This is one of three wall-size paintings that Pollock realized in swift succession in the summer and autumn of 1950. In 1947, Pollock began laying canvas on the floor and pouring, dribbling, and flicking enamel paint onto the surface, sometimes straight from the can, or with sticks and stiffened brushes. The density of interlacing liquid threads of paint is balanced and offset by puddles of muted colors and by allover spattering. The pictorial result of this tension is a landmark in the history of Abstract Expressionism.
Gallery label from 2006
As he did for all his “drip” paintings, Pollock painted this work from above, with the canvas lying flat on the floor. “On the floor I am more at ease,” he said. “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.” Begun approximately three years after his first work in this style, One: Number 31, 1950 is evidence of the artist’s technical prowess. Calligraphic, looping cords of color animate and energize every inch of the composition, which seems to expand visually despite its enormous size.
Gallery label from 2011
One: Number 31, 1950 is one of Pollock's largest paintings and a masterpiece of the "drip" technique. Calligraphic, looping cords of color traverse the canvas with an energy that registers force and speed yet is also graceful and lyrical, animating every inch of the composition so that it seems to expand despite its already enormous size. As he did for all his drip paintings, Pollock painted One: Number 31, 1950 with the canvas lying on the floor. "On the floor I am more at ease," he said. "I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting." Pollock's process has been compared to choreography, as if his painting traced the movements of a dance. At different moments One: Number 31, 1950 can suggest the pulsing intensity of the modern city, the primal rhythms of nature, or the flickering forms and infinite depths of the cosmos.
Gallery label from Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954, November 22, 2015–May 1, 2016
One is a masterpiece of the "drip," or pouring, technique, the radical method that Pollock contributed to Abstract Expressionism. Moving around an expanse of canvas laid on the floor, Pollock would fling and pour ropes of paint across the surface. One is among the largest of his works that bear evidence of these dynamic gestures. The canvas pulses with energy: strings and skeins of enamel, some matte, some glossy, weave and run, an intricate web of tans, blues, and grays lashed through with black and white. The way the paint lies on the canvas can suggest speed and force, and the image as a whole is dense and lush—yet its details have a lacelike filigree, a delicacy, a lyricism.
The Surrealists' embrace of accident as a way to bypass the conscious mind sparked Pollock's experiments with the chance effects of gravity and momentum on falling paint. Yet although works like One have neither a single point of focus nor any obvious repetition or pattern, they sustain a sense of underlying order. This and the physicality of Pollock's method have led to comparisons of his process with choreography, as if the works were the traces of a dance. Some see in paintings like One the nervous intensity of the modern city, others the primal rhythms of nature.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 194