulogized about this lyrical quality of Pollock's fluid line: "There has never been enough said about Pollock's draftsmanship, that amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate that's simplest of elements, the line-to change, to reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass by drawing alone" (F. O'Hara, quoted by B. Rose, Jackson Pollock: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1979, p. 11).
Number 16, 1949 was acquired by the legendary collector Peggy Guggenheim in December 1949 in exchange for one of Pollock's earlier works, Shooting Star. In 1948, Betty Parsons, wrote to Peggy Guggenheim in Venice expressing her concerns about the financial state of the Pollocks, and proposed any of the pending sales which Guggenheim had agreed to, "go through in their favor financially and you receivenew pictures from their future work. This would save them from immediate financial embarrassment" (Letter from Betty Parsons to Peggy Guggenheim, dated April 5, 1948, quoted by F. V O'Connor & E. V. Thaw (eds.), Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, New Haven and London, 1978, p. 66). As part of this arrangement, Shooting Star was duly sold, and eventually Number 16, 1949 entered Miss Guggenheim's collection in December the following year.
Peggy Guggenheim was one of Pollock most influential supporters. To help finance the artist's first show at her Art of this Century gallery in 1943 she agreed to pay him $150 a month for a year, deducting the money (plus her 33% sales commission) from the proceeds of the sales. This unprecedented contract was a clear demonstration of Guggenheim's faith in the artist, which was also demonstrated in the press release sent to journalists before the opening of that first show, where she stated that, "I consider this exhibition to be something of an event in the contemporary history of American artI consider [Pollock] to be one of the strongest and most interesting American painters" (P. Guggenheim, quoted by M. Dearborn, Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism, London, 2005, p. 260). Guggenheim was very proud of having helped Pollock and considered it her greatest achievement, "The discovery of the genius of Jackson Pollock and its presentation to the American public I regard as one of the most satisfactory achievements of my many years of hard work in the cause of abstract art. The acclamation with which it was received by artist and critics alike was a gratifying confirmation of my own judgment and a source of inspiration in my further research for undiscovered talent" (P. Guggenheim, Jackson Pollock, exh. cat., Ala Napoleonica, Museo Correr, Venice, 1950, n.p.).
The present work was painted in 1949, a year that proved to be the most decisive and important of Pollock's life. After two years struggling to formulate and evolve his "drip" technique Pollock, and everyone around him, knew that the time was ripe, for him to assert his radical new work on a wider public. Pollock himself was in a confident and relatively stable frame of mind. Throughout the first part of 1949 he settled into a simple and healthy routine at his house on Fireside Road in the Springs, East Hampton. Isolated from outside influence and the temptations of the city, Pollock worked soberly and keenly on several new paintings for a show at Betty Parsons in November. In August of that year, Pollock was also featured prominently in the pages of Life magazine under the banner headline "Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" Across four pages, the magazine chronicled the painter's meteoric rise to fame, stating that "Pollock was unknown in 1944. Now his paintings hang in five U.S. museums and 40 private collections. Exhibiting in New York last winter he sold 12 out of 18 pictures. Moreover his work has stirred up a fuss in Italy, and this autumn he is slated for a one-man show in avant-garde Paris, where is fast becoming the most talked-of and controversial U.S. painter" (Life magazine, August 8, 1949, p. 42). It was his critical reception in Europe that cemented Pollock's reputation and finally, after centuries of domination by the European fine arts, the center of the art world had shifted westwards to the United States.
Number 16, 1949 provides ample evidence of Pollock's reputation as one of the most influential and groundbreaking artists of his generation. His accomplished use of color, combined with his almost supra-natural skill in controlling the almost uncontrollable nature of liquid pigment resulted in one of the most extraordinary paintings of Pollock's career. Produced when the artist was creating some of the most accomplished examples of this iconic painting technique, Number 16, 1949 proclaims its virtues in the most distinguished manner. Having re-written the established rules of painting, Pollock became a champion for a new generation of artists who were determined to forge a path on their terms and in a way addressed their concerns. Just a few short months after the present work was painted, Clement Greenberg anointed Pollock the leader of this new generation when he declared, "Jackson Pollock's show this year at Betty Parson's continued his astounding progress.The general quality that emerged from such picturesseemed more than enough to justify the claim that Pollock is one of the major painters of our time" (C. Greenberg, quoted by T. de Duve, Clement Greenberg between the lines: including a debate with Clement Greenberg, Chicago, 2010, p. 35).