On the path to abstraction
Jackson Pollock “Mural” (1943) is a starter kit for understanding abstract art. Pollock didn’t adopt his drip style overnight; he got there in small steps. Currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until September 19, 2021, “Mural” sits between the figuration of its early years and the revolutionary abstraction of its later years.
Despite his later radicalism, Pollock’s origins were modest and his training traditional. Born in 1912 on a farm in Cody, Wyo., The youngest of five, he followed his older brother Charles to New York City, where he studied at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton. Benton was one of the leading painters of the time, specializing in rural scenes and landscapes with vivid colors and dynamic, curving brushstrokes.
In the decade before “Mural”, Pollock made small canvases depicting country scenes in Benton style, with titles like “Going West” (1934-35) and “Cotton Pickers” (1935), featuring the same landscapes. than his teacher. Four years after “Mural”, Pollock abandoned representation and embraced the pure line, projected onto a large expanse of canvas placed on the floor of his studio. (His process was captured by photographer Hans Namuth in his famous 1950 short film.) In paintings such as “One: Number 31, 1950”, the viewer can see a boiling sea or a storm, but all associations are the ones you bring there. All references to the visible world have disappeared. “Mural” is in the period between these two extremes.
The largest painting ever made by Pollock, “Mural” measures nearly 20 feet wide and 8 feet high, made to order for the lobby of Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment in New York City. A calligraphic array of black lines provides the scaffolding for a noisy parade on its surface. The abstraction comes from the Latin verb meaning “to take away”, and it often helps to know what is taken away. In ‘Mural’ you can still see the figure, both in the skinny black calligraphic lines and in the fleshy pink and white buds, but at the same time Pollock is saying goodbye to it all, like so much baggage. of the history of art he no longer needs. At first, it seems to be a painting made entirely of lines. But the more you look it looks like he made numbers from the voids as well. Are the figures black calligraphic lines? Or the pink bumps in between? Or both, the skeletal structure and the flesh that surrounds it?
Pollock himself described the painting as “a rush …[of] all the animals of the American West, cows and horses, antelopes and buffaloes. Everything loads on this fucking surface. It was as if Pollock had thrown a firebomb at the center of one of the stilted western scenes he had made in his youth and captured the action as the animals rushed towards her. Instead of the browns and greens of his landscape paintings, his palette proclaims his remoteness from the natural world: Pepto-Bismol pink, hospital scrub green, acid yellow.
The best way to look at the painting is to keep moving, over the long area, in time with the characters, or up and down, mimicking the steps Guggenheim and his guests must have taken. The architectural scale of “Mural” evokes Italian fresco, while its energy and density are reminiscent of Renaissance works such as Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano” series (at the Uffizi, National Gallery, London and at the Louvre) and Michelangelo in his “Battle of the Centaurs” (at the Casa Buonarroti).
When Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice in 1947, she first sent the painting to Yale University, where conservatively trained students showed little interest. Then she gave it as a gift to the University of Iowa’s art department and its forward-thinking president, Lester Longman, who had seen the painting in his Manhattan apartment. Longman installed the work in the mural studio, a direct affront to Grant Wood, who taught in his regionalist manner. The painting was meant to push art students to push the boundaries – part of what has come to be known as the “Iowa Idea,” that universities should be a site not just for experimentation in the sciences. but also in the arts. “Mural” was the anchor of a distinguished collection at the University of Iowa Museum of Art until the calamitous floods of 2008 forced all works of art to be moved off site. Following the rejection of a reckless proposal by an academic regent to sell “Mural” to pay for flood damage, the painting was sent to the Getty Institute for conservation and has since traveled widely while the University of the Iowa is building a new house there.
“Mural” brings you abstraction in action, documenting exactly when and how Pollock turned away from figuration. If you are an abstraction skeptic, prepare for a conversion experience.
-Mrs. Brothers is Associate Professor at Northeastern University and author of “Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture” (Yale).
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