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    Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)

    Jackson Pollock

    Jackson Pollock’s mural-size “drip” paintings met with mixed reactions when they debuted at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City in 1948. Sales were dismal, and critical reviews offered skepticism or mild appreciation. Yet only one year later, a Life magazine article featured Pollock, arms crossed and cigarette dangling from his lips, standing in front of one of his swirled, caffeinated images. The caption under the photograph asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

    LIFE, August 8, 1949, pp 42-43

    Pollock’s move from dark horse to darling of the art world came out of various concurrences: the powerful art critic Clement Greenberg’s insistence that Pollock’s work represented a new, authentic American art; a shift in the art world; and Pollock’s success, achieved over a period of years, at making gesture, line, texture, and composition the very subject of his canvases.

    Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist) embodies the artistic breakthrough Pollock reached between 1947 and 1950. It was painted in an old barn-turned-studio next to a small house on the East End of Long Island, where Pollock lived and worked from 1945 on. The property led directly to Accabonac Creek, where eelgrass marshes and gorgeous, watery light were a source of inspiration for him.

    Pollock’s method was based on his earlier experiments with dripping and splattering paint on ceramic, glass, and canvas on an easel. Now, he laid a large canvas on the floor of his studio barn, nearly covering the space. Using house paint, he dripped, poured, and flung pigment from loaded brushes and sticks while walking around it. He said that this was his way of being “in” his work, acting as a medium in the creative process. For Pollock, who admired the sand painting of the American Indians, summoning webs of color to his canvases and making them balanced, complete, and lyrical, was almost an act of ritual. Like an ancient cave painter, he “signed” Lavender Mist in the upper left and right corners with his handprints.

    Though the work contains no lavender, the webs of black, white, russet, orange, silver, and stone blue industrial paints in Lavender Mist radiate a mauve glow that inspired Greenberg, Pollock’s stalwart champion, to suggest the descriptive title, which Pollock accepted. Pollock’s canvases from this decisive phase of his career are considered to have transformed the experience of looking “at” a work of art into one of being immersed, upright, in its fullness. His mastery of chance, intuition, and control brought abstract expressionism to a new level.

    About the Artist

    A bald, pale-skinned man holding a can of house paint stands facing us in this vertical black and white photograph. Fabric is spread across the floor, and the edge near the man is rolled up. The light-colored fabric is spattered with white and dark drips and skeins of paint. To the right, on the far side of the canvas, his legs are spread in a wide stance, one knee bent as he steps across the corner of the canvas. Having been photographed while in motion, his head and body is blurred. His head is turned to our left and his shoulders angled slightly to our right. His right side, to our left, is brightly lit by a shaft of intense light that falls from the upper right. The other side of his body is cast into deep shadow. A canvas hanging beyond him is filled with a dense web of lines and splotches in shades of black, white, and gray over a light background.

    Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock, 1950, gelatin silver print, Diana and Mallory Walker Fund, 2008.13.1

    Jackson Pollock spent his formative years in Wyoming (he was born in Cody) and California. By the time he was 14 years old he had made an “art gallery” in a chicken coop on the family’s property. Eager to succeed in the art world, he moved to New York City when he was 18. There, he studied under the realist painter Thomas Hart Benton and visited museums—particularly the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. He worked in various directions, inspired by Pablo Picasso, the Mexican muralists, surrealists including Joan Miró, Native American pictographic art, and old masters Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and El Greco—while he mastered the powers of line, marking, and abstracted form. Bouts of depression and drinking, however, made New York City a dangerous and tempting environment for him.

    In 1945 Pollock and his wife, artist Lee Krasner, moved to East Hampton on the far end of Long Island, whose light, air, and exquisite coastal geography had drawn a number of artists. There, Pollock had his breakthrough with the all-over abstract canvases that electrified the art world. Many of these works twist and sing with the rhythms of the grasses and light on the far East End, freeing painting from its figurative tasks.

    Perennially short on money, Pollock had come to rely on bartering art for groceries at the nearby general store (still operating to this day). In August 1956, on one of his drives along the slim, winding roads that lace the East End, a drunken Pollock smashed into a tree, killing himself and a female passenger. By then he seemed to have lost the energy and focus he had brought to his signature works, but they left no question about his contribution to modernism by shifting artistic practice to focus on the relationships of painting to the body (the artist) and the world (the observer). 

    Related Works in the National Gallery of Art Collection

    This work is created entirely with dripped and splattered black paint against a bone-colored background in this abstract horizontal painting. The left half is a collection of mostly vertical lines above a nest-like patch of crossing lines near the bottom. Many of the vertical lines are spaced apart so only a few overlap, and the lines are marked with splotches that resemble ink blots. To our right, more densely spaced spatters and lightly curving lines combine to create an abstracted face and body of a person. The artist signed and dated the work in black paint in the lower right corner: “Jackson Pollock 51.”

    Jackson Pollock, Number 7, 1951, 1951, enamel on canvas, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1983.77.1

    Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1950, black ink, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.62.2

    Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1951, ink on Japanese paper, Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen, 2012.92.123

    Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1951, ink on Japanese paper, Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen, 2012.92.123

    Abstract Expressionism in the
    National Gallery of Art Collection

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