When the Museum of Modern Art cleared the fourth floor to make way for the massive Picasso Sculpture show, it yielded an unexpected benefit. The Jackson Pollock masterpiece, One: Number 31, 1950 (1950), that usually hung in those galleries had to be moved. So, it seemed like a good time to mount a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. Through May 1st, Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 fills three galleries on the second floor. Drawings and Prints Curator, Starr Figura with Hillary Reder, Curatorial Assistant, have organized a tight but extraordinary exhibition. It’s testament to the brave, innovative vision of the artist, and also to the museum’s early and unfailing engagement with and support of this great American master. MoMA’s holdings of Pollocks are unsurpassed.
Untitled. 1945. Pastel, gouache, and ink on paper, 30 5/8 x 22 3/8″
The exhibition is organized chronologically and covers the periods from the 1930’s to the early 40’s. During these years, Pollock moved from expressive, freely worked semi-figurative imagery to the pure gestural abstraction of his iconic drip paintings. The exhibition starts with a powerful black ink on paper painting, Untitled. c. 1950, that conjures everything from the inner workings of atoms to the expansion of the universe. It’s hung at eye-level and allows the viewer to see the way that puddled drops of ink congealed and formed dense, rippled shapes that splattered and seeped into a semi-controlled chaos. It’s flanked by a life-sized photograph of Pollock working in his studio, bending over a canvas on the floor to apply his characteristic drips, as his wife, the painter Lee Krasner, watches.
Gothic. 1944. Oil on canvas, 7′ 5/8″ x 56″
Figura’s and Reder’s decision to arrange the works in roughly the order in which they were made gives a chance to witness not just iconic works, but the process it took Pollock to arrive to them. After seeing the powerful The She-Wolf painted in 1943, one steps around a corner to encounter There Were Seven in Eight, completed just two years later. The two are roughly close in size and contain many of the same colors as well as Pollock’s signature dense brushstrokes, but in the later work, Pollock added looping black lines that obscured much of the figuration in the painting in order, he explained, to “veil the image,” and to eradicate any sense of foreground or background, top or bottom. From this early “all-over” image, one steps just a few feet to see, in Gothic, 1944, pure abstraction in Pollock’s inimitable style.
White Light. 1954. Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas, 48 1/4 x 38 1/4″
Detail: White Light (above). 1954
Pollock admitted to being “very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.” This can be seen in a selection of drawings, watercolors, etchings and engravings included in the show. Animals and figures, shapes and lines fill the compositions, but without regard to logical placement or realism. They simply exist, in bright colors or black and white, expressing both sparseness and completion, with an almost Zen-like aesthetic.
Untitled (4), state II of III. c. 1944–45. Engraving and drypoint, plate: 14 15/16″ x 17 5/8″
The exhibition is fascinating in its ability to offer a glimpse of Pollock’s journey from abstracted figures, to abstractions that obscure figures, to pure abstraction in which the figure can only be sensed in traces left by the artist as he made his marks. In the famous One: Number 31, 1950, (above) which is almost always on view, and even more so in almost seven by nine foot Number 1A, 1948, another drip painting that’s rarely on view, Pollock’s presence is palpable. Fingerprints, footprints, and, in Number 1A, many complete handprints in red and black can be clearly seen. They bring to mind the earliest works of art, the cave paintings at sites like Lascaux, and manage to tie ancient history to the some of the most revolutionary works of 20th Century Art. Only great artists can do that, and only at a great show like Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 can you experience it yourself.
Easter and the Totem. 1953. Oil on canvas, 6′ 10 1/8″ x 58
Pollock and Process: Thursday, January 7, 1:30 p.m., Friday, January 15, 11:30 a.m.,Thursday, January 28, 1:30 p.m. (Gallery talk)
Seeing a Pollock like Jackson Pollock, Wednesday, January 13, 11:30 a.m., Friday, January 29, 1:30 p.m. (Gallery talk)
Special Gallery Session with MoMA Chief Conservator Jim Coddington
Thursday, January 21, 11:30 a.m.
Opening photo: Jackson Pollock. One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″