Guggenheim
Introduction

Jackson Pollock
Mural, 1943
Oil and casein on canvas
243.21 x 603.25 cm
The University of Iowa Museum of Art. Gift Peggy Guggenheim
© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016

“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.” Jackson Pollock, 1947–48 [1]

In the summer of 1943, the art patron and collector Peggy Guggenheim, persuaded by her assistant-secretary Howard Putzel and her friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp, commissioned a relatively unknown artist named Jackson Pollock (Cody, Wyoming, 1912–East Hampton, New York, 1956) to paint a mural for the vestibule of her Manhattan townhouse. Putzel saw great promise in Pollock and urged her to give him the job, while Duchamp suggested that the mural should be painted on canvas rather than on the wall itself so it would be portable. Eager to present a work in her home that would symbolize her support for the new American art she was exhibiting in her gallery, Guggenheim gave Pollock the commission and even let him choose the subject, with the sole proviso that he cover the entire vestibule wall.

The commission came with a contract, something rare at the time, of 150 dollars per month. The money was much-needed, as Pollock and his future wife, fellow painter Lee Kransner, were barely scraping by in their little New York apartment[2]. Several walls had to be torn down to make room for the enormous canvas. However, time passed and the canvas remained untouched. Concerned by the situation, Guggenheim began to pressure the artist, threatening to cut off his stipend unless he completed the work[3]. The pressure did not help Pollock, who spent weeks staring at the blank canvas and complaining to friends that he was "blocked". Obsessed with the job and on the brink of depression, he finally managed to complete it, later than planned, on January 1, 1944.

According to a popular myth fueled by the artist's own wife, Lee Krasner, Pollock painted the entire mural in one night, on the eve of delivery. However, a recent restoration revealed that he painted several layers, using more than twenty different colors, which dried slowly over a period of weeks. It is true that the final part of the painting, in which the drips, gestures, and brushstrokes of the author are clearly visible, could have been done very rapidly. But the apparent spontaneity of the mural is actually quite calculated. The work exudes raw passion, energy, and dynamic motion. We can imagine the artist making it, using every ounce of strength in his entire body to paint a canvas measuring nearly three meters high by six meters wide. Pollock's pictorial frenzy, aggressive, energetic brushwork, and loose, brightly colored strokes are evident in the sinuous forms that cover every inch of this impressively huge surface.

The mural is halfway between abstraction and figuration: it gives viewers a degree of freedom to interpret its mysterious forms and swirling figures as they will. Years after painting this mural, Pollock told a friend that he had had a vision of how to complete it: "It was a stampede...[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface"[4]. Mural marked a turning point in the artist's career. After this piece, he abandoned figuration for good to wholeheartedly embrace Abstract Expressionism and, a few years later, develop his iconic "drip style". In this mural he began to use the technique of splashing paint directly onto the pictorial surface, a method that would later become his hallmark and originate the style known as Action Painting. The artist laid his canvases on the floor and poured or splattered paint onto them, applying the colors with trowels and knives, stiff brushes, sticks, or syringes. With this technique, the paint literally flows onto the canvas. Pollock defied pictorial conventions: setting aside verticality and brushes, he added a new dimension to the discipline by contemplating and applying paint to his canvases from every possible angle.

This mural was displayed in Guggenheim's townhouse for several years. However, when World War II ended, the collector decided to move back to Europe, where she had no room for a painting of this size, and she therefore began looking for a new home for the work. After a series of negotiations with Lester Longman, then head of the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, Guggenheim decided to donate the work if the university would pay to have it shipped from Yale (Connecticut), where it was on display, to its new place of residence in Iowa[5].

Questions

Look closely at the painting. What do you see? Can you make out any forms in it? How do you imagine Pollock made this painting? Describe the different steps the artist might have taken to create this work. Choose a single line and try to recreate the motion that the artist used to make it.

Try to take in the entire canvas. How would you describe the brushstrokes? Which parts do you think are in the background? Which ones are closest to the surface? How can you tell? Focus on the colors for a moment. How would you describe them? What do they suggest to you? Every section of the picture seems to clamor for attention at the same time, but where are your eyes drawn first?

