Jackson Pollock: Revelations and Blind Spots New Tate Liverpool Exhibition

A must see exhibition, has opened at Tate Liverpool, displaying the powerful drawings, paintings, screen prints and sculpture by the New York Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. The show focuses on the late paintings, particularly the black pourings made between 1951 – 1953. First exhibited in 1951 at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, twenty of the thirty of his black paintings, the largest gathering of these works in a public institution since their 1980 presentation at the institute of Contemporary Art, Boston are now on view. 

The black pourings, a series of enamel and oil paintings, 1951 marked a change of direction away from the previous colourful lyrical works. Pollock would almost calligraphically apply the paint with sticks and basting syringes. He felt the ‘non – objectivists’, would find them disturbing’ and they did. This new technique replaced the encrusted dripping paint of previous works, focusing on a more direct relationship between unprimed canvas and black enamel paint.

The style of abstract expressionism, a post world war 11 art movement, developed during the 1940s in New York., Pollock who pioneered ‘action painting’ within this movement, emphasised spontaneous, automatic creation. However, Pollock rejected the use of abstract expressionism to describe his work. Pollock’s use of texture and surfaces demonstrates his eye for texture and the unusual. The black and white paintings nudged him towards artists like de Kooning and Motherwell but he was in many ways, different. His work created a hyper conscious process of experiments of repetition, pencil lines delicate, very knowing and cinematic. His art consisting of dripping paint on canvas on the floor made an immense contribution to abstract art. People were fascinated at this new way of making paintings.

Beginning by walking through the Jackson Pollock exhibition, I found myself steeped in a contrasting  heavy dark world and also sometimes delicate visual language. The works are diverse and some are unexpected contrasts of purity and at times heavy masses of form and line and at other times, delicate and subdued.

Some of his drip paintings, such as Summertime: Number 9A, 1948 and Number 3, 1949: Tiger 1949 are also exhibited. It is interesting to see these works in the flesh. Many of the works also highlight ”the figurative elements that crept into focus, the varied textures of black enamel paint, poured onto unprimed canvas and, towards the end, the delicate fissures of ink applied to special Japanese paper. They give an insight into an exhibition that demonstrates just how important it is to see Pollock’s physical, deeply complex work in person.”

There is a strong and majestic feel to the works. Influences of Picasso glimpse through via imagery of African mask like faces submerged in- between the bold stems of swift black brush strokes. I was captivated by Number 14, 1951, the rawness and the action involved within the stark black colour. The black paintings were simultaneously Pollock’s tribute and challenge to Picasso, using fluid elegant gestures. According to his wife, artist, Lee Krasner, in Number 14, 1951, it can be argued that the influence of Picasso’s Guernica, 1937 looms large. The paintings are monumental and heavy in atmosphere and energy. There is a threshold in his work between figurative and abstraction. Figurative was always there or marked at various levels within his work. His painting Portrait and a Dream 1953, is particularly demonstrative of this dichotomy between abstraction and the figurative and in this painting he puts the two side by side within one painting. The human figure seems to be trying to break free within these paintings.

Pollock said, ”I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing, that is, it’s direct. I don’t make sketches and drawings and colour sketches into a final painting. Painting I think today – the more immediate, the more direct – the greater the possibilities of making a direct – of making a statement.”

The exhibition begins with a photograph of the virgin and child, Ink on collotype print, untitled, 1944. found imagery for the basis of the composition which Pollock has painted over in areas with black ink, so defacing the original image but also creating another image altogether, although the figures beneath can just about be seen. The ink allows us to question the original image but also the new image. However, both images still belong to each other. This is an interesting facet of Pollock’s works in that he manages to keep the paint and original canvas bound together and part of each other. Both are as important.

Using unprimed canvas on many of his paintings, the darkening discoloured canvas becomes part of the painting instead of just a surface. Surface and paint are at one with each other in his work. This was particularly noticeable in his drawings where he used Howell papers specially made on Long Island containing no glue but instead high fibre paper allowing the background of the paper to dance between the ink, surface is crucial to the final image.

