The Power of Pollock

by Corey Dahl

Sure, Jackson Pollock was a painter, not a writer. He was also the kind of person who didn't care much for such definitions. "When I say artist, I mean the man who is building things—creating, molding the earth—whether it be the plains of the west or the iron ore of Penn," he once told an interviewer. "It's all a big game of construction: some with a brush, some with a shovel, some choose a pen."

Maybe that's why so much of his advice on painting feels like it could just as easily apply to the craft of writing. Consider: "Every good painter paints what he is." Or: "It doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." There's also this one: "When I'm painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It's only after a get acquainted period that I see what I've been about."

Pollock's Summertime, then, makes an excellent subject for our next Art + Lit on May 19. CU Denver instructor Nicky Beer will talk Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (who also famously played with forms) while Dean Sobel, director of the Clyfford Still Museum, will present on Pollock. Ahead of his talk, Sobel answered a few questions about Pollock, Summertime, and why we should care.

What about this work resonates with you most? Why does this piece matter?

This work takes on even greater significance when we consider that this is the painting Pollock stood in front of when he posed for Life magazine in an article that appeared in 1949 with the headline, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” (It makes you wonder if what they’re really saying is, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?") This article, in a general-interest magazine with a huge circulation, began Pollock’s ascent to the unfortunate position of “poster boy” for the abstract expressionist movement, a responsibility he didn’t ask for and that became an albatross for him the rest of his too-short life. Pollock selected one of his most advanced and startling compositions to link to his own persona, represented here as a confident, mystic American outlaw, cigarette in mouth, donned in then-rebellious denim pants and jacket.

[caption id="attachment_8796" align="aligncenter" width="562"]1949lifemagazine The Life magazine article[/caption]

For you, what’s the most interesting thing about “Summertime”?

What’s probably most interesting and surprising about Summertime 9A, 1948, now in the collection of Tate Modern, in London, is its unusual format — around 18 feet wide but just under 3 feet high.  It changes the entire way we experience the painting, with proportions similar to an unfurled scroll than a traditional rectangle or square easel painting. The work’s dimensions also suggest an architectural frieze, in which the imagery in the painting unfolds in the viewer’s eye like some sort of abstract narrative.

What’s unique about this piece, relative to the rest of Pollock’s work?

Compared to many of Pollock’s poured and dripped paintings of around this time, including the very large mural-sized works all dating from 1950, the forms and space in Summertime 9A  are quite open and loose. This, in turn, gives a heightened awareness of the calligraphic imagery that is evident in all of these works, but is oftentimes hidden or interwoven within his more customary, heavily worked surfaces. The use of the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue (the colors from which all others are derived)—further adds to the work's basic, formal simplicity. Of course, Pollock’s work is anything but elemental, but rather complex in so many other ways. Pollock’s composition also emphasizes the inherent figuration that exists in nearly all of Pollock’s work, both early, middle, and late. The black “figures” that jump out from the composition give the work its liveliness and dynamism.

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