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Property from a Prominent Collection

Number 31

Number 31
signed and dated 'Jackson Pollock 49' (upper left)
oil, enamel, aluminum paint and gesso on paper mounted on Masonite
31 x 22 1⁄2 in. (78.7 x 57.2 cm.)
Executed in 1949.
Betty Parsons Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Roy J. Friedman, Chicago
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 3 May 1988, lot 28
Private collection, Japan
Private collection, United States, 1994
DL Fine Art, Geneva
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2006
F.V. O'Connor and E.V. Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, Volume 2: Paintings 1948-1955, New Haven and London, 1978, p. 64, no. 242 (illustrated).
New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, Jackson Pollock, Paintings, November-December 1949.
Detroit Institute of Arts, The Little Show of Work in Progress, February-March 1950.
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Saratoga Springs, Skidmore College; Connecticut, Art Museum of the New Britain Institute; Fargo, North Dakota Agricultural College; Jacksonville, Illinois, MacMurray College for Women; Carbondale, Southern Illinois University; Winnipeg, University of Manitoba; East Lansing, Michigan State College; Poughkeepsie, Vassar College; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia Institute of Technology; Fort Worth, Texas Christian University; Northampton, Smith College; Binghamton Museum of Fine Arts; Northfield, Minnesota, Carleton College; Ohio, Bowling Green State University; Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, Normal University of Oklahoma; Nashville, The Parthenon; Chattanooga Art Association; Evanston, Northeastern University; Williamsburg, College of William and Mary, Calligraphic and Geometric: Two Recent Linear Tendencies in American Painting, October 1950-December 1953.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jackson Pollock, April-June 1967, no. 145.
Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, Jackson Pollock, January-April 1982, p. 167 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art and London, Tate Modern, Jackson Pollock, November 1998-June 1999, p. 262, no. 161 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

An explosive maelstrom of raw color, Jackson Pollock’s Number 31 is one of the richest and most powerful examples of the artist's celebrated drip technique—a profound icon from a seminal moment in the development of twentieth-century art. Painted in a flurry of brilliant artistic activity toward the end of 1949, Number 31 bears witness to Pollock in full command of his medium. Surrendering his body and mind to be, as he explained it, “literally in the painting,” Pollock orchestrates a lush and elaborate arrangement of vibrant chroma that have been flung, dripped, splattered and swirled onto the surface of this intoxicating work. Pollock painted only thirteen of these drip paintings on paper in 1949—which he then mounted onto Masonite, composition board and canvas—and only eight of them display the gleaming, metallic paint that he employs in Number 31. In November of 1949, Pollock exhibited Number 31, along with others from the series, with his new dealer Betty Parsons. Critics described them as “the best painting he has yet done” (R. M. Coates, The New Yorker, December 3, 1949). Indeed, Number 31 is one of the fullest and most opulent compositions of the group, boasting a sophisticated network of dripped and poured paints in which nearly every square inch of the surface declares the genius of Pollock’s new technique.

“Color is Pollock’s forte,” wrote Stuart Preston, the New York Times art critic, in his review of the Betty Parsons exhibit that included Number 31. “In the dense web of paint that weaves back and forth it is remarkable how the silvers, blacks, whites and yellows stand on their own” (S. Preston, “Abstract Quartet: Late Work by Kandinsky, Pollock and Others,” New York Times, November 27, 1949, p. 12X). Indeed, Number 31 demonstrates Pollock’s innate flair for color; he uses it to structure and give depth to his work. Demonstrating an abundance of joyous and celebratory hues, Number 31 is an explosion of riotous color that is held in taut suspension on the surface of the picture plane. Using single colors straight from the can, Pollock used the end of his brush and other implements to slowly build up the painting’s surface, dripping and drizzling on multiple colors, one at a time, until a dazzling, lush and ornate surface results. Like the swirling form of some distant supernova, bursts of bright white light flicker in and out of the colorful sprays and skeins of paint, while alternating layers of bright red, emerald green, turquoise, yellow, and orange comprise a veritable rainbow effect. Everything is accentuated with the silver metallic paint that Pollock used in only eight paintings of the series. Number 31 exists in a wondrous state of immediacy, as if Pollock has just stepped away from the painting mere moments ago.

Although he was practically unknown in the early 1940s, by the latter part of 1949, Pollock’s drip paintings had catapulted him to overnight success. His paintings could now be found in five major museums and in the homes of forty prominent collectors. After two years of intensively developing his drip method, Pollock had, by the time Number 31 was painted, truly mastered the process. As a result, the years 1948 and 1949 saw the artist engage in a bevy of new paintings. He produced so much new work that Betty Parsons gave him two separate exhibits in 1949 alone. The second show, opening on November 21, 1949, consisted of recent drip paintings completed that year, with Number 31 among them. “By this time, he was totally free, totally creative,” Parsons recalled. “He was the first artist to paint large paintings. He exploded the easel painting, the wall painting. His paintings were walls—whole walls, expanding walls” (B. Parsons, quoted in L. Hall, Betty Parsons: Artist, Dealer, Collector, 1991, p. 90).

