So, what is the story with Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles?
You know the painting – that big canvas, more than two metres high and almost five metres wide, spattered with paint like a decorator’s ground sheet.
It was painted in 1952 and now hangs proudly in the National Gallery of Australia, which bought it back in 1973. At the time, Sydney’s Daily Mirror ran the front-page headline:
Barefoot drunks painted our $1m masterpiece.
Gough Whitlam’s government had, in fact, paid $A1.3 million for the painting, or just under A$11.5m in today’s money. But why is this seemingly unintelligible mess of house paint revered as a masterpiece?
Have we all been duped? Or is there something more interesting happening? Maybe we just need to ask the right questions?
I recently wrote an article for The Conversation about the wrong questions to ask of art, which are:
- Why is that art?
- What is it meant to be?
- A four-year-old could do that, couldn’t they?
If ever there’s an artwork that that provokes such dead-end questions, it’s Pollock’s Blue poles. Those questions don’t lead us to anything new or open up our understanding of art.
Instead, I suggested three different questions to ask when we’re trying to understand art:
- Look: what is there in front of you, such as the material the artwork is made of?
- See: what is being represented, if anything, in the work’s “iconography”?
- Think: what are the contexts of the work, such as who created it, when, and what was happening in art and the world at the time?
So, let’s apply those steps to Blue poles (click on the top-right of the image to get a larger view):
Start with your eyes
Literally, what is in front of you? Just say what you see. OK, it’s a painting. It’s made of paint, splashed on a canvas. How does it look? The paint has been thrown randomly onto the canvas, not applied carefully with a brush.
There’s dripped lines of light blue paint, red, green, silver and, in fact, there’s a bare footprint visible on the top right. And there are eight blue pole-like lines down the canvas, at different angles to each other.
Usually for this second step I suggest then having a crack at interpreting what is there in front of us, unpacking the symbols we recognise – that is, the “iconography”. But hold on a minute – Blue poles is completely abstract.
There are some pole-like shapes, and that footprint, but the rest is just wild, crazy shapeless splats that don’t represent anything, right? OK, park this information for a second, and move onto the last step.
This step is where you, the viewer, have to plug in your brain and do some work. Don’t think of looking at art as like watching the TV. It’s more like doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku – it is work, but it’s fun.
It’s about taking those clues that you’re presented when you “look” and “see”, and then applying some creative interpretive thinking to them.
Interpretation, of course, doesn’t mean that any explanation is right regardless of how wacky. It means you have to consider what is plausible.
We have to consider what was happening in the world in which the work came about, and in the artist’s life, to find the clues.
The first thing to ask is: who is the artist? What do we know about them? In this case, even if it’s just “Jackson Pollock was a drunk”, we have something to work from.
But hey, this isn’t a test – so cheat.
Skim-reading Wikipedia, we can see he was an