Jackson Pollock: the Drip helped, but mostly right place, right time.

Paul Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist, but owes his reputation mostly to specific historic circumstances?

  • The Main Man (generically) of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE)?

  • However Abstract Expressionism was not an art movement, having a coherent artistic common theme (eg compare Pollock and Barnett Newman), as much as an historic happening, a specific collective commercial art historic experience centred on a keen and diverse group of painters in immediate post WW2 New York, the cultural capital of America.

  • So the crazy prices for Pollock’s distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect the eventual commercial success of AE, driven by powerful vested interests, and underwritten by the large US economy.

  • Thus another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, French Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), who favoured impasto over the drip, sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York?

  • There is also the curious case of abstractionist American painter Janet Sobel (1894-1968), who painted “all-over” and whose work Pollock saw in 1944, but who quickly vanished into marriage and the suburbs.

  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems rightly to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious energetic creativity (especially his trademark intense “drip” paintings), and also the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of final works, poignant and personal, his going away declaration, as alcohol sadly swallowed his life, and he knew it?

1

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The Deep, 1953, 150.7 cm × 220.4 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: For its imagery and timing this is perhaps Pollock’s single most intriguing painting? More even than his then recent (1952) and now feted Blue Poles?

It shows a dramatic shift in style from the prolific “drip” phase, striking for its abstraction content quite unlike any other of his paintings.

Here he also returned to assigning a narrative title not another antiseptic number.

It was also among the last few works he would paint.

It means whatever it means to each viewer, but the title – and the timing – certainly suggest it did mean something to the artist. Thus we know in 1953 he was sliding personally, and terminally, having resumed drinking late 1950. A life apparently always near the edge was now surrendering to alcohol, and he obviously knew it. Knew too this time the surrender would likely be terminal.

So it seems deeply personal, poignant.

One obvious reading of the image is of eternity swallowing the “dark” drivers of his life.

SUMMARY

  • Clearly Jackson Pollock is the Main Man of Abstract Expressionism (AE), the best known and the priciest in the art market (though de Kooning and Rothko come close).
  • He is now famous for his expressive Gestural / Action / All-over abstract, ”automatist” “drip” paintings, many large and all executed approximately over the 6 year period 1947-53.
  • This art is claimed by many as “radical” and as distinctly “American”, enthusiastically by some, but mainly by parties with vested interests in the success (price) of this art, like critics, dealers, and collectors (including museums).
  • In reality, objectively, his art was not especially radical, or obviously “American” (other than geographically, ie was executed there), rather it continued the (Western) abstract art revolution which commenced in West Europe just before WW1, and was influenced by the subsequent (post WW1) intervening rise of Surrealism. So these artists simply pushed known approaches / techniques further.
  • Pollock’s competitive angles were, firstly (like most of his colleagues), painting large images, and, secondly, in particular his distinctive abstraction approach, ie particularly the “drip”, intensifying the detailed abstraction content by aggressively applying the drip (and pour) technique.
  • However the stratospheric prices now paid for works by the main AE NY School artists (ie Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, plus Motherwell, Newman and Still) are driven not so much by their (largely) abstract art being especially different as by the specific historic commercial and artistic circumstances of their early postwar collective artistic experience in New York, by the fact they were Americans (though some were first generation, like Gorky and Rothko) working in New York soon after WW2 (which America had “won”, though helped hugely by Soviet Russia), backed by American money and American dealers and American critics.
  • Meanwhile, as is well known, abstraction was also alive and well in early postwar Europe, Paris and elsewhere.
  • Oddly the New York AE phenomenon benefited greatly from the influx into NY of a bevy of front rank modern European artists (like Duchamp, Masson, Mondrian, Matta) as refugees from the outbreak of WW2, bringing deep experience in abstraction and the two major art movements of Cubism and Surrealism, and their offspring.
  • Pollock was fortuitously helped by another refugee from WW2 Europe, the curious Peggy Guggenheim, another American, who in London just before WW2 launched herself as a keen and successful dealer in modern art. In NY she provided crucial early support for Pollock (mid 1943 – mid 1947).
  • Other ladies were important too, especially wife and fellow artist Lenore (“Lee”) Krasner (1908-84), and major art dealer Betty Parsons, who took up Pollock’s cause after Peggy decamped to Venice mid 1947, ie just as he settled into his signature “drip” phase.
  • Also, as for some other modern cultural “icons” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis?) Pollock’s flame was fanned by his short life, marred by tragedy. After having largely stopped serious painting about 3 years earlier, and wracked by alcohol addiction, finally in August 1956 he killed himself at age only 44, in a car he crashed and which – even more sadly – also killed a lady passenger. He had battled alcohol most of his adult life but made periodic progress. However November 25th 1950, after a gap of about 2 years, he resumed drinking and for good.
  • Who knows what this art means?! Especially the later dense drip abstraction. He gave no clues in most of the titles, deliberately, and added nothing much with specific meaning in any other comment.
  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious creativity (like his trademark intense “drip” painting), and the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of powerful poignant final works, 1952 and 1953, as he sadly succumbed, surrendered to alcohol.
  • Also he mostly let his hands do the talking? He had words to offer too but resisted the wordy self-promotion of some of the AE school, which in some cases reached even unto pretentious babble.
  • Curiously too he was “all American”, born and raised in the West, not settling in New York till he was 34 (1934), and never travelling outside the US.

