In the May 1951 issue of ARTnews a selection of photographs by Hans Namuth appeared as illustrations for Robert Goodnough’s article, “Pollock Paints a Picture.” The images depict a focused Pollock energetically applying paint to a large canvas spread across his studio floor. Namuth’s photographs presented the first visual record of the artist’s unorthodox painting technique to a broader audience, and the images of the working method behind Pollock’s radically new pictures captivated the public’s imagination. Their power has been such that, for the past 60 years, these photographs have largely defined our understanding of Pollock’s process.
Thus far, our Pollock blogging has focused primarily on how conservators assess the condition of and treat a work of art. In addition to caring for the Museum’s collections, though, MoMA conservators frequently pursue technical art historical inquiry to clarify curatorial questions and better understand artists’ material choices and working methods. The Pollock project has been one such opportunity to fill some of the gaps in the popular narrative established by Namuth’s now-iconic photographs.
Questions regarding Pollock’s choices and technique may be investigated through primary source documentation such as photographs, artist’s statements, and first-hand accounts. We gather these resources, and illuminating information can be gleaned from them. However, they are ultimately limited, with accounts of art-making captured in an isolated instant, edited by ego, or filtered through memory.
In the conservation studio, we have access to an additional, crucial resource: the work of art itself, in this case Pollock’s paintings. In one of our earlier posts, we looked closely at One: Number 31, 1950 and noted several surface effects that Pollock was able to achieve. Now, let’s explore some of these observations more thoroughly.
As we’ve covered One’s surface inch by inch, first in looking, then in cleaning, we’ve become intimately acquainted with the paints and other materials to be found there. In the 1950 murals, Pollock moved decisively away from the densely worked surface of late 1940s paintings like Full Fathom Five (1947).
In 1947 we see Pollock’s technique achieves a surface of poured and splattered paint that veils underlayers of brushwork. Many of these paints, even some of the gestural tendrils, are artist’s oils rather than industrial housepaints.
In contrast, although One has the most complex, tightly composed layer structure of the 1950 murals, Pollock manages to embrace a lightness and vastness across the huge canvas. The physical flinging, pouring movements seen in Namuth’s photographs lend themselves to One’s scale, and much of the canvas is left bare, providing moments of calm throughout the energetic composition.
With the exception of the rare hint of a bright naples yellow oil paint, Pollock composes One wholly using industrial paints. These paints flow much more readily than artist’s oils, and Pollock often further thinned them, producing a delicate stain of color.
Unlike the cigarette, key, handful of tacks, and other found materials embedded in the surface of Full Fathom Five, the inclusions we found in One appear to be a mark of Pollock’s process and chance rather than deliberately placed elements. The bits of wood that dot the uppermost white layer could be remnants of a stick that Pollock was using in lieu of a paintbrush, or, like the fly that came to rest in this passage of black, they may just be the detritus that comes with working on the floor of a barn.
Beyond thinning his paints to desired consistency, Pollock appears to have been interested in the medium itself as a “paint,” applying it either wholly on its own or thinning a color so extensively that it essentially becomes tinted medium. Across the bottom of the painting, for example, we see periodic regions of pure medium. Pigmented paints swirl unevenly in the yellowed, darkened resin. Pollock evidently applied the medium independently rather than adding it to a single color.
Similarly, we encounter areas of hazy mixing that have a distinctly different look than typical wet-into-wet paint layering. To achieve such diffuse bleeding of color Pollock may have been pouring turpentine directly onto wet, layered paint rather than mixing it in the can as he usually did.
Such attention paid to small sections of the composition is omitted or at the very least overlooked in the narrative of Pollock’s technique as established by Namuth’s photographs. But the evidence doesn’t end there. We see mark-making on One that powerfully suggests that Pollock’s sense of this vast composition was based on a nuaunced reading of minute details. Along the bottom center of the painting the viewer will notice a cascade of controlled, rust-brown drips. Compare the deliberate nature of these marks to the five haphazard spots of pale pink located nearby.
The Namuth photographs show One tacked to the wall of the studio as Pollock continues to work on other paintings. While the pink paint can be attributed to studio accident as Pollock painted another work close by, the brown drips are not so easily explained. These brown drips are closely associated with a substantial underlying pour of black paint whereas the few pink drips appear randomly across the very bottom of the painting. It is also clear that the brown drips occurred very late in the development of the composition; none is covered or touched by another layer of paint. Finally the brown drips are all similar in length, all ending in a slight swell of paint: the final mark of gravity pulling paint down a vertical surface. It thus appears very likely that Pollock, the artist who so famously painted horizontally, also finished the composition in a more traditional manner, making a few final edits as the painting hung vertically on the studio wall.
And this deliberate control of his paint appears to have increased as Pollock moved into the black-and -white paintings of 1951. Pollock pared down his palette and, in composing Echo: Number 25, 1951, his mark-making as well.
The reverse of Echo reveals evidence that the black pour paintings were not necessarily poured at all. While it’s known that Pollock, during this time, began applying his paint with turkey basters, one still envisions the artist’s energetic dance around the canvas. The distinct lines that we observe from the reverse, though, argue that Pollock was in direct contact with the canvas as he worked, essentially drawing with the baster. On the reverse of the canvas we see thin lines inside the broader marks of black paint. These thin spines of paint represent the points at which baster touched the surface as the artist squeezed the baster’s bulb to release a pulse of enamel paint onto the canvas. When viewed from the front, the pulsing application of paint is evident in the rhythmic round bulges of the lines. Therefore Pollock’s technique in Echo, in a sense, merges drawing and painting in the moment of his engagement with the canvas.
Finally, much has been discussed about the extent and nature of Pollock’s return to recognizable imagery in his work, and dissecting Echo’s composition reveals elements of familiar images from the artist’s early sketchbooks. Another telling parallel can be drawn between Echo and Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932). The close parallels reveal that Pollock’s fascination and competition with Picasso continued even at the later stages of his career. Notice the compositional similarities between the two works. Compare the head, eye, outstretched arm, and belly of Picasso’s Girl to the analogous forms in Echo. Might the crosshatching we see in Pollock’s painting represent a shorthand for the diamond-patterned background of Girl?
Such observations, arising from the seemingly simple act of close looking offer us a richer understanding of Pollock’s paintings and can have implications for the established understanding of his process, priorities, and intent.