Rewriting the creation myth of Blue Poles as it approaches 70

Mar 14, 2021

Blue Poles didn’t just come out of the blue – or the bottle – for Jackson Pollock, contrary to the ‘creation myths’ that grew up when the NGA paid the then jaw-dropping sum of US$2.1 million for the work. It was at least five years in gestation.

Like several other Jackson Pollock paintings now in or approaching their 70s, Blue Poles has been given a facelift aka as conservation and restoration in recent months. Taking the opportunity of the closure of the National Gallery of Australia to the public in mid-2020 due to Covid hazards, the NGA’s Senior Conservator, David Wise, spent several weeks working on the 10-square-metre work bought for A$1.3 million nearly 50 years ago. When the gallery could re-open some of the work was carried out in front of visitors.

Wise was quoted in June, 2020 as saying:

“Using different light sources has revealed more layers to the painting and we’ve learned that what was once thought to have been painted in one moment was done over a much longer time period.”

There are several precursors to Blue Poles in Pollock’s work of the 1940s and early 1950s. It was the culmination of a deliberate process of experimentation in the making of impasto paintings from industrial, auto duco and house paints, some enamel, some water based, some oil based.

Blue Poles comes from a lineage dating back at least to Number 5,1948, which sold for a reputed US$140 million in 2006. The same seller sold Number 17a (1948) for$US200 million in 2015, the highest price yet paid for a Pollock. The purchaser, a hedge fund manager, bought a de Kooning at the same time for US$300 million.

By Number 25, 1950 Pollock was working with the same colours using drip, dribble, fling and splatter techniques on a horizontal rectangular canvas. Sometimes he poured the paint directly from the tin on to the canvas to create the increasingly heavy impasto of the paintings. And threw in cigarette butts, nails, shards of glass to beef it up.

In 1952, after working mostly in black and white, Pollock returned to the structure and colours of these earlier paintings. Convergence Number 10, 1952 looks like a non-identical twin of Blue Poles Number 11. 1952.

Shown alongside Blue Poles and other paintings, Convergence was the only one to sell from Pollock’s first solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, in November 1952 – to Nelson Rockefeller. It was selected for the 1956 XXVIII Venice Biennale as part of American Artists Paint the City. The catalogue entry said ‘Beneath the drip and tangle, the spot and dribble of a painting like Convergence .. .one senses the multi-colored rythmns of present dayAmerica.’ But the curator, Katharine Kuh also remarked on ‘Pollock’s lack of compositional focus.’

Convergence Number 10, 1952 was gifted to the Albright-Knox gallery in Buffalo, NY in 1956 and its price hasn’t been tested on the developing market.

Pollock died in a one-car crash along with one of his passengers in August 1956, in the middle of the XXIIIth Biennale. But the comment would not have come as a surprise to him. Immediately after Convergence, Number 10, 1952 he painted Blue Poles, Number 11,1952 – the poles emphatically resolve the composition that had been more than five years in gestation.

Along with the evidence of the paintings themselves, there are contemporaneous photos and film footage about Pollock’s development and reflection on his techniques. Hans Namuth and Rudy Burckhardt photographed and filmed him demonstrating and explaining his methods in one of his prime years, 1950. These are staged images but the point is that Pollock was interested in staging them – and explaining his technique, emphasising that it was a considered and evolving, rather than purely spontaneous, modus operandi.

In his late 30s, in temporary remission temporary from his alcoholism, Pollock is filmed dancing along four or five metres of canvas with a physical fluidity that is both athletic but often balletic. His outstretched arm holds a variety of implements to drip or dribble or throw or splatter or pour in rhythmical movements to create images that not surprisingly have been found by recent scientific investigation often to be fractal in pattern.

And what he is flinging at the canvas is important to his evolving concepts and execution. All of which revolved around the fluidity and viscosity of the industrial, car and house paints that he was flinging. There have been recent studies on what would have been Pollock’s growing empirical understanding of coiling of the paint as it flew from hand to canvas. The flying was important as the paint was aereated. An academic industry is emerging as new techniques have become available to help conservationist and scientists reverse engineer what Pollock was finding his way towards in the five years up to Blue Poles.

So Pollock was working with the instability of the paint and other materials rather than trying to stabilise it as the conventional easel artist might. As he says in the Namuth film, ‘I like to use a dripping fluid paint. I can control the flow of the paint. It is no accident.’

Conservators and restorers have worked on several major Pollock paintings in the past decade, starting with Mural, 1943There are challenges in working on a large expanse of impasto, especially one made with oil based and water paints that don’t necessarily bond well, age differently, and indeed might flake. And then there’s the problem of distinguishing from what Pollock dripped and what he dribbled or splattered. When the Museum of Congemporary Art of Los Angeles worked on Number 1, 1948 it was put to the Conservator Chris Stavroudis ‘But you might cause a drip in the wrong place,’ he replied: “That’s why I am a conservator.”

The NGA has yet to tell us what it learned from the conservation work of mid-2020 or what restoration it needed to do. But apparently there wasn’t sufficient degradation to cause depreciation of the estimated value of the work which is now put $430 million. It is not clear why the estimated market price has risen $80 million over the past year. Not that it’s for sale of course.

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