Jackson Pollock: Instinct vs. Reason

Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31 (1950). Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″

It’s a complete mess. Loops of color tangled together and running rampant energize nearly every inch of the composition. Far from the reaches of common sense or common experience, we cannot be sure what exactly we are looking at, or how we should feel. However when facing down Jackson Pollock’s seventeen foot monster One: Number 31 (1950), there is an unshakable feeling that this grand piece was no accident. The lyricism behind his movements—a web of flicks, dribbles, drips—is a lot like life, a mixture of uncontrollable and controllable factors. Maybe it’s not such a mess, as much as it simply elicits the response: What the f$&k?

Even Pollock himself asked his wife Lee Krasner, “Is this even a painting?”[i] He abandoned the traditional paint brush and easel at the end of the ‘40s, instead incorporating industrial and household enamel paints by means of sticks, basters, or simply leaking from holes in the paint can. In the privacy of his work room, he would spread the canvas out on the floor and dance on the actual piece, a ritualistic application of the paint to give it an all over composition.

His unorthodox approach to painting shifted the focus of avant-garde art from Paris to New York, as everyone wanted to witness the “relentless experimentation and emphasis on process at the heart of Pollock’s creativity.”[ii] On his process, he stated: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. There is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”[iii] Mass media hailed him to be an American celebrity, a living proof of genius; while critics examined his work with a mixture of puzzlement, vexation, contempt.

It’s called automatic art for a reason. He acted someplace in between deliberate and random, allowing his hand to go where it wanted to go. Honestly, what other choice did he have? Approaching art in such a way—with no particular end in sight—allows him to be free of internal and external expectations and just do. There are no guarantees of the product, but the real challenge often lies in the mere action of being original, of just getting started. Otherwise, he would be paralyzed by the f$&k of his art and never be able to put anything to canvas.

And isn’t that the point? Everyone looks at their life at some point and asks: What the f$&k? What the f$&k? What the f$&k? I sure as hell ask myself that question at least once every day. Whether it is painting, writing, feeling, acting (read: behavioral/decision-making), I aspire to find a balance between instinct and reason. I say, embrace the challenges and redirect that energy towards something productive, something worth giving a f$&k about.

Learn more with Parkstone’s Jackson Pollock: Veiling the Image. If you’re near NYC, visit the MOMA and see the One: Number 31 along with 50 other exclusive pieces in the Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 exhibit from November 22, 2015–March 13, 2016.

Marianne Manzler

[i] http://www.ago.net/pollock

[ii] https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1553?locale=en

[iii] http://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/jackson-pollock-one-number-31-1950-1950

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