Abstract Expressionist New York
October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011
In the early 1940s Pollock, like many of his peers, explored primeval or mythological themes in his work. The wolf in this painting may allude to the animal that suckled the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, in the myth of the city’s birth. But “She-Wolf came into existence because I had to paint it,” Pollock said in 1944. In an attitude typical of his generation, he added, “Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it.” The She-Wolf was featured in Pollock’s first solo exhibition, at Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1943. MoMA acquired the painting the following year, making it the first work by Pollock to enter a museum collection.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Ann Temkin: The most amazing thing about Pollock I think to many people today still is what appears to be the absolute freedom that he brought to what he did.
Painting, Pollock felt, had to get away from the very disciplined idea of an easel and a paint brush. He abandoned both, essentially. And worked even before he developed his famous drip technique of pouring paint onto a canvas, not with paint brushes as much as trowels, and fingers, and cans of paint, and palette knives, and sticks, and whatever was around that he could apply paint with. Similarly he worked with the canvas tacked directly to the wall, or on the floor.
The she–wolf has a long history in all sorts of cultures, myths and legends. Perhaps the most famous is the story of Romulus and Remus, the twins who are credited with the founding of the city of Rome. And they, as orphans, were suckled by a she-wolf in the wilderness.
The she-wolf in this painting has her head pointing at our left. You can see her nose just a couple of inches from the border of the picture. And then you see a black outline that provides the contour of her back. All of this is overlaid by a whole lot of chaotic color, chaotic strokes and masses and drips of paint in all kinds of directions. And for the people who were seeing this picture when it was first shown in 1943, you can imagine the head scratching they must have done.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999
When Pollock painted The She-Wolf he had not yet arrived at his so-called "drip" style, one of the great inventions of Abstract Expressionism. The canvas's traces of multicolored washes and spatters show that a free-form abstraction and an unfettered play of materials were already parts of his process; but in this work and others his focus is a compound of mythology and an iconography of the unconscious. (He was influenced here both by Surrealism and his own Jungian analysis.) Perhaps Pollock's she-wolf is the legendary foster-mother to Romulus and Remus, the founders of ancient Rome. But he himself refused to identify her, saying, "She-Wolf came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it."
Drawn in heavy black and white lines, the wolf advances leftward. Her body is overlaid with abstract lines and patches, a thick, unreadable calligraphy that spreads throughout the canvas. These hieroglyphic intimations, along with the somber palette and the conjuring of myth, reflect the climate of a period shadowed by war. Intended to approach ultimate human mysteries, they were to be simultaneously meaningful and unknowable.