Pollock is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter. Instead of painting real or recognizable objects, he expressed his feelings through colors and lines. For the Abstract Expressionists, the mood or frame of mind their works conveyed was very important. What words would you use to describe the frame of mind or feelings that this piece conveys? Why? If you could set the painting to music, what would it be?

Pollock usually assigned titles to his works after finishing them. This work is called Mural. Do you think the title is appropriate? Why or why not? What would you call this painting?

Compare this Pollock painting to some of the ones he made after 1946. How do you think this canvas differs from other later works? Is there any element that seems similar to you? How did Pollock’s painting technique change?

Activities

Paint an Abstract Stampede

Years after making Mural, Pollock told a friend that he had had a vision of how to complete it: “It was a stampede…[of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface”[6]. How would you paint what the artist described? Take a piece of thin cardboard, choose 4 or 5 colors, and paint your abstract version of the image described by Pollock in this phrase.

Dancing Like Pollock

This artist’s painting process is often likened to a choreographed dance. We can imagine the artist at work, using every ounce of strength in his entire body to cover a canvas measuring nearly three meters high by six meters wide with aggressive, energetic, loose brushstrokes. Work with your classmates to invent a dance inspired by how you imagine the artist moved around his studio when painting this mural.

Research Project

One of Pollock’s early sources of artistic inspiration was the work done by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Clemente Orozco in New York in the 1930s. In 1935, during the Great Depression, Pollock landed a contract with the Works Progress Administration, a government program that provided temporary employment on public works projects. Thanks to that job, he had the opportunity to work in Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros’s experimental workshop.[7] There he experimented with different media, such as airbrushes, paint guns, enamel, and other synthetic and industrial paints that would later appear in his work.[8]

Research the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Art Project. What role did it play during the financial depression of the 1930s and 1940s? Next, read up on the three Mexican muralists mentioned above and compare them with Pollock. What similarities and differences can you find in their works? What do you think Pollock learned from them?

Movie

In class, watch and discuss a clip from the film Pollock (2000). This movie delves into the life of Jackson Pollock, revealing his complex personality and relationships with other artists of his day.

Notes

  1. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1998/pollock/website100/txt_possibilities_drip.html In ‘Possibilities’, Vol. 1, no 1, Winter 1947–48, p. 79; as quoted in Jackson Pollock(1983) by Elizabeth Frank, p. 68
  2. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-story-of-pollock-guggenheim-and-the-masterpiece-created-in-one-night
  3. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-story-of-pollock-guggenheim-and-the-masterpiece-created-in-one-night
  4. https://uima.uiowa.edu/collections/american-art-1900-1980/jackson-pollock/mural/
  5. Complete correspondence between Peggy Guggenheim and Lester Longman https://uima.uiowa.edu/collections/american-art-1900-1980/jackson-pollock/correspondence/
  6. https://uima.uiowa.edu/collections/american-art-1900-1980/jackson-pollock/mural/
  7. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/jackson-pollock
  8. http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/ficha_artista/463

 

Vocabulary

Great Depression: a global financial crisis that began with the “Great Crash of ’29” and continued throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, in the years leading up to World War II. It lasted longer, hit harder, and affected more countries than any other recession in the 20th century.

Abstract Expressionism: an art phenomenon that emerged in the USA shortly after the end of World War II. The works of artists associated with this movement reflect the spontaneous expression of emotion without representing or directly alluding to physical reality.

Action Painting: a pictorial technique in which color and matter are used to convey different sensations, such as motion, speed, or energy.

Links

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-the-story-of-pollock-guggenheim-and-the-masterpiece-created-in-one-night
http://db-artmag.com/en/92/feature/action-and-abstraction-jackson-pollocks-mural-and-photography/
https://uima.uiowa.edu/collections/american-art-1900-1980/jackson-pollock/mural/
http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/letting-jackson-pollocks-mural-speak-for-itself/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXLS_WDIugk&list=PLOXsOsSnQH01F2dyBviwWksPyA_q814CJ&index=5
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWAbVpkV0jQ
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY9leqZUMIk
http://masdearte.com/jackson-pollock-el-mural-o-la-energia/