Jackson Pollock

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Blue poles 1952

© Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency Purchased 1973

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Blue poles 1952 is one of the most famous paintings in the Gallery’s collection. First exhibited at Jackson Pollock’s solo show at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952, where it was listed as Number 11, 1952,[1] it was later titled  by the artist Blue poles.[2]

In 1973 Stanley P Friedman wrote an article in the New York Magazine in which he reported being told by Tony Smith that he and Barnett Newman had painted on the canvas that subsequently became Blue poles.[3] No-one who Friedman interviewed for his article refuted the possibility that Smith or Newman contributed to the early stages of the work. What they all denied emphatically is that these initial exercises contributed in any way to the work that Pollock then built up on the canvas to become Blue poles—any trace of earlier involvement by Smith or Newman was covered over by the painting that Pollock subsequently made on the canvas.

The first layer of paint was applied, as had been customary practice for Pollock since 1947, while the canvas was stretched out on the floor.[4] The earliest visible layer of paint is black, thinning at the edges to a green, which appears to have been formed by the mixing of yellow and black, embedded with fragments of the glass basting tubes that were used to apply the first layers of paint to the canvas. Subsequently the unstretched canvas was tacked to a beam that ran along the wall of the studio; liquid white paint was then applied and allowed to run down.

For Pollock’s next campaign the canvas was returned to the floor. Using his characteristic method of pouring fluid paint in a continuous stream onto the canvas from above, employing sticks, dried brushes and syringes, Pollock built up a web of rhythmic linear accents using yellow, orange and aluminium paints. He then left the canvas to dry. When he next worked on the painting he added in the blue poles, apparently using a ‘2 x 4’ length of timber as a straight edge,[5] creating unusually definite forms in the ‘all‑over’ configuration of the work. Various figurative connotations have been attributed to them—from totems to the swaying masts of tall ships.[6]

Pollock integrated the poles by lacing them into the composition with fine dripped skeins of white, black and blue paint. In this final operation the artist used brushes and rags as well as poured paint. Careful adjustments were made, such as fastidiously painting over a thin white dripped line at the left edge of the canvas in black. In many respects, the approach in Blue poles is similar to Pollock’s earlier works; the painting is built up with successive layers of dripped and poured paint evenly dispersed across the canvas. However, it also differs in a number of important ways, not least of which are the strong vertical elements of the ‘poles’. This departure was both a reprise of a recurrent motif in Pollock’s work and a self-conscious re-evaluation of the painting technique for which he was famous.

Anthony White[7]

[1] Although the date of the painting is definitely 1952, Pollock appears to have mistakenly dated it ‘53’, then painted over the ‘3’ to a ‘2’.

[2] Sidney Janis, correspondence with the National Gallery, 17 January 1986. Pollock himself referred to the painting as Blue poles in a conversation with BH Friedman in 1955, see BH Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy made visible, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1972, p xvii.

[3] Stanley P Friedman, ‘Loopholes in “Blue Poles”’, New York Magazine, 29 October 1973, pp 48–51.

[4] The canvas is high‑quality Belgian linen with a commercially oil‑primed ground.

[5] Lee Krasner Pollock recalled seeing this piece of wood near the painting covered with wet blue paint, see Francis Valentine O’Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A catalogue raisonné of paintings, drawings and other works, 4 vols, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1978, vol 2, p 193.

[6] In his biography of Pollock, Bryan Robertson attributes both connotations to the poles, and also suggests a cruciform and an anchor; see Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock, Thames & Hudson, London, Harry N Abrams, New York, 1960, pp 23–4.

[7] Adapted and updated from Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1992, pp 240–5.

To produce his drip paintings, Pollock would place an unstretched canvas on the floor, then furiously throw, drip and pour paint across it. Blue poles exemplifies the energetic, restless results of the artist’s methods, and shows the complex layering of the paint surface to achieve the effect of constant movement. Pollock considered the act of creation to be of primary importance and spontaneity allowed him to bypass the constraints of tradition, encouraging direct expression on the canvas.