 

ART / WORK

  • Pollock’s work before 1938 shows the influence of contemporary Regionalist realist Thomas Hart Benton (who taught him in NY 1930), the older Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), and the Mexican muralists, especially JC Orozco, eg Pollocks’ early The Flame (c1934-38). Also “in a workshop in 1936, the Mexican painter David Siqueiros had encouraged Pollock to fling, pour, and spatter paint.” (MOMA 1988 Pollock exhibition).
  • In 1938 Pollock’s drinking took him to hospital for 4 months for psychiatric treatment, including Jungian psychiatric advice from Dr Joseph Henderson who had him make therapeutic drawings, sparking an interest in “symbolism and Native American art”, reinforced in late 1939 by a Picasso show Pollock saw at MOMA.
  • Also around 1938 he renewed his interest in Mexican artists, like Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, especially the “epic scale of their murals”. But he “avoided social content of the Mexicans”.
  • And he also showed interest in paintings by El Greco and Max Beckmann?
  • Pollock around 1938 met important well informed Russian-émigré artist–polemicist John Graham (1888-1961) who had arrived New York 1920, after meeting the Parisian avant-garde, including Picasso. In 1937 Graham published “Primitive Art and Picasso” (article, April) and a book, Systems and Dialectics of Art: Re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious.. with the primordial racial past..”, both influential in NY. The book “.. introduces two of Graham’s preoccupations: a mystical connection with his subject and the role of line in expressing sensations”.
  • Pollock’s early 1940s works are symbolic / Surrealist quasi-abstracts, influenced especially by 1/ Picasso; 2/ Surrealism, through interest in Native American art, mythic motifs, part inspired (along with Gorky, M Rothko and de Kooning) by John Graham, and by Jung’s psychoanalysis theories, also favoured by Graham.
  • The interest Surrealism (eg Meditation on an oak leaf 1942, and Pasiphae, 1943) was reinforced by meeting émigré Surrealists from Europe, like Andre Masson (1896-1987) (arrived NY 1941), his . „calligraphic autom line drawings…. swirling lines.. dark colors.. abstract imagery.. poetic titles..“ (Anna Mosynska).
    • Through Lee Krasner around mid 1942 he met William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell and especially Chilean-born Roberto Matta, who arrived New York 1941 from Europe where he was struck by Andre Masson et al.
    • Andre Masson’s style emphasized flatness, but Matta (influenced by Duchamp?) used “spatial ambiguity… whiplash line… large scale canvases”, eg Onyx of Electra (1944), which all influenced the younger artists. “his studio on 9th. a meeting place for Pollock, Motherwell, A Gorky…” (cf Anna Mosynska). Thus Matta became a close friend of A Gorky, R. Motherwell and W. Baziotes.
    • Then Motherwell and Baziotes “went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hoffmann.. Peggy Guggenheim.. said that she would put on a show… so I [Motherwell] went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody..”
    • Pollock also used “bright hues of American Indian art”? Pollock 1944: “Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian Art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn’t intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm.”
  • After 1945 motifs become more naturalistic? Partly influenced by his move to Long Island? “I am nature” he once said.
  • Pollock began “pouring” paint by 1943 (cf Composition with Pouring I and II), before his late 1945 move to Long Island, and the famous “drip” arrives fully around 1947, eg especially Full Fathom Five and Phosphorescence, ie formless, all-over, “intense gestural application”, lasting till 1953. Pollock’s “drip” style is a subset of Action Painting.
  • Precise origins of the Drip are debated. He may have seen Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros use painting-pouring in 1936 at a NY workshop. It may have been influenced by his contact with Masson, Matta etc, especially per Surrealist automatism. He may have heard of Max Ernst (Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, then in NY) trying to paint from a swinging can. He may have seen the same method in 1946 used in paintings by Janet Sobel (1894-1968) (born Jennie Lechovsky, in Ukraine), at a Peggy Guggenheim show in a visit with critic Clement Greenberg. And by Indian sand painting he saw in the 1940s.
  • Sounds in the Grass was a series of 7 relatively small paintings over the winter of 1946-47 (ie after moving to Long Island), partly preparation for a Jan 1947 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. It included Eyes in the Heat, an important lead into the Drip phase.
  • For about 4 years, from 1948 through 1952, he switched to not naming his paintings, assigning them numbers.
  • The Drip phase, during which “a doctor…allayed his drinking with tranquillizers..” largely ended 1951 when he resumed drinking.
  • Then 1951-52 his preferred style changed abruptly when in a series sometimes called “black pourings” he mainly painted in black enamel on unprimed canvas and he revived earlier interest in calligraphical, “glyphic” quasi-abstraction, ie with some “representational elements”.
  • But two final emphatic twists remained.
  • In 1952 he completed two important large all-over “drip” abstracts, especially Blue Poles, also 10, Convergence.
  • And in 1953 followed four different important paintings, especially The Deep, a mighty and intriguing suddenly different abstract work, then Easter and the Totem, and Ocean Greyness, both of which recall much earlier (late 1930s/early 1940s) Pollock abstraction.
  • 1953’s Portrait and a Dream, is another extraordinary final – and again personal? – work, where a (self?) portrait creeps in, alongside a quasi-abstract “reclining female figure”.
  • He painted only two works after 1953 (age 41), one painting (another ‘drip” work) in 1954?
  • Most of Pollock’s earlier works were small? He discovered size through the Mexican muralists, and his first large image was the 1943 Mural.

