Each week, we bring you the backstory of work featured in our collection, written by a member of our curatorial team.
One: Number 31, 1950. Museum of Modern Art, New York City
by Haley Temin, Associate Curator
“On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”—Jackson Pollock
Among the many magnificent pieces of art on the 6th floor of the MoMa hangs Jackson Pollock’s composition ‘One: Number 31’, painted in the fall of 1950. Spanning an entire wall, it stands out not just for its size but for its originality—it looks like nothing else on view.
I remember the first time I saw it in person. I had seen the work projected on the wall during my high school art history class and had dismissed it—compared to the “old masters” and “greats” that I had been learning about all year, I struggled to see how this “splatter painter” was considered a profound influence on the course of abstract art. So, at first glance, standing there before that monstrous canvas I was underwhelmed by the overwhelming sea of pigment and paint. And then, after 15 seconds of contemplation, the painting took hold of me. I saw a story told through intention—layers of enamel, interlaced with emotion. I felt Pollock’s anger and excitement, apprehension and turmoil in every splatter and drip. I imagined him using his entire body through the brush, moving over the canvas in search of the perfect balance of control and force.
This particular composition was finished towards the end of what critics coined Pollock’s ‘drip period’, which spanned from 1947 to 1950, and during which Pollock gained international fame and created some of the 20th century’s most renowned and celebrated works. Much interest was shown in his method—Pollock rejected the easel, preferring to work directly on the floor, maneuvering himself swiftly over the canvas and using the force of his body to pour and drip paint on it—the result left a wild and explosive medley of lines and color. This immediate and intimate approach to creating art defied traditional conventions of painting and Pollock soon became synonymous with the emerging concept of ‘action painting’ which favored spontaneity over the thoughtful application of paint. In a 1950 interview, Pollock explains, “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.”
Pollock “action painting”
So what statements was Pollock making?
This radical style was a product of years of torment and anxiety, stemming as far back as Pollock’s childhood. With an unsettled early life consisting of constant moves and expulsions from school, Pollock developed a very tough and rigid exterior. Throughout much of his life, the artist suffered from intense bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism. In 1942, he met fellow artist and future wife Lee Krasner who had a tremendous impact on the artist’s life and career. While the couple had a rocky relationship, it was with Krasner that Pollock developed the ‘drip’ style that would alter the course of abstract art forever. This method of painting was a means to an end for Pollock. A means of making sense of all of the anxieties and tensions going on in the tumultuous landscape of late 1940’s America and an end to the turbulent tension and anxiety that fostered deep in Pollock’s psyche. Unfortunately with rising fame and success came extreme pressure and depression. The constant strain to create new pieces for exhibitions and collectors became too much and his alcoholism worsened. Sadly at only 44, Pollock succumbed to the demons he had combatted for so long and was killed in a drunken car accident.
In August of 1949, prior to his fall from grace, Life Magazine ran a feature about Pollock with the headline reading: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” While many critics would agree with this statement, a handful of others found his works lacking organization and meaning. What many failed to see was how much Pollock quite literally immersed himself into every single canvas he worked on in an attempt to make viewers feel exactly as he did during its production. Pollock used the canvas as stage in which he was able to use a new technique and style of painting to make a big statement.