A few months earlier, the August 8th issue of LIFE Magazine had devoted a two-page centerfold to Pollock, illustrating several recent drip paintings—including the 18-ft long Number Nine—along with a photograph of the brooding artist leaning casually against his work. The article posed the question: “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” Anyone reading the article would have discerned that the headline was not actually a question but instead a clear declaration of fact: Pollock was the “Greatest Living Painter in the United States,” and his drip paintings were the proof.

The LIFE article essentially cemented Pollock’s drip paintings as the ultimate, de facto model of the new American avant-garde style. For the first time in modern history, the center of gravity had shifted, from the museums and galleries of Paris, to the streets of Greenwich Village and the bar of the Cedar Tavern. And the unlikely new messiah happened to be a chain-smoking pseudo-cowboy from Cody, Wyoming, who painted in a barn and put his canvases on the floor. It was during this time that Pollock began to garner serious critical and commercial acclaim. The longtime New Yorker art critic Robert Coates, who was the first critic to coin the term “Abstract Expressionism” in 1946, and who previously cast aspersions on Pollock’s painting, wrote favorably of his November, 1949 exhibit at Betty Parsons: “Jackson Pollock has been an artistic mystery since he came to general attention, five or six years ago. He paints in an odd abstract style, made up of overlapping swirls and skeins of brilliant color. […] The new work has a feeling of depth and a sense of stricter organization that adds greatly to its appeal…They seem to me the best painting he has yet done” (R. M. Coates, The New Yorker, December 3, 1949).

While some of Pollock’s greatest drip paintings are mural-sized, stretching at times to eighteen feet in length, it is in the smaller, more intimate paintings like Number 31 that offer a chance to truly commune with the artist’s work. “Pollock compressed painting to a single gesture and then made the most, a veritable universe, of what remained,” the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith explained. It is in such paintings as Number 31, and others from the series, that “Pollock is seen working at full strength, building his lines into his entrancing, trademark all-over compositions. On such an intimate scale, it is especially easy to grasp the individual shifts in rhythm, gesture, color and paint thickness that orchestrate the final image” (R. Smith, “An Expanded Sense of Pollock’s Vision,” The New York Times, October 22, 1993, p. C26).

“Pollock is seen working at full strength, building his lines into his entrancing, trademark all-over compositions. On such an intimate scale, it is especially easy to grasp the individual shifts in rhythm, gesture, color and paint thickness that orchestrate the final image.”
(R. Smith, “An Expanded Sense of Pollock’s Vision,” The New York Times, October 22, 1993, p. C26).
Pollock had briefly experimented with pouring and dripping paint as early as 1943, but it wasn’t until 1947 that he made the crucial decision to move the unstretched canvas onto the floor. "On the floor I am more at ease," he later explained. "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,” in Possibilities, New York, Winter, 1947-8). Indeed, Pollock’s painterly technique—as documented in photographs by Hans Namuth, and immortalized in his 1951 film of Pollock painting on glass—was a whole-body activity. Pollock would stalk the canvas, walking around its perimeter to study it from all angles. In one hand, he held a can of enamel paint. In the other, he used the end of his brush to fling the paint across the surface. Depending upon the force of his thrust, the paint landed in either thick skeins, soft puddles or bright, explosive splatters. Namuth described the process in his book of photographs called Pollock Painting: “A dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor. […] There was complete silence. […] Pollock looked at the painting. Then unexpectedly, he picked up the can and paintbrush and started to move around the canvas. It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished. His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dancelike as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas" (H. Namuth, Pollock Painting, New York, 1980).

Pollock’s technique would earn him the moniker “Jack the Dripper” and cause critics, notably Harold Rosenberg, to coin the term “Action Painting.” But despite the unorthodox nature of his technique, Pollock was able to retain a high degree of control over his process. He was essentially “working in the air” and learned to intuit how gravity would react with the density of the paint, the position of his body and the force with which he flung or dripped his medium. Pollock’s technique also honed in on the inner workings of his subconscious mind, something that had appealed to him as early as 1939, when he began Jungian analysis. Pollock was also aware of the Surrealist’s emphasis on the “automatic” renderings of the subconscious; this helped him to surrender his body and mind to his process.

Along with his contemporaries Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock fundamentally changed the trajectory of the Western artistic canon. Created during the golden age of Pollock’s career, where the surface complexity is only outmatched by the clever internal tension that he so expertly orchestrates, the paintings of 1949, of which Number 31 is such an exquisite example, are evidence of the fundamental shift that occurred. In this respect, Number 31 displays Pollock at his finest—producing some of the greatest and most significant paintings of his career.

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