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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection

Composition with Varied Forms

Composition with Varied Forms
oil on Masonite
17 3/8 x 26 7/8 in. (44.1 x 68.3 cm.)
Painted circa 1938-1941.
The artist
Lee Krasner, New York
Pollock-Krasner Foundation, New York
Washburn Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Hollis Taggart, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2016
F.V. O'Connor and E.V. Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, Volume 1: Paintings 1930-1947, New Haven and London, 1978, p. 58, no. 73 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Undoubtedly one of the central figures of postwar art, Jackson Pollock is universally-acclaimed for his vigorous, energetic paintings that helped position abstraction as the definitive art movement of period. However, the drips and pools of paint in his most famous compositions were not arrived at overnight. Composition with Varied Forms is an important example of Pollock’s early work that saw him synthesizing myriad sources into a new investigation of painting. Curator Sam Hunter remarked. “[the] artist was aware of just what he was doing and cognizant of the importance of artistic traditions and the need, too, for reinventing them" (S. Hunter, S. Hunter, "An American Master: Jackson Pollock, 1930-1949 Myth and Reality," Jackson Pollock: The Irascibles and the New York School, Milan, 2002, 60). This striking painting is a testament to Pollock’s ability to marry art historical trends with ideas influenced by the European avant-garde. The result is infused with a highly personal style forged in the American West and marks an important step on his path toward the realization of Abstract Expressionism.

Composition with Varied Forms is an heady swirl of shapes that verge upon recognizable before being swept into obscurity once again. Bordered on all sides by a black ground, a central figure pulls the viewer’s focus into the middle before swinging it around through curvilinear passages and intense, painterly sections. A spotted red triangle in the lower right pairs with another crimson form to create a cage around a small, green, eye-like form. From there, a rolling swoop of green, pink, and diaphanous layers that resemble smoke and fire delivers the intrepid observer into clear stripes, a fish-scale pattern, and what could be a large, half-lidded eye. After arriving in New York in 1930, Pollock spent two years studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. The veteran American painter’s penchant for heroic Westernism appealed to Pollock who had spent time in Arizona exploring the cliff dwellings and iconography of the Indigenous peoples there. Marrying this interest in symbolism and the perceived wildness of the American West, the young painter infused his practice with mysterious signs and a vigorous energy that he would later relate to the very act of painting itself.

Pollock took a job working in the studio of Roberto Matta in 1936. The Chilean Surrealist’s use of automatic drawing and more non-traditional techniques also inspired Pollock as he began to shift his painting practice. At the same time, the young artist was also looking at the groundbreaking work of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and other Mexican muralists whose expressive gestures found their way into works like the present example. Even more telling, Pollock was introduced to the Cubist work of Pablo Picasso in 1939 when the Spaniard’s Guernica was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Looking at Pollock’s paintings from around this time illustrates how much inspiration he took from all of these revolutionary artists as a heady amalgam of dream-like forms and vigorous paint application collided with an increased foray into the fully non-representational compositions for which he would become known. The artist mused, "There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn't know it" (J. Pollock, quoted in S. Hunter, ibid., 60). Composition with Varied Forms still hints toward the equestrian and figural work he was doing around the same time, but makes no direct reference to a recognizable subject.

When Pollock first arrived in New York at age of just 18, there was no recognizable modernist movement in America and little to no recognition for American modernists who seemed fated to dwell in the shadow of their European counterparts. Shortly thereafter, Pollock would establish himself securely at the pinnacle of the art world, and by doing so, establish New York as the new capital of the international avant-garde. Composition with Varied Forms provides a rarely seen glimpse into the artist’s mind at this pivotal, formative stage in his creative development. It provides a window into the simultaneous processes of personal and artistic self-discovery as he explored eclectic set of styles and motifs in a manner that was intensely personal but at the same time, through its energy and expressive passion, gave his art an element of universality.

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