 

LIFE

  • He was born Wyoming, one of five boys to Stella, nee McClure, and was almost never out of trouble. His family moved about the West. Pollock’s abusive alcoholic father (nee McCoy, Scottish-Irish descent, adopted by Mr and Mrs Pollock) left home in 1920 leaving his older brother Charles, an artist, in charge. Pollock briefly studied art in LA until expelled for fighting.
  • In late 1930, aged only 18, he moved to New York, lived with brother Charles in Greenwich Village and, importantly, studied under Charles’ teacher, well known Regionalist Realist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) for about 3 years at the Art Student’s League, becoming close to Benton and his family, like sharing summer holidays.
  • Pollock was upset by his father’s death in 1933 and, drunk, started a fight with his brother Charles’ wife, axing one of his brother’s paintings. From 1934 to 1942 he lived with other brother Sanford.
  • He travelled the US widely in the 1930s, settled in NY from 1934. Here importantly he met some prominent Mexican muralist painters, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) (later, 1940, Pollock saw him paint a mural at MOMA) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) (Pollock met him in Los Angeles 1932 and worked in his NY workshop, 1936, observed “experiments with nontraditional materials such as enamel paint, and with unconventional techniques of paint application: dripping, pouring, and airbrushing”).
  • The US Government’s Depression alleviating WPA program (cf Krasner, de Kooning, Rothko etc) paid some money from 1937-1943.
  • In 1938 he was 4 months in hospital for his alcoholism.
  • He briefly met Lee Krasner (1908-84) Xmas 1936, then again August 1942, marrying her Oct.1945. She became a key supporter, thus introduced him to her teacher, important refugee German abstract painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), also to Herbert Matter.
  • 1941 Pollock saw a Miró retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • His first NY show Jan 1942 was part of the McMillen Gallery’s American and French Painting, selected by John Graham, and alongside de Kooning, Krasner, Stuart Davis and some from Europe: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Modigliani.
  • Spring 1942, “.. [Herbert] Matter invites James Johnson Sweeney to visit Pollock’s studio. Sweeney tells Peggy Guggenheim that Pollock is “doing interesting work” … suggests she visit the studio.”
  • Autumn 1942, Roberto Matta (1911-2002), with Motherwell’s support, wants to break with Breton’s Surrealists, and form their own “automatist artists” group. Pollock dines with them at Matta’s apartment on 12th but “becomes frustrated with the group”.
  • 1942 / Jan. 1943 the Met. Museum Of Art shows his The Flame (c1934-38) in Artists for Victory.
  • Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) becomes a major supporter. She opens her Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery Oct 1942. She meets Pollock early 1943 at the (Solomon) Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (where JP is working from May, as a “carpenter”?), shows his work in a group show (Spring Salon for Young Artists) at AOTC, May/June 1943, especially on the advice of older famous refugee abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) (“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“).
  • On the advice of writer/dealer Howard Putzel (1898–1945) she visits his studio 23rd June 1943, but resists a solo show until 20th C art legend Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) visits and recommends it. Pollock’s first solo show (15 oils plus other works), hangs at AOTC in November 1943. It is the first solo show there by an American artist.
  • From July 1943 she paid JP a stipend for output, and she also commissioned what would become a famous mural for her NY town house on East 61st, executed Dec.1943 / Jan.1944.
  • Following the November 1943 solo show, on the advice of Duchamp, also Matta etc she then hung him as part of her AOTC show, Natural, Insane, Surrealist Art, with Calder, Klee, Masson, Motherwell etc.
  • PG held his second solo show March / April 1945, the third April 1946, the fourth Jan./Feb.1947.
  • She also helped he and Krasner buy a farmhouse on Long Island by Nov. 1945, heralding the “drip period” from 1947 through 1950, also now using alkyd enamel house paints.
  • May 1944 MOMA bought The She-Wolf (1943), recommended by Soby and Sidney Janis (1896-1989) (Head Acquisitions Committee) to Alfred C Barr.
  • In 1944 Pollock showed in Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (1944), organized by Sidney Janis (who published a book of same title) at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, NY.
