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Number 20, 1948

Not on view

Number 20, 1948

Artist: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912 - 1956)

Date: 1948
Medium: Enamel paint on wove paper mounted on board
Framed: 22 1/8 x 27 3/4in. (56.2 x 70.5cm)
Overall: 20 1/2 x 26in. (52.1 x 66cm)
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (in black paint): "Jackson / Pollock 48"
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.205
Text Entries

Between 1948 and 1949, a pivotal and fertile moment in Pollock’s career, the artist created approximately twenty-seven drip paintings on paper of relatively modest dimensions, including No. 2.(2) The extraordinary range of expression he achieved with this group is remarkable given its limited format. In No. 20 Pollock built up a lacy skein of paint over a ground of solid black.(3) He limited his palette to gray, white, teal blue, and red, which are layered alternatively.(4) Pollock used the red sparingly, though, and it emerges as a selected punctuation from behind the veil of more muted tones. In passages where white overlays red, the white turns into a peachy color that harmonizes, fortuitously, with the overall scheme. With this color combination Pollock’s use of the lacy skein; there are no large pools of paint nor masses of a single color to create the sensation of solidity. Paradoxically, however, because the surface is built on a black background, the airiness that a light-colored ground might provide is not present here. Indeed, the black paint “grounds” the surface skein.

In both technique and intent, Pollock’s concerns here make moot the distinctions between drawing and painting. The authors of the Pollock catalogue raisonne maintained that medium has precedence over ground as the defining characteristic; they therefore categorized Pollock’s painted works on paper created between 1948 and 1949 as paintings.(5) Bernice Rose noted that, while Pollock’s drip technique provided the solution for the artist’s need to create an overall visual effect without figuration (by uniting the painterly and the linear), it necessitated that he forego “traditional drawing”; for Pollock, drawing be hand was bound to representation imagery.(6) Pollock himself believed that his painting had superseded drawing’s spontaneity,(7) while Lee Krasner assessed Pollock’s work this way: [It] seemed like monumental drawing, or maybe painting with the immediacy of drawing-some new category,”(8)


1. In the catalogue raisonné, the medium is incorrectly identified as “oil on canvas mounted on chipboard”; see O’Connor and Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollack: A Catalogue Raisormé, 2, no. 191.

2. See O'Connor and Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2, nos. 189, 191, 192, 196, 198-202, 204, 209, 214, 226, 229-31, Z33-38, 242-44, 254, and 256. See also Jackson Pollock, Drip Paintings on Paper, 1948-1949 (New York: C 8: M Arts, 1993), for a study of fifteen of these works.

3. The black ground is atypical. Pollock usually dripped paint directly onto the paper or onto paper prepared with a gesso ground. In addition to No. 20, see also catalog raisonné, 2, no. 196.

4. There are a few errant spots of yellow in the upper right corner.

5. O’Connor and Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2: 1. It is interesting to note that there are only a handful of “traditional” drawings (e.g., ink on paper) listed for 1948-49, 3, nos. 779-86.

6. Bernice Rose, Jackson Pollock: Drawing into Painting (New York: MoMA), 1980, 14.

7. Pollock said, “I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing; that is, it’s direct." From a 1950 interview, conducted by William Wright and transcribed in O’Connor and Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné, 4: 251, D87. Irving Sandler also stated, in Jeffrey Wechsler, Abstract Expressionism, Other Dimensions (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University, 1989), 84, “Pollock never did preparatory stuff. Therefore anything Pollock does on paper is a picture and anything he does on canvas is a picture."

8. B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock’s Energy Made Visible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), 182. For more on Pollock’s works on paper see also Bernice Rose, Jackson Pollock: Works on Paper (New York: MoMA, 1969); Rosalind Krauss, “Jackson Pollock’s Drawings," Artform (January 1971): 58-61; Claude Cernuschi, Jackson Pollock: "Psychoanalytic” Drawings (Durham, N.C., and London, Eng.: Duke University Press, 1992); and Lisa Mintz Messinger, Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), 84-98.


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