The exhibition continues to show Pollock’s experimentation with different mediums. Number 34, 1949 shows his use of oil and enamel paint on paperboard. Silver square, 1950 experiments with the reverse side of masonite. The combination of oil and enamel  paint make us question the use of various mediums and surfaces and how they are used within the same space. Number 3, 1949, Tiger, oil paint, enamel paint and cigarette fragment on canvas on board allowing the matte and glossy synthetic paints to interlace to create a dense matrix of different colours and textures while the inclusion of cigarette butts invests the paint surface with the feel of sculptural relief. ”I can control the flow of the paint, there is no beginning – and no end.” Pollock said. He was in control of the way the paint poured. The canvas has been lacerated, with a combination of mediums. Pollock who was exhausted at being known for his drip art was also wanting to push himself further and experiment with ideas of repetition, bold and delicate pencil lines, cinematic, hyper conscious images. Experimenting with different mediums graphite, silkscreen, enamel and ink, Pollock creates a combination of monumental and mini compositions reminiscent of film stills.

One of my favourite pieces for its sense of line and movement was Untitled Black and white painting, (1), 1951, paint on canvas. Pollock’s confidence of dynamic line is exciting in its bold simplicity.

Pollock next became involved in printmaking in 1951 ”As Pollock’s explorations as a painter grew, so too did his printmaking style as he synthesised the earlier influences of artists he admired like Picasso, Miro and Klee and made new work that was all his own. ”  The screen prints on Strathmore paper were photographically reproduced as serigraphs also known as silkscreen printing, a method commonly used for industrial production.

Six of the 1951 paintings – Numbers, 7, 8, 9, 19, 22 and 27 were photographically reproduced as serigraphs. This portfolio was exhibited in the Betty Parsons Gallery, 1951, and shows a new perspective on the experimental process of his work, highlighting the printmaking process in his work.

As the exhibition progresses, we see colour re- introduced once more. Pollock is at the height of his powers; velocity and energy flowed through his works. His life troubled by alcohol addiction, there is nowhere to hide. His work becomes more emotional. He is wrestling with abstraction and figurative art. In his painting, Portrait and a dream , 1953, he physically and emotionally separates the abstract and the figure. .

The exhibition is entwined with further relevant exhibitions. On the ground floor of Tate Liverpool in the Wolfson Gallery will be the first solo exhibition in the UK of work by Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu (b. 1926), a fascinating exhibition, incorporating textiles, performance and installation from her body of work. Throughout the exhibitions, an overall sense that writing, drawing, performance, calligraphy and surface in its many forms, including the various mediums and their applications are highlighted within the show, selected textile works by Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu  focuses on her experimental work, highlighting how the artist’s performative actions define the studio space which she saw as redefining the self ,expressed in her seminal film, The Studio, (L’Atelierul) 1978.

 Also, Glenn Ligon, one of America’s most distinguished contemporary artists explores  the ‘multiple relationships to his art, artists and writings that have influenced him and or with whom he feels an affinity in his major exhibition, Encounters and Collisions. Glenn Ligon could be described as the , ”consciousness of the post war American art…believing that an artist uses history…as the raw material for one’s practice.”Since the late 1980s, Glenn Ligon’s practice has actively referenced other artists, works of literature and culture more broadly. Exhibiting works by Steve McQueen, Andy Warhol, CyTwombly and further significant artists, the exhibition explores the poetics and  politics of difference,… ”their presentation could be described as Ligon’s ‘ideal museum’…and ”provides a new framework with which we can view the American canon.” The exhibition explores difficult questions around representations of race, gender and sexuality during the reactionary aftermath of the ‘Culture Wars’ and the AIDS crisis at the close of the Reagan era.

Please note, It would be worth starting early on in the day to take in these interrelated exhibitions on show or even a second visit to encompass the exhibition further.

 Review/middle Photo by Alice Lenkiewicz Top Photo Courtesy Tate Liverpool


 Tate Liverpool: Exhibition: Blind Spots, 30 June – 18 October 2015

Tate Liverpool (Handout)

Book, Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper.


References Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper. Selections from The Metropolitan Museum of Art