  • March 1945 he showed at the Arts Club of Chicago, then March/April at NY AOTC, drawing strong critical support from Clement Greenberg (1909-94).
  • 1946 / Jan. 1947, he showed for the first time in “the Whitney Annual”, the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • 1947, April/May, Mural was shown by MOMA.
  • Peggy Guggenheim closed AOTC May 1947,
  • May / Sep. 1948 he was hung at 23rd Venice Biennale.
  • Peggy Guggenheim mounted Pollock’s first solo European show in July / Aug. 1950, in Venice. Thence he showed in Florence and Rome.
  • His “drip” paintings were first shown in Jan. 1948, 17 paintings at Betty Parson (1900-82)’s NY gallery (his 5th one man show in NY, the same year as de Kooning’s first show), to a quiet reaction, but “favourable reviews”.
  • His second Betty Parsons show was Jan./Feb.1949, a big show, including 26 works from 1948. “Critical response is varied”. And third solo show followed Nov./Dec 1949, with 35 works.
  • A famous 4-page spread on Pollock appeared in Life magazine, 9th1949, (“Is he the greatest living painter in the United States”) brought overnight success and changed their lives. In 1950 he was chosen by MOMA’s Alfred H Barr Jr for the US pavilion at 25th Venice Biennale (with Gorky and de Kooning).
  • Summer 1950 he was interviewed by William Wright for a radio program.
  • 1950, May, he signed a joint letter initiated by Barnett Newman attacking The Metropolitan Museum of Art for “contempt for modern painting. . . .”. Oct./Nov. 1950 he was hung in a group show (Young Painters in U.S. & France) by the Sidney Janis Gallery (opened 1948), and Nov./Dec. in a 4th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • October 1950 he appeared in an influential Life magazine article on modern art, “along with Picasso, Miró, Georges Rouault, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, and Theodoros Stamos”.
  • 1951, January, Life published a photo of him among the Irascibles, 14 artists protesting the Met museum’s views on “contemporary” art. Nov./ Dec. saw a 5th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • His first show in Paris was part of the 1952, Un Art Autre, catalogue by Tachisme writer Michel Tapie. April / July he appeared in a MOMA show.
  • Unhappy with sales at Betty Parsons Gallery in mid 1952 he moved “across the hall” to Sidney Janis, who mounted a solo show Nov. 1952. A 2nd followed Feb. 1954, and a 3rd/ Dec. 1955, though he was producing little new art then.
  • 1953, from April he appears in an American contemporary art show in Paris, thence 5 other cities.
  • But he did not handle growing fame well, and (November 25th 1950) resumed drinking, and stayed back. He also mostly (but not entirely, cf Blue Poles later in 1952) gave up the “drip”, retreating to mostly black and white paintings.
  • He also he mostly gave up name titles for his paintings, using numbers and dates.
  • Lee Krasner’s career was gaining traction (eg show by BP late 1951 etc) but in attending to the ailing Pollock she stopped painting and also asked his mother for help.
  • By 1956 he had stopped painting, kept drinking, and was seeing other women. Krasner took a break in Paris. And 11 August a drunk Pollock crashed his car a mile from home, killing himself and a lady passenger.
  • Krasner returned to the US to bury him. She also carefully managed his estate, the disposal of his remaining art, set up the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and finally returned to her own art.
  • MOMA’s planned mid-career show for JP became an impromptu retrospective, Dec 1956 / Feb.1957.

 

QUOTES

  • “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”
  • “The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
  • My paintings do not have a center, but depend on the same amount of interest throughout.”
  • “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”
  • When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own.”

APPENDICES

 Abstract Expressionism: not a coherent art movement, rather a specific historic collective art experience

 Abstract Expressionism was NOT an art movement in the sense of having a coherent artistic common there, a distinct artistic style and purpose.

About its only common theme was, simply, abstraction.

Its specific content comprised two „schools“ of abstraction styles:

1/ Expressive, Gestural.

Two subsets were i/ Intense „Automatiste“ Action Painting, like Pollock;

and ii/ broad coarse motifed abstration, like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning (who also often included figuration), Robert Motherwell, and Clifford Still.

2/ Flat colour patch

Two subsets were i/ Color Field abstraction, like Mark Rothko;

and ii/ sharp-edged geometric abstraction, like Barnett Newman.

