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Number 2, 1949

On view

Number 2, 1949

Artist: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912 - 1956)

Date: 1949
Medium: Oil, Duco and aluminum paint on unsized canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 38 x 189 1/2in. (96.5 x 481.3cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Jackson Pollock 49'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 54.38
Label Text
Since the 1500s, European and American artists traditionally have created paintings that illusionistically depict three-dimensional space. The picture surface might be described as "transparent" and can be understood as a "window." That is to say, a viewer could visually enter the space of the painting.

By the twentieth century, modernist artists had become intrigued by the fundamental nature of painting. They believed that illusion was untruthful because a picture is, in the end, merely paint on canvas. For these artists, the transparent surface of the picture plane became an impenetrably flat, opaque field.

In the late 1940s, Jackson Pollock was one of a number of artists who regarded the surface of a painting as a field of activity. Pollock placed his canvas on the floor and moved around it constantly as he painted, making choices to balance the rhythms of color and movement. In the abstract works he created in this manner, Pollock asserts the flatness of the picture plane. The paintings represent both the activity of painting as well as deeply personal feelings.

Pollock and other artists of his generation had worked through the Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust. In the late 1940s, they also faced the Atomic Age. These artists believed that modern humankind existed in a crisis that could only be expressed in an universal visual language that has come to be called "Abstract Expression."

Text Entries

Jackson Pollock’s Number 2, 1949 is a forceful example of his pouring technique.(1) Its large, oblong size—nearly sixteen feet wide—immediately arrests vision, as does the striking contrast of black and white arabesques of paint against dark Indian red, which carry its vital aura across great distances. While its aesthetic impact from afar is immediate, and the tracing of its painted intricacies up close overwhelming, the viewer may well ask how such a painting, created with such apparent speed and representing nothing other than itself, can be meaningful. The answer is as complex as the painting itself.

We can, in general, know three things about an art object: what we feel encountering it visually, what information we can deduce from it through inspection, and what we can learn about the history of its creator and creation. How a painting affects us depends on what we bring to it subjectively, and that in turn depends on what we are able to see, and what we know about what we see. If, looking at Number 2, 1949 for the first time, all we feel is annoyance at what appears to be spilt paint, that is one thing; if we feel thrilled by its beauty, or the energy it conveys, that is another. Both are valid subjective reactions. But we are still left to explain how this nonobjective work, perceivable as both a threat to common sense or a turn-on, affects us at all. And that entails bringing to our consciousness a visual recreation of the work and some historical knowledge.

Let us suppose that we do not know anything about Jackson Pollock, that we have just come upon Number 2, 1949, have all day to study it —and shall do so: first closely in itself and then in terms of what we can learn about its artist.

Looking objectively at the surface of Number 2, 1949, we see that it is made of poured lines and small drops of paint on a dark red fabric ground. The colors seem to have been applied in the following sequence: thin gray and white lines, bold black curves, an overall intertwining of white, and then delicate pourings and touches of yellow, silver, scarlet, and Indian red. A closer inspection will reveal that oil from the larger concentrations of black and white paint bled into the porous fabric, creating shadow-like areas of a darker red. Pollock exploited this aleatory phenomenon by carefully placing drops of Indian red paint, the same color as the ground fabric, within these darker red areas, thus creating a “repoussoir” effect that gives a lively dimensionality to what would otherwise have appeared a drab mistake. But the fact that he did this makes us immediately aware that Pollock was not arbitrarily spilling paint, but was concerned about, and carefully controlling, his painterly effects for maximum affect.

If we could look at the back of Number 2, 1949 (see enlarged detail), we would see something that would confirm this quite dramatically (and it might be a good idea to display this work as double-sided so this could be seen all the time). Because Pollock painted on a piece of relatively sheer, commercially dyed fabric and not on heavy artist’s canvas,(2) it is possible to trace upon the back the first elements of the curvilinear design he set down when he began the work. Now it is very clear that soaked-through linear elements which appear on the back as if, say, a white line were under a black, appear on the front of the painting with the white line on top. And we find that the front reveals that Pollock very carefully filled in a part of that white line so that the overall balance of light and dark elements in his composition would, as he liked to say, “work.” So we discover that this painting has been carefully thought through in its details and meticulously re-touched to create an aesthetically balanced whole. And that suggests that we might want to think through some of its other elements.

