Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, numerous artists, writers, critics and scholars pushed the boundaries of social thought and practice, revolutionised the arts and thereby developed the concept of Modernism.
Perceiving the cultural changes in society following the industrial revolution, and to mirror the countless social, political and aesthetic transformations which followed, the modernists formed, exploded, then shattered into fragments. From the debris, a plethora of subversive, avant-garde literary and artistic movements were born.
Dada and Surrealism; two artistic, avant-garde movements that responded to major changes in the twentieth century – in particular, the perplexing horrors of the First World War – were connected by their rejection of idealism, stale artistic and intellectual conventions and modern society’s unchecked embrace of ‘rationalism’ and ‘progress’. They condemned the nationalist and capitalist values that led to the cataclysm of the war and employed unorthodox techniques, performances and provocations to jolt the rest of society into self-awareness. Dada, the first of the two to emerge, which also challenged the orthodox notion of high-art, later impacted upon the developments of Surrealism.
Surrealism, characterized by a profound disillusionment with the western emphasis on logic and reason, was heavily influenced by Freud’s psychoanalytical theories of the instinctual drives and the unconscious. These innovations in modern thought, which became integrated in literature and art paved the way for Abstract Expressionism and one of the most iconic, influential figures to emerge from that movement – Jackson Pollock.
Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934 – 1954 at Museum of Modern Art presents a detailed survey of the artist’s work. Following the trajectory of his most seminal early paintings – coded with archaic mythical themes, to rare, hand drawn works and his characteristic dripping and pouring technique the exhibition features approximately 50 works from the museum’s collection.
Untitled, Circle, from about 1938-40, donated to the museum by Pollock’s girlfriend, Lee Krasner, is a lucid depiction of the artist’s subconscious. It’s thought that Pollock, while being treated for alcoholism by the distinguished psychotherapist, Carl Jung created the piece in withdrawal. Snakes and what appear to be rodents – common hallucinations suffered by alcoholics – dominate the painting.
Rich, vibrant colour has always underscored Pollock’s work and is emphasized in his 1937 painting, Landscape with Steer. The subject of the lithograph, a Western Scene, is said to recall Pollock’s upbringing in the American West. The imagery, however, evokes a landscape much more archaic than in the artist’s own lifetime. Pollock was already experimenting with different techniques and the washes and scratches created in the painting suggest he was headed into unchartered territory as a modern artist.
Like Dada and the Surrealists, Pollock’s work subverted conventional modes of expression; by the mid 1940’s he had developed his infamous dripping and pouring technique. The artist’s new, innovative style experimented with form detaching line from colour, and redefined the ways in which pictorial space is described. The work reflected a mixture of ideas born as a result of modern life in the postwar years. At times, Pollock’s paintings would evoke the life force in nature and, at others, the anxious body and subconscious mind resulting from living in the twentieth century. The actual process of his work was integral to the end result. Instead of fixing canvases to an easel, Pollock would place them on the floor, pour and drip paint onto the canvas and craft the work using anti-painting objects such as trowels, sticks or knives. During this procedure, he would move around the canvas in a trance-like state immersing himself fully in the work. The artist’s drip and pour masterpiece, Number 31, on display at the exhibition, encompasses his legendary, radical style in all of its forms.
The exhibition is a must see for any ardent admirer of Pollock or modern art. A true outsider, and similar to what the Beats did for literature and Punk did for music and fashion, Pollock played a huge role in deconstructing the elitist values of the arts and rendering it more accessible to the masses.
By Ray Kinsella
Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934 – 1954 at Museum of Modern Art, New York is open until Sunday 1 May 2016.