Rather the only useful definition of Abstract Expressionism is as a specific historic collective art experience or context, by a keen and diverse group of painters in New York soon after WW2, the first main images emerging in second half of the 1940s.

After a slow start it eventually became very successful commercially mainly because of keen support from dealers / galleries, museums and critics, underwritten by the large buoyant American economy. Once substantial success emerged – by the late 1950s? – then the mutual vested interests worked hard to sustain it, build on the momentum.

The diverse artistic content was essentially not radical, rather it derived and evolved from, capitalised on the crucial pioneering period for abstract art just before / during ww1, around 1910-1915, ie about 30years earlier.

But it was eye-catching, and therefore marketable. It was often large and striking in imagery, perhaps epitomised by Pollock’s densely intricate „drip“ paintings, and by Rothko’s atmospheric color patch works, at opposite ends of a spectrum.

EUROPEAN early postwar abstraction movements: paralleling New York Abstract Expressionism

All the labels below seem to overlap, to a greater or lesser degree. Though there is some contradiction? Most of these artists acknowledged important roots in Surrealism, but some (eg COBRA) rejected Surrealism?

All these movements clearly overlap with (American) Abstract Expressionism in terms of:

  1. time period, ie mid 40s to mid 50s, ie reflecting the aftermath of the macro-violence of WW2.
  2. image content
  3. image purpose

Thus many of these European “AE” images appear close to many from the “authentic” New York AE school, but they were European not US images.

They have been accorded far less market attention because of a vastly different commercial context in Europe after WW2.

  • Informalism? / Art Informel? / Tachisme / Abstraction lyrique? Art Informel was a term coined by important French art critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book, Un Art Autre (“Art of Another Kind”) which strongly promoted modern art and especially then in France, Tachisme, a French term (from “tache” = stain) first used ~ 1951 by two French critics. It is also referred to as the School of Paris but in reality was very similar to AE? Spontaneous but meaningful “non form” abstract works, including calligraphy / dripping, in part a reaction to Cubism?
  • Important painters included: “Wols (1913-51), Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, the Catalan Antoni Tapies, the Italian Alberto Burri, George Mathieu, Nicholas De Stael, Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung, and Pierre Soulages.
  • And abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle who arrived Paris 1947 from Montreal, Canada, where he was part of Bordhaus’ important Les Automatistes.
  • This “warm” Expressive purposeful abstraction was in opposition to “cold” Geometric Abstraction, eg that stemming in particular from Mondrian, van Doesburg etc from Netherlands.
  • However Tapié’s book also served to simultaneously help promote American AE in Europe, and Tapie also helped prepare the catalogue for J Pollock’s first Paris show, in 1952.
  • There were relevant abstract art movements at the same time in England (St Ives), Germany and Italy.
  • Lyrical Abstraction / Abstraction Lyrique? Confusing term? Used mainly France, Europe? Makes sense only as opposite of “cold” superficial unthinking Geometric Abstraction?
  • CoBrA? (Copenhagen / Brussels/ Amsterdam). Movement formed by 5 artists in a Paris café 8 Nov 1948! Defined by: “complete freedom of colour and form… antipathy to Surrealism…. Spontaneity and experiment… [draw on] ..children’s drawings.. primitive art forms.. work of Klee and Miro..”. Like AE they favoured expressive immediacy of the gesture“!
  • They were opposed to Geometric Abstraction and (French) Social Realism. And they were more “political” than French abstraction? The group disbanded 1951. It included Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky.

   WORKS by Jean-Paul Riopelle

2

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). 1951, Espagne, huile sur toile, 150 x 232 cm, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec, Canada

3

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). Abstraction (Orange), 1952 Oil on canvas; 99 x 197.5 cm, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisboa, Portugal

COMMENT: Museum, This work by Jean-Paul Riopelle belongs to the period of the so-called Grandes mosaïques, which occurred roughly between 1950 and 1960. The painted works – produced with palette knife and spatula – are made up of multi-coloured elements of notable thickness, superimposed and animated with extensive, vigorous lines. Large shapes dominate. It can be said that these ‘mosaics’ are undoubtedly inspired by those of St. Mark’s Basilica, which made a big impression on Riopelle during a trip to Venice in 1947. Very different from Pollock’s ‘dripping’ works, Riopelle paints on a canvas placed vertically on the easel; there is nothing ‘gestural’ about his work. Despite the given title (also referred to as untitled), this kind of painting is, for Riopelle, a means to express and share his strong relationship with nature. AC

 

SELECTED WORKS by Jackson Pollock

   4

Going West, 1934. Important early work, influence of TH Benton and Surrealism?

