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The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters


One: Number 31, 1950

Jackson Pollock
(American, 1912–1956)

1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8' 10" x 17' 5 5/8" (269.5 x 530.8 cm)

Jackson Pollock was at the height of his career when he made One: Number 31, 1950. One of three wall-size paintings he produced in swift succession in the summer and fall of 1950, it is a field of densely interlaced threads of paint offset by pools and splashes of color. He began by laying canvas on the floor and pouring, dribbling, and flicking enamel paint onto its surface, sometimes straight from the can or with sticks and stiffened brushes. He would also convey paint onto his canvases by punching holes in the bottom of paint cans, squeezing it directly from tubes, and even using a turkey baster.

Although he was not the first to explore liquid enamels, Pollock harnessed their physical properties more dramatically than ever before. His interest in the Surrealists’ embrace of chance and accident, which sparked his initial experiments with the effects of gravity and momentum on falling paint, led him to the style that would become synonymous with his name. He also drew from European artists who dripped paint in their work, including Hans Hofmann, and from Navajo sand painting. But as Pollock maintained, focus should be directed at the work of art itself. “Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement,” he once said.

Jackson Pollock, "My Painting," Possibilities I (Winter 1947–48), 78–83.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

The method with which an artist, writer, performer, athlete, or other producer employs technical skills or materials to achieve a finished product or endeavor.

An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

A type of paint made from very fine pigments and resin that form a glossy surface. Also, the application of this paint to a material in order to create a smooth and glossy surface.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

Pollock’s Process
“My painting does not come from the easel…I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or floor,” Jackson Pollock said about his painting process. “On the floor, I am more at ease. 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. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives, and dripping fluid paint….When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing….there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”1

Multimedia

AUDIO: Collector Ben Heller explains why Jackson Pollock titled this painting One: Number 31, 1950