Art Interview Interview

Known in the Art world as Jack the Dripper American artist Jackson Pollock created an aesthetic utterly fascinating and entirely distinctive.

With a can of paint in one hand and a brush in the other, he walked around – and even on – the canvas, dripping paint to create an immense network of overlapping lines, drips, and splatters of paint on canvas.

“The method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement…. I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.” – Jackson Pollock

But just when people thought they had the American abstract painter figured out, he threw a curveball into the mix.

After less than four years of creating his famous ‘drip’ paintings, the 38-year-old abruptly changed his style to what has been described as his ‘black pourings’. Pollock’s practice underwent a radical transformation, from the colourful, decorative, non-figurative drip paintings to a fascinating series of poured black enamel and oil paintings. 

And it is this series of black enamel and oil paintings from the period 1951-53, that is being explored in Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, Tate Liverpool’s latest summer exhibition. Featuring some rare Pollock sculptures and a retrospective body of work the exhibition aims to explore Pollock’s full oeuvre, interpreting his aesthetic, his personal life and the relationship between the two.

We spoke to Tate Curator Tate’s Stephanie Straine about Jackson Pollock’s legacy and the exhibition itself.

Alex James Taylor: With Pollock’s more iconic colourful drip pieces as an introduction the exhibition shifts focus towards Pollock’s lesser known ‘black pourings’. What do you think were the main reasons behind the shift in Pollock’s work?
Stephanie Straine: The black pourings marked a major turning point in Pollock’s style. While remembered and celebrated for his better known drip paintings, his black pourings signpost a significant chapter in his career that came towards the end of his life. It was a deliberate move away from his defining, multi-layered ‘drip’ technique to a new ‘pour’ with thinned enamel paint, in compositions which also left much more of the bare canvas exposed as part of the finished painting. It’s argued the change in his style came about because Pollock felt compelled to re-invigorate himself and the way he created artwork during a difficult period in his life.

AJT: There are also sculptures on display, again pieces of Pollock’s oeuvre that are lesser known and not exhibited as much, do you see this exhibition as a sort of mini retrospective and a wider look at his overall output?
SS: The exhibition will display a selection of his iconic drip paintings from 1947–50, his black pourings from 1951-53, as well as unique works on paper and prints from the same period and a number of virtually unknown and rarely seen sculptures.  Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots takes visitors on a journey through the artist’s career. Exhibiting works from the height of the artist’s fame juxtaposed with his lesser known artworks will serve to demonstrate the radical departure represented by the black pourings. The exhibition offers the opportunity to appreciate Pollock’s broader ambitions as an artist and makes these fascinating later paintings readable as ‘blind spots’ in an otherwise intensely debated career.

Jackson Pollock painting, Barn Studio, 1950. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

AJT: What did you want to portray through the exhibition?
SS: Ultimately we wanted to re-address these underrepresented and incredibly significant works in Pollock’s career. The works from this period have often been overlooked in favour of the artist’s iconic drip paintings, which date from the years immediately before, 1947-50. Pollock is so often categorised as an exclusively abstract artist that I think these black paintings, in which representation returns to his work (such as faces, and writhing, part animal/part human bodies), were routinely misunderstood or left out of accounts of the artist’s work and career, as they complicate the story of him progressing towards complete abstraction.

AJT: As the curator, how did you go about organising the exhibition in order to best display his work?
SS: Essentially the exhibition is chronological, in order to illustrate the changes and advances in Pollock’s practice. Upon entering the exhibition visitors will have the opportunity to explore a selection of Pollock’s important drip paintings made between 1947-50 including Summertime: Number 9A 1948 (Tate) and Number 3, 1949: Tiger 1949 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.). From here you are led, via a number of transitional paintings, into Pollock’s black pourings from 1951-53, while interspersed throughout the gallery are the sculptures, which range in date from c.1930-33 (when Pollock was just out of his teens), to 1956 – the final year of his life.

Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956 Number 23, 1948. Courtesy Tate Liverpool

AJT: Why do you believe that Pollock’s work still resonates so much with both the public and other artists?
SS: Pollock completely changed how people understood modern painting in the 1940s and 1950s, by radically reorienting the blank canvas, beginning to work on it from the floor, so that gravity could play a part in his actions. He became emblematic of the new American dominance of the art world at that time. His work was also incredibly influential to many subsequent generations of artists, from the process and performance artists of the 1960s, to contemporary painters now who are looking to the figuration of the black pourings as inspiration for their own work.

AJT: I’ve always been fascinated by the 1950 Hans Namuth documentary footage of Pollock, the way it broke barriers and allowed the public into the artist’s studio, perhaps for the first time really. How do you view the relationship between the ‘performance’ of creating the art, and the art itself?
SS: They are certainly two separate things: Pollock’s ‘performance’ for Namuth’s camera is definitely why his work became so well-known from the early 1950s onwards: it was the first time the process of painting (normally kept private, in the studio as you say) had been so thoroughly documented and publicised, but we have to remember that it is a slight distortion of the truth: for example it was Namuth’s suggestion for Pollock to paint on glass as he did for the film, so he could capture a new angle on the work, and it has been documented that Pollock found the whole experience quite traumatic. It’s recorded by numerous people that he ended over 2 years of sobriety on the very day the filming concluded. Interestingly, after this episode, late in 1950, he never left Namuth, or anyone else, photograph or film him in the act of painting again; all the photos from 1951 that document the black pourings in his studio show Pollock standing or sitting beside nearly or completely finished artworks. Clearly the ‘performance’ was not something he was willing to maintain for the camera.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots kicks off today, 29th June and runs until 18th October at Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront L3 4BB