5

The Flame, c1934-38, Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 51.1 x 76.2 cm, MOMA

 

6

1942, Stenographic Figure, Oil on linen, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 40 x 56 in

 

8

Mural, 1943, 247 x 605 cm, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959. University of Iowa Museum of Art.      COMMENT: Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her NY townhouse. This is an important transitional work, towards all-over abstraction. Notice it is large, his first big painting? Part influenced by Mexican realist painters?

 10

1947. Full Fathom Five, 2 x 76.5 cm, MOMA.COMMENT: One of the first full bore “drip” paintings, but notice it is still relatively small.

11

Janet SOBEL (1894-1968). Untitled, 1946, 45.5 x 35.5 cm. COMMENT: Pollock saw Sobel’s work at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1944, “where it was seen and admired by both Pollock and Clement Greenberg, who later cited it as the first instance of ”all-over” painting he had seen. Sidney Janis wrote the catalogue preface for her solo show at Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, noting her ”self-invented method for applying paint.””, ‘Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2002.

12

1948, Number 5, 244 x 122cm, private. COMMENT: One of Pollock’s major early Drip paintings. Sold for US140$m in 2006. Being larger helped.

13

  1. 1950. One: No 31, 270 x 531cm (8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″), MOMA.COMMENT: One of Pollock’s largest paintings. He retitled it „One“ because he felt one with it!? A large signature Drip painting.

14

 

1952, Blue Poles (No. 11), oil on canvas, 4.87 x 2.1 m, National Gallery of Australia Canberra. COMMENT: Originally titled, Number 11. The picture is important for departing from the pure all-over abstraction approach, by now introducing forms, structure, through “poles”. Whatever they might mean.

15

Ocean Greyness, 1953, 146.7 x 229 cm Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. COMMENT: Like Easter and the totem here the very late Pollock, in one of his final paintings, returns to the coarse textured, “glyphic” Surrealist like abstraction of his early years? Even going back to “The Flame” of 1934-38?

16

Portrait and a Dream, 1953, 342.2 x 148.5 cm. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. COMMENT: a very personal painting.

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Tom ROBERTS: worthy „Australian“ images, but sad he missed the Modern?

 

Thomas William (Tom) ROBERTS (march 1856 – sep. 1931, 75, active ~ 40 years, ~ 1880-1920)

 

A much lauded Anglo-Australian painter (who was unsure which came first).

Left us some „iconic“, „national“ paintings from his purple patch of only 10 years, c1885-95.

Striking and historically important images saluting the burgeoning colonies.

A worthy painter but basically also a dull painter?

Seems sad this talented artist never really engaged the Modern?

Stayed largely unscathed by the then rampaging Modern, the greatest ever upheaval in Western art!                                                        

FEATURED IMAGE: 1904, The Towpath, Putney, oil on board, 24.2 x 39.5cm, Private collection.

Comment: Who would have thought? After his big mid-career effort in Australia painting major scenes from life in the prospering colonies, back in London from 1903, where he had trained in the early 1880s, he now ironically moved closer to mainstream French Impressionism, in two works of the Thames near Putney, close to Battersea which his past acquaintance, the accomplished and pioneering American James McNeil Whistler had celebrated.

                     

   James McNeil Whistler:

1872-78, Nocturne, Blue and Silver, Battersea Reach, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

1872, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain;

                                                                                     

SUMMARY

  • Check out the man’s dates: active c1880-1920! And then his oeuvre. And you’d hardly know he lived and painted through the greatest ever upheaval in Western art.
  • Thus he trained 3 years in London, 1881-84 (visited Paris, knew and travelled with John Peter Russell), and returned for 13 years, 1903-19, ie during the rolling explosion of the Fauves, Cubism, and Abstraction; coinciding in London with Roger Fry’s famous shows and the important English Modern revolt by Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg etc.
  • Thus the great Modern art revolution largely passed him by? Look at the last two paintings shown below! Lake Como (1920) and self portrait (1924!
  • And it now seems somewhat sad this obviously talented painter never lost his conservative roots, never really engaged the Modern? Though Roberts painting style was nudged by the Modern, and though he depicted contemporary life, he was not really an „Impressionist“, not a Modernist.
  • Though his subjects were in some sense „modern“, from contemporary life, his painting style remained basically conservative, conventional. Thus he was basically influenced by the Naturalism school which he encountered in France 1883 through Jules Bastien-Lepage and which followed in the Realist tradition of the earlier Barbizon (c1830-70).
  • He admired Whistler (who he met in London) and Manet, but little their pioneering flare or imagination rubbed off. We see little or no impact from Japonism, Neo-Impressionism (Seurat etc) or Post-Impressionism (Bernard, Gauguin, Van Gogh etc).
  • He is understandably lauded in Australia for a sequence of striking paintings remarking on, celebrating life and times in the burgeoning Australian colonies, particularly NSW.
  • Within his conservative boundaries he was a very capable painter who also related well to his fellow artists, the „Australian Impressionists“: McCubbin, about his age, and the younger Streeton and Conder. They nick-named him ‘Bulldog’ for his “tenacious personality”. Within this group though Charles Conder was a more imaginative painter? Conder died much younger but showed early brilliance and more variety later.
  • For a man who died in his mid 70s Roberts peak period was short? Only about 15 years, c1885-1900? So after his big parliament painting (finished 1903) his brushes added nothing much for nearly 30 years, as the Modern art upheaval raged on..
  • He was very much an Anglo-Australian, a leg firmly in each domain. He did not arrive Australia till 13, trained back in England for about 4 years from age 25, then lived back there 16 years from age 47 (1903-19).
  • But he probably preferred Australia, where he was a much bigger fish in a smaller pond, and where he clearly made a mark? On the other hand he was unsettled back in England, achieved little there in through his painting, and was quite out of step with the then avant-garde.

