The year 1938 was fraught with anxiety and despair for Jackson Pollock personally and the world around him. Pollock, impoverished and riddled with alcoholism and artistic self-doubt, wrote in a letter to his brother Charles, “I haven’t much to say about my work and things—only that I have been going thru violent changes the past couple of years. God knows what will come out of it all—it’s pretty negative stuff” (Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock: A Biography, New York, 1987, p. 99). Meanwhile, the nation struggled through the economic hardships of the Great Depression as geopolitical tensions escalated across the globe, ultimately resulting in World War II. This was the year that Pollock began painting the current lot, Composition with Woman, ebulliently affirming Lord Byron’s declaration that “despair and genius are too oft connected."
In Composition with Woman, Pollock concretizes the personal and global tensions that defined this period through glaring contrasts of color and form that appear entangled in struggle. Organic and artificial elements collide as flashes of electric yellow abut scatterings of olive green, ferrous red and oceanic blue, and sharp geometric edges intersect rolling curves. These embattled forms cascade toward the viewer and seemingly beyond the confines of the canvas like a Technicolor avalanche presaging the all-over composition of Pollock’s drip paintings.
Perched atop this abstract totem sits a female head with a pair of dogs emerging from each side in palindromic symmetry. His inclusion of recognizable iconography serves to tether the composition, at least fractionally, to the real world, suggesting the possibility that other incarnations of animate life lurk in the metamorphic strata. Indeed, one can find other intimations of the physical world—arrows, lightning bolts and waves emerge from the substrate. Pollock paints them in the process of fusing with their neighboring elements and with a pictographic purity that serves to confuse their individuation as well as their connection to reality. These symbols connote savagery and violence, as does Pollock’s inclusion of a dog gnawing on the end joint of a bone stripped bare.
While the painting reflects “the fury of animal nature” (Ellen G. Landau, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1989, p.11) that pervades Pollock’s oeuvre, it also conveys his propensity for invoking the spiritual. The painting suggests a cosmic universe, brimming with vitality and in a state of metamorphosis. Indigenous cultures, especially those of the American Southwest, greatly informed the artist’s conception of spirituality and his creative process. Pollock was born in the plains of Cody, Wyoming, and grew up between the arid desert in Arizona and the farmlands of Northern California. He always identified with the West, and its associations with the new frontier: gunslinging cowboys, Native Americans who dressed in buffalo hide and lived an idyllic existence unaffected by the incursion of European settlers, like the staged photographs of Edward Curtis suggest. Pollock’s affinity for the West became exaggerated during his tenure at the Art Students League of New York, where he studied under the acclaimed American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, a mentor of Pollock’s, comported himself like a machismo swashbuckler who “curried an image as a no-nonsense son of the soil.” During this period, Pollock adopted the outward affectation of a Western frontiersman, “transforming from longhair California swami into Manhattan cowboy” complete with a Stetson hat and boots (Kirk Varnedoe, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1998, p. 23). This homage to the intrepid settlers of the American landscape arguably forecast his own trailblazing, as he would come to chart vast new territories of creative possibility for all artists that followed. Pollock’s allegiances, however, resided more with the indigenous cultures, and their artistic expressions, than with the European descendants who settled there.
Benton also imparted his love and intimate understanding of Renaissance painting, especially the work of El Greco, onto Pollock. This influence manifests in Composition with Woman through the rich condensation of forms, alternately accreting and receding and the variegated surfaces of fabric that Pollock applies to the patchwork that presumably equates to the female figure’s flowing dress.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, the artist made frequent visits to New York’s Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian. Examining Hopi earthenware vessels and Navajo rugs, Pollock would later reflect that he had been “impressed by the plastic qualities of American Indian art” (Ellen G. Landau, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1989, p. 56). While many art historians have delineated art history as an essentially European discipline, and relegated all other cultural traditions to an anterior category, Pollock maintained that indigenous art exhibited an “essentially Western” color palette and a vision that embodied “the basic universality of all real art” (ibid., p. 56). Southwestern Native American Art would prove an enduring influence for Pollock, evident in the ideographic symbols that feature prominently in his early work, such as the present lot, to his inspiration for painting with the canvas placed on the floor in his later works, which he derived from Navajo sand painting.
In 1936, Pollock took a job in the studio of Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, whose automatic techniques and use of unconventional materials galvanized Pollock to apply the same strategies to his own practice. Other major inspirations for Pollock included the work of the Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, as well as Pablo Picasso, whom Pollock was introduced to when Guernica was first exhibited at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1939. All of these sources diffuse throughout Composition with Woman, evoking the Expressionist energy of Siqueiros and Orozco, the refracted surfaces of Picasso and the spontaneity of Matta. Composition with Woman appears as though the static forms of Guernica were fused, reanimated and filtered through the lens of a shamanic vision, relating Pollock’s fascination with the “magic men” of indigenous tribes and their ability to “travel through spiritual worlds” (Ellen G. Landau, op. cit., p. 58).
Pollock assimilated what he had learned from all of his teachers from pre-Columbian times to the painting’s completion into a style that is unmistakably his own and reflective of the modern age—an age that was characterized, in the words of the artist, by “the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio.” (Nancy Jachec, Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, MoMA, New York, 1999, p. 42) Pollock executed Composition with Woman in his first apartment in New York City, the address of which appears in the inscription on the back of the canvas that reads “Jackson Pollock 46 E. 8th St.” Thus, the painting represents not only an aesthetically captivating work in its own right, but also an important piece of history in the life of a modern master.