Jackson Pollock’s Number 7, 1951 belongs to an important and pivotal series of black-and-white drawings that Pollock most likely created during the early months of 1951, while he and his wife Lee Krasner were living in New York’s Greenwich Village. A turbulent yet transformative year, 1951 would prove to be “Pollock’s most important and productive year as a draughtsman,” in which his drawings reached an unprecedented level of virtuosity and sophistication (E.V. Thaw, “1950 Introductory Text,” in F.V. O’Connor and E.V. Thaw, ed., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, Vol. 3, New Haven, 1978, p. 283). In Number 7, 1951, Pollock’s sweeping, gestural line moves across the page with a vigorous, muscled handling, yet the pent-up energy transmitted through Pollock’s hand doesn’t devolve into utter turmoil, but rather suspends itself in delicate balance against the bareness of the paper support. Lively and lyrical, this drawing displays the profound assuredness that Pollock’s approach had developed by 1951. Having featured in several exhibitions of his work, Number 7, 1951 most recently appeared in Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots (Tate Liverpool and Dallas Museum of Art, 2015) and was used as the sole illustration for Meyer Schapiro’s important 1957 Artnews article “The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art,” which is considered one of the most influential articles ever published in the magazine.
Pollock’s assured technique is on full display in the sweeping movements of ink across the page in Number 7, 1951. The variety of Pollock’s marks is astonishing, from the graceful figure-eights and elegant circular forms to the rather vehement back-and-forth scribbles and x-marks that emphatically punctuate the sheet. Above all, Pollock’s thick, looping line is given full reign in its exploratory course, circumnavigating the sheet in arcing, undulating curves. Here and there, the ghosted-ink splotches of prior drawings mark the sheet in constellation-like patterns, calling to mind the often improvisatory nature of the series, where the wetness of Pollock’s pigment seeped through from the top sheet to the pages below. The artist relished the spontaneous possibility created by the bleeding through of one sheet to another, often working on the back of the next drawing or rotating it 180 degrees to begin anew. Indeed, Number 7, 1951 illustrates the delicate balance of chance versus control that Pollock developed in his work, revealing an artist at the top of his game: “It is through Pollock’s relentlessly experimental approach to working with these particular papers that we see time and again the hallmarks of a ‘virtuosic’ drawing flair: a performance of equal parts control and chance...” (S. Straine, “Beyond Work: Pollock Drawing,” in G. Delahunty, ed., Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, exh. cat., Tate Liverpool and Dallas Museum of Art, 2015, p. 105). While Pollock’s work of the preceding years had been characterized by a dense tangle of paint or the subconscious meanderings of an automatic response, the 1951 drawings display an airiness and lightness of feeling that is conveyed by the empty space of the white sheet of paper that Pollock employed. As the curator Stephanie Straine continues, “Pollock was gifted a pack of this imported Japanese paper by his friend, the sculptor Tony Smith, immediately after his November/December 1950 Parsons Gallery show, and it seems likely that the resultant drawings were created in the first few months of the new year, when Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner took up residence in Alfonso Ossorio’s MacDougal Alley apartment in Manhattan. Towards the end of January 1951, Pollock wrote to Ossorio: ‘...I have been making some drawings on Japanese paper—and feel good about them’” (J. Pollock, quoted in S. Straine, ibid., p 104). It appears that Pollock created these Japanese paper drawings in advance of the black-and-white paintings that followed later that year, after Pollock returned to his studio in Springs, in May 1951. Seen in this light, the 1951 drawings played a pivotal role in the artist’s development that year, bringing him back from an extended battle with alcoholism and the pressure of dealing with his newfound fame, to a place of reinvention and discovery.
In contrast to the preceding series of drawings in which Pollock used enamel paint on paper, the 1951 works incorporated the more traditional materials of watercolor and ink on larger, more sumptuous sheets of Japanese paper that were previously unavailable to him. A greater sense of assuredness and freedom is present, and in Number 7, 1951, the force of Pollock’s gesture is held in check by the degree of control he asserts over his media. Using a turkey baster, the artist could determine the amount of ink used and the pressure with which to release it onto the page. Historically, many scholars have determined that Pollock’s painting and drawing merged into a wholly new category in 1951, as he incorporated many of his painterly techniques into the drawings, and vice versa. In fact, many believe the 1951 drawings ultimately led the way for his “black pourings” that he exhibited later that year, which are some of the most psychologically charged works of his career.
Created at a critical juncture, Number 7, 1951 embodies the virtuosic balance of chaos versus control that has come to define Pollock’s best work. It demonstrates the raw, emotional power of his iconic drip paintings while looking forward to an entirely new series, all the while retaining an underlying lyrical beauty.