 

ART

  • Striking it is how Tom Roberts lived and painted alongside the heart of the Modern art revolution, was exposed to it in London and Europe, met people there like John Peter Russell, but the eruption of Modernism pretty much passed him by!
  • Roberts is probably the most important of the Australian „Impressionists“. He was they say an inspiring leader of the group, keenly promoting en plein air And his major works are justly admired. But while they were bold in some respects for their time they now look conventional, and are way out of contact with the then European avant-garde.
  • Fellow Australian „Impressionist“, the younger Charles Conder was a more interesting and imaginative painter than Roberts? And later Roberts was overshadowed by the younger Arthur Streeton, for his big „blue and gold landscapes“. Later in his life he drifted off into comparative obscurity.
  • He is called an „Australian Impressionist“, but „Australian Impressionism“ seems a misleading category? Thus it did not relate to French Impressionism as much as it did to (French) „Naturalism“, especially through Jules Bastien-Lepage, who Roberts met Paris and who was popular there. More so then than Monet, Pissarro et al. By contrast with the French Impressionists Naturalism was a tame strand of Realism relating directly back to to the Barbizon School (c1830-70), ie to Millet (1814-75), Corot (1796-1875), and Courbet (1819-77).
  • Thus 1883 Roberts met fellow art students Lorreano Barrau and Ramon Casas, studying in Paris with (Academician!) Jean Leon Gérôme (1824–1904) and Carolus–Duran (1837–1918, who apparently told to him of „Impressionism“!? Thus Casas talked of Gérôme’s idea that ‘the first thing to look for’ in painting was ‘the general impression of colour’. But as John McDonald (12th Dec 2015) explains „It was a strangely distorted viewthat saw arch-academic Jean-Leon Gerome​ as a high priest of plein air painting. Nevertheless, the main tenets came through clearly: making light the chief subject of a picture, and the need to record one’s impressions in a quick, spontaneous manner.”
  • So it was not really Impressionism they talked of, rather Naturalism, per Jules Bastien–Lepage, who Roberts met and was impressed by. The now big names like Monet apparently passed him by. Other followers of Bastien–Lepage, included the Newlyn School, Cornwall in England.
  • Roberts was influenced too by Velázquez, Manet and Whistler, and hence Aestheticism. But his response to Manet and Whistler seems timid?
  • Roberts matters most as the main painter in the new Colonial school in Australia (or rather the colonies, for Australia was not a political entity till 1901), painting the life and times. He was „a vocal advocate for ‘national’ subject matter, he produced many iconic artworks of rural labour and the light and atmosphere of the bush” (AG NSW).
  • His work comprised: 1/ landscapes; and figurative genre landscapes; 2/ city scapes; and 3/ portraits, many, to make money, and was a very competent and popular portraitist, if, again, conventional.
  • His peak period (1885-1900) was short, when he produced his iconic great „national“ paintings, celebrating (mainly) the vibrant colony of NSW, like its buoyant wool industry in Shearing the Rams (1890), showing working country people. Interesting is how this painting was criticised then for being too real, not „high art“. It appears now it was painted mostly on site, ie En plein air. It was painted too about a century after colonisation started, and was intended to salute a key industry of the colony, and its workers.
  • A break away! (1891) and the now much regarded Bailed Up (1895) show other sides of country life! Bailed Up is also a great and careful figurative composition
  • Allegro Con Brio, Bourke Street West (c.1885-86/1890) was one of first “urban” paintings in Australia. The music reference alludes to Whistler, but the image, while admirable, only barely? Coming South (1885–86) is another fine figurative genre painting – if again conventional – of another important aspect of the colonies: immigration, the arrival of new settlers.
  • Finally he worked hard over a number of years on what is now called The Big Picture (1903), for the opening of Australia’s first Parliament, and in which he used extensively his portrait skills.
  • And that was about it! Except curiously, from 1904 and beyond, while the art revolution raged on in France, he did wander back and execute some appealing looser Impressionistic paintings, of the Thames in London.
  • Then his final image here, a small painting called (ironically!) Sunrise, from 1929, sits way out by itself, for brilliant colour and a layered quasi-abstract composition.

 

LIFE.

  • Roberts was born Dorset, migrated to Australia 1869 (age 13) to stay with relatives, in Collingwood, Melbourne. He worked as a a photographer‘s assistant (novel then!), studied art in the evenings, eg under Louis Buvelot, who early saw his promise. He met Fred McCubbin at the National Gallery School, and trained 1877-79 under Eugene von Guerard.
  • He returned Europe for around 4 years, Jan. 1881-early 1885 (age 25-28), to London, full time at the Royal Academy Schools (did not learn much there?!). and visited Paris, „absorbed the progressive influence of painters Jules Bastien-Lepage and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.” (AG NSW).
  • He toured Spain (Aug.1883), walking, with Australian artist John Peter Russell, met Barrau and Casas, and saw works of Murillo (1617–82) and Velázquez (1599–1660), both of whom he admired.
  • He also visited Venice (1884) and Paris (briefly, Feb.1885) where he studied at Academie Julian with Academic, Jean-Leon Gérôme.
  • Back in Australia, from 1885 he worked in Melbourne, at Grosvenor Chambers (from April 1888), helped organise many artists camps, eg Box Hill and Heidelberg, with other artists, in Melbourne and Sydney.
  • He visited Sydney in 1888, meeting Charles Conder, who he attracted him to Melbourne. He returned Sydney from Sep. 1891, with Arthur Streeton, then travelled extensively in New South Wales and Queensland, including a sailing trip from Sydney to Cape York, on a ketch, July 1892.
  • His increasingly large-scale paintings paid homage to rural life and the pastoral industry. And to humour! Anecdotes. Eg many illustrated on cigar box lid paintings, 9 x 5 inces, eg for the important9 by 5 Impression“ Exhibition in Melbourne, August 1889, where Roberts showed62 works, one of 7 artists.
  • In 1896 he married Elizabeth (Lillie), who inherited money. His wife was an „expert“making picture frames, helping their income esp 1903-14.
  • April 1898, he showed 13 works in ‘Exhibition of Australian Art in London’.
  • He was commissioned to paint the opening of the first Federal Parliament of Australia, in Melbourne in 1901. Dubbed ‘the big picture’, the painting was completed in London in 1903. “The Big Picture’ seems to have drained Roberts of much of his inspiration and energy, and with the onset of eye trouble, he entered what has been described as his ‘black period’ “. (McKenzie).
  • Between 1903 and 1914, Roberts sold few works, and relied heavily on commissions for portraits.” He travelled to Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy and had some success at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. During WW1 he spent about 4 years working at a hospital at Wandsworth, and painted little.
  • Roberts returned to Australia in 1919, went back a third and final time to London 1921 to 1923, then settled at Kallista in Dandenongs. Lillie died January 1928 and he remarried that year.

 

Current exhibition

 

TOM ROBERTS, NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA, CANBERRA,

UNTIL MARCH 28, 2016

 

Certain works by Tom Roberts………

 

w1

1884, Fog, Thames Embankment  

 

w2

1887, Slumbering sea Mentone, oil on canvas, 51.3 x 76 cm, National Gallery of Victoria

 

1 roberts_skcoogee

1888, Holiday sketch at Coogee, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 55.9 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

w4

1894, Mosman’s Bay, New England Regional Art Museum

 

w5

1889, Evening train to Hawthorn, oil on board, 14 x 22.6 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

 

w6

c.1885-86/1890, Allegro Con Brio, Bourke Street West, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 76.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia

 

w7

1890, Shearing the rams, oil on canvas on composition board, 122.4 x 183.3 cm National Gallery of Victoria.

 

w8

1891, A break away, oil on canvas, 137.3 x 167.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia

 

w9

1885–86, Coming South, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 50.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria                


w10

1895, In a corner on the Macintyre (The bushranger), National Gallery of Australia

 

w11

1887-88, ‘Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.4 cm, National Gallery of Victoria


w12

      1895, Bailed up, oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

w25 big pic

1903 The Big Picture, oil on canvas, opening-of-Parliament, Australia, 9 May 1901, Melbourne, Royal Exhibition Building, oil on cnvs, 3.0x 5.1m, Parliament House, Canberra

 

w22 put bridge

1905-08, Putney Bridge, London, oil on panel, 34.4 x 44cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

w24 s at sea

1907, Storm at sea, Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

w13

1922, Lake Como, National Gallery of Victoria

w21 c scape

1923, Cloudscape, oil on board? Collection?

 

w14

1924, Self portrait

 

w20 sunrise

1929, Sunrise, oil on panel, 10 x 24.5cm, Art Gallery of South Australia