Full Fathom Five is one of Pollock’s earliest “drip” paintings. While its lacelike top layers consist of poured skeins of house paint, Pollock built up the underlayer using a brush and palette knife. A close look reveals an assortment of objects embedded in the surface, including cigarette butts, nails, thumbtacks, buttons, coins, and a key. Though many of these items are obscured by paint, they contribute to the work’s dense and encrusted appearance. The title, suggested by a neighbor, comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which the character Ariel describes a death by shipwreck: “Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
Gallery label from from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011.
The work is a bridge between Pollock’s previous approach, in which he used an easel, and his break with traditional painting methods. Though he began this painting on an easel, he ultimately completed it on the floor. Using a paintbrush and palette knife, he built up layers of paint into which he embedded detritus including a key, cigarettes, and nails. Eventually, he took the canvas off of the easel, placed it on the floor, and dripped black and silver enamels over its entire surface. For Pollock, this deceptively simple move opened up an entirely new set of creative possibilities that he would spend the following years exploring in some of his most celebrated work. This is one of the first paintings in which he used his “drip” method, and in which he extended his marks across the entire surface of the canvas, creating what became known as an allover composition. Though he had been pursuing abstraction since 1945, it was not until 1947 that he embraced the radical technique that would become his signature style.
Additional text from In The Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting online course, Coursera, 2017