Painting Pollock

Before the Internet and social media, it was easier to read about Jackson Pollock ’51 than it was to see the film Hans Namuth directed and Paul Falkenberg produced. Viewings were few and far between because the short documentary, which shows the then 38-year-old Abstract Expressionist icebreaker painting, mostly appeared on programs at museums and art movie houses. Consequently, the voice-over, spoken by the artist himself and recorded months later during the winter of 1950, was better known than the footage. As an important first hand account, the narration was reprinted in books and exhibition catalogues. Unaccompanied by the moving pictures, how could anyone realize that the words and images did not match?

Today, Jackson Pollock ’51 is readily accessible. Partly because the film is so short—it only runs for 10 minutes, 14 seconds—it is available on YouTube. That’s where I recently watched it repeatedly. Chock full of information and insight, it is as compelling today as it was when it was shown for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in June 1951.

Filmed over the course of several weekends during the autumn of 1950 outside the artist’s studio in The Springs, a hamlet of East Hampton, Jackson Pollock ’51 is structured in three scenes. Besides the narration, the soundtrack features distracting, dated music by composer Morton Feldman. In the opening sequence, Pollock changes into splattered shoes, mixes Devoe non-yellowing white enamel in a can, and works on a now lost painting, a long, narrow, red canvas resting on a concrete platform. Next, after a few frames where he is seen in shadow flinging paint, details of various canvases flash across the screen, followed by a panning shot of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery at the end of 1950. To create the last part of the film—it runs about four minutes—Namuth positioned himself on the ground with his camera, and recorded Pollock executing two different works on a four-foot-by-six-foot sheet of glass that cost $10.

Though Pollock narrated the film, he was not particularly insightful. Among other things, Pollock said, “I enjoy working on a large canvas.” To be sure, several paintings, including “Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950” and “One: Number 31, 1950,” are wall-size. But, the two that figure in the documentary are not. Moreover, after noting that he “like[d] to use a dripping fluid paint,” the artist added, “I also use sand, broken glass, pebbles, string, nails, or other foreign matter.” In other words, he was making a collage. And this wasn’t the first one he’d ever executed. He’d exhibited several years before. When the Abstract Expressionist placed wire mesh, string, colored glass, and pebbles on the surface of “Number 29, 1950,” why didn’t he refer to the work as a collage? Change the nouns, and this unorthodox work becomes even more radical.

Pollock also mentioned that he “spent two years at the Art Students League with Tom Benton. He was a strong personality to react against. This was in 1929.”

Two decades later, the protégé made it sound as if his mentor’s impact was a thing of the past. Now we know differently. Art historian Pepe Karmel, in the exhibition catalogue of MoMA’s retrospective in 1998, convincingly argued that Benton’s theories of art were critical to the making of the classic poured paintings.

And then there’s the comment Pollock made as he wipes clean the ¼-inch-thick glass on which he had been working. “I lost contact,” he said, “with my first painting on glass.” In an interview published in a Marlborough-Gerson Gallery catalogue in 1969—and reprinted in Pollock Painting, a book published in 1978—Lee Krasner, Pollock’s widow, told art collector and author B.H. Friedman, “Many of [Pollock’s paintings], many of the most abstract, began with more or less recognizable imagery—heads, parts of the body, fantastic creatures.” Though she watched her husband at work many times, her revelation was dismissed for decades. I know this from my own experience. When I quoted what Krasner said in a paper I wrote in graduate school for William S. Rubin, my professor and a leading Pollock scholar, he berated me.

In 1998, again in the MoMA retrospective catalogue, Pepe Karmel used computer imagery to illuminate how the painter introduced “more or less recognizable imagery” in the early stages of his most abstract paintings. While being filmed by Namuth, did Pollock mask how he made his art, not wanting to show anything representational while the camera was rolling? That would not be all that unusual. After I watched documentaries with scenes of Helen Frankenthaler painting and George Segal making sculpture, I commented separately to both of these friends that I finally had seen them at work. Both replied that I hadn’t. They admitted that they had altered their routines for the camera. If Pollock also did this, it would explain why he “lost contact with [his] first painting on glass.”

Moments after Namuth shot the last frame of his film on a late November afternoon, Pollock entered his house on Fireplace Road and poured himself a large glass of bourbon, the first drink of hard liquor he’d had in two years. By the time dinner was served that evening to a large group of friends, Pollock was so inebriated he turned over the food-laden table. This became a pivotal episode in the Hollywood biopic that actor Ed Harris directed in 2000. Namuth himself thought that Pollock began drinking once more as “the result of the circumstances of that last day of filming. There was a heavy air of crisis hanging about…The weather was getting too cold to continue working outdoors…we were running out of money.” Others have speculated that Pollock revealed too much about his working process in the film.

In 1998, when I was writing an article on Pollock for Smithsonian Magazine, I found a reference that described how Pollock stopped drinking shortly after he came under the care of Edwin Hiller, a general practitioner who opened a practice in East Hampton in autumn 1948. Dr. Hiller prescribed tranquilizers for his patient. Unfortunately, in March 1950, the doctor was killed in a car crash. In the essay he published in MoMA’s retrospective catalogue, curator Kirk Varnedoe also mentioned how, after the death of his doctor, Pollock no longer took the medication that had kept him on an even keel for almost a year and a half.

Viewing a film of an artist at work, it’s easy to be seduced into believing that what you are seeing is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Six decades after Jackson Pollock ’51 was made, research and common sense suggest otherwise.

Other truths emerge. 

Contributor

Phyllis Tuchman

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN is currently writing a book on the life and times of Robert Smithson.

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