For instance, if we look attentively at just the black and white lineations, and think of how a brush loaded with paint releases its liquid in terms of our handling it, it will be apparent that the black elements of the composition all feel right if our hand had slapped them down from left to right. But then, looking at the white elements that dominate the design, we find a certain tension which contradicts our kinesthetic intuitions about how we might have more slowly poured them out. They look in themselves vaguely wrong—like a famous Impressionist painting projected backward. Only in this absolutely nonobjective situation, devoid of representational cues, the problem our visual/kinesthetic instincts poses is solved when we realize that the whites were mostly set down from the other edge of the fabric—or, from our point of view, upside down; from Pollock’s (who painted on the floor), it was just a matter of working along both of its long sides. If we turn the painting (or a reproduction of it) topsy-turvy, it would be apparent that the whites flow from our putative hand as freely and logically as do the blacks. This reveals one of the “signature” characteristics of most large-scale Pollocks: the major design elements always flow from left to right, as if written out in longhand. The left edge of the work, whichever side Pollock is working from, is always addressed with an elegant pirouette of paint, which then dances in infinite variations across the length of the canvas until it reaches the terminal right edge, where a sudden vertical or unresolved element signifies the artist’s frustration that his subjective infinity is limited by the objective length of his ground. In the case of Number 2, 1949, after thinking through the overall coherence of its composition from both sides, Pollock felt it “worked” better if the tension in the upside-down whites was retained against the freer black elements underneath. This was typical of his way of thinking: things ought not be too facile, too pretty—but more akin to the wildness of nature—though with its nonetheless intrinsic tendency to overall order and interconnectedness.

If we now turn to what we can know about Pollock, some of these details of facture take on even more significance. Let us begin with the rather odd shape of the work—about five times as wide as it is high. Such a long format, of course, served his tendency to “write out” his paintings-it kept that right edge as far away as possible. But it can also be related to the fact that Pollock was very interested during these years in painting murals—something he was never able to do when he worked on the WPA Federal Art Project during the 1930s. The oblong shape is typical of the shape of a mural. But it probably also goes even deeper into Pollock’s experience: if we look at the Pollock family photographs of the dining room in the house in which he was born at Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, we find oblong oleolithographs of flowers on the wall the exact shape and even look of many of his poured paintings such as Number 2, 1949.(3)

Another detail that relates to Pollock’s interest in the mural is the row of black elements across the length of the work. When Pollock came to New York in 1930, he studied with Thomas Hart Benton, who was just beginning to establish a reputation as a muralist. Benton had written a series of technical articles on composition, and in one of them he advised artists to organize the large space of a mural with a series of stable vertical elements around which more free-flowing forms could be arranged. Pollock often used this device in his work—most famously, of course, in his Blue Poles: Number 11, 19524—and he uses it in Number 2, 1949, countering the whites around the curved black uprights in a way that measures out the rhythms of the composition in a clear, satisfying, frieze-like manner.

Finally, let us consider Pollock’s habit of painting on the floor, from all four sides of his ground. He associated this with Native American sandpainting, which he knew about from his boyhood in the West and would have seen in 1941 at an exhibit of Indian art.(5) Native Americans were impressed with the symbolic power of the four directions, and almost all their sandpaintings are so oriented. While Pollock does not do this, he did feel very deeply the analogy of his multi-directional method with that of the Indian artists. Implicit is also something else: namely the fact that his works only represent the vital process that created them. And that process, as we have seen, is dedicated to depicting something both natural and controlled—almost as if he is trying to emulate the processes of nature, which, however wild, have their innate environmental laws.

We can therefore look at Number 2, 1949 as a very personal ecosystem-a unity composed of a balance of tensions, which engages our physical as well as our visual involvement, and which illustrates our transaction with it as much as it does the processes of an artist who could say, at the very start of his mature career, “I am nature.”(6)

 

Notes

1. See Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonne’ of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1978), vol. 2, pp. vii—viii, for a detailed discussion of why the word “drip” is not accurate in describing Pollock’s essentially linear painting method.

2. According to Lee Krasner Pollock, her husband painted only one other work on this commercially dyed fabric, Number 13A 1948: Arabesque (Richard Brown Baker, loan to Yale University Art Gallery). When he was commissioned in 1950 to paint Mural (Teheran Museum of Modern Art, Iran) with a similar red ground, Pollock painted the canvas to match the fabric he had used in the two earlier works. See O’Connor and Thaw, vol. 2, p. 38, no. 217, and p. 80, no. 259.

3. O’Connor and Thaw, vol. 4, p. 204, fig. 4. The complex flower patterns in these commercial prints, very much reduced in the photograph, look surprisingly like Pollock’s compositions such as Number 2, 1949. Pollock knew these photographs, since motifs from others in the same group appear in his early landscapes.

4. For details about Benton’s methods and Blue Poles (Australian National Gallery, Canberra), see O’Connor and Thaw, vol. 2, pp. 193-98, no. 367. Also Stephen Polcari, “Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton,” Arts Magazine (March 1979), pp. 120-24.

5. Pollock almost certainly would have seen the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Indian Art in the United States,” January 22-April 27, 1941, during which Indians demonstrated sandpainting. In 1947 he stated: “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting. This is akin to the method of the Indian sand painters of the West.” Quoted in O’Connor and Thaw, vol. 4, p. 241.

6. His reply to Lee Krasner’s teacher, Hans Hofmann, in 1942, who had suggested he work from nature. Quoted in O’Connor and Thaw, vol. 4, p. 226.

 

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© Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY