Jackson Pollock: No Chaos, Damn It

 

Shimmering Substance. (Sounds in the Grass Series). 1946. Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 24 1/4" (76.3 x 61.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Albert Lewin and Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn Funds. ©1998 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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James Coddington, Chief Conservator, The Museum of Modern Art was interviewed by Anna Hammond, Editor-in-Chief of MoMA, the Museum's magazine.

Anna Hammond: Intentionality is one of the key issues addressed in Jackson Pollock, and there's been a lot of discussion over the way Pollock worked--whether he made conscious decisions or not. You and conservator Carol Mancusi Ungaro of the Menil Collection in Houston are doing intensive research on his materials, techniques, and methods. What have you been finding?

James Coddington: I think that one of the things that's emerging with our study is that Pollock had a pretty clear notion of how his materials handled, how they worked, how they interacted with one another. And there's a level of consciousness, intention, about that that liberates him to paint as unconsciously as he does. He might be just grabbing materials that seem appropriate in the flush of the moment of creation, but he hasn't got a full universe of materials to grab. He's narrowed that universe because he knows that the materials are going to work and because he's come to know how they're going to work. So, I think that there is a great deal of consciousness, balance, use of materials, and craft, that frees him to make as apparently unconsciously as he does.

AH: That reminds me of something that Henry Adams wrote: "Chaos is the law of nature. Order is the dream of man."

JC: Actually, that relates to a comment Pollock was known for--"No chaos, damn it." He telegraphed Time magazine after they wrote some blurb about his "chaotic" paintings. That's been our working title for our catalogue essay.

AH: Have you had any big surprises?

JC: Well, the level of intentionality is the biggest. It just flies in the face of everything people have generally thought. Pollock's painting is just so declarative of process. If nothing else is apprehensible in the picture, there is process though it's not that straightforward once you start to examine it. And, as I said earlier, that's one of the interesting facets here.

AH: So, what were his materials, and how are they holding up?

JC: Enamel paints, traditional artist's oil paints, canvas, hardboard. The understanding at the time with those paints was that they were indeed very durable. And they look pretty durable. We're not finding major problems with Pollocks. On the whole, they're holding up reasonably well. It's really worth noting that one of the few books that was written on the subject by an artist is Jose Gutierrez's From Fresco to Plastics. Gutierrez also worked in David Alfaro Siqueiros' experimental workshop and he is very explicit about why many of these artists went to nitrocellulose and other enamel paints--because they were convinced that the paints were in fact durable. They wanted their works to last. It was not a cavalier attitude, quite the contrary. This in fact tells us that they were forward-looking. People think that a lot of modern and contemporary artists had this sort of jaunty cavalier technique and didn't give a damn.

AH: So they were using the materials of the future and of the car culture.

JC: At the time they said--"if it's good enough for Ford Motor Company it's good enough for me."

AH: Is it also a kind of proletarian notion to use those materials as opposed to the more effete kind of oil paints?

JC: There may be something to that; it may also be that they were cheaper.

AH: I understand that in working on this study, you and Carol tried to re-create a Pollock.

JC: We have been working on several different approaches to this topic but in order to understand or at least try to come to some understanding about the work, we tried to re-create Pollocks. So we did some practice Pollocks with enamel paints and so on. They were very revealing.

AH: Can you explain what you did? Did you get a big piece of canvas out and get your painting clothes on?

JC: Yes, we definitely did that. We got some canvases. But we went about it a little more clinically. We sized canvases differently to see the way that the paint would be taken. And we used different kinds of canvas in different colors. And we went about dripping and pouring the paint initially informed by what we had seen in the movies and photos by Hans Namuth.

AH: So did you try to re-create a particular painting or did you try to re-create the movements?

JC: The movements. And we used the different devices that he was recorded to have used, and that we saw him use in the photos and films.

AH: Such as?

JC: Brushes of different sizes and quality that are clotted with paint and therefore were like big massive vehicles for picking paint up. Sticks, turkey basters, and so on. And we started to try to make the lines. And it became very clear that you've got to know the viscosity of your paint. You've got to know how paint of that viscosity will hold on your brush, on your stick, or whatever it is that you're choosing to apply the paint with or pour the paint, or drip the paint, or wing the paint. That there are some lines that are simply not available with these kinds of devices. That there are a lot of fine lines one sees in a Pollock that have to be applied with yet some other device we did not see him using. For instance, there are these fine, really delicately poured lines. The only way we could reproduce them, and it makes perfectly good sense to me, is by punching a hole in a can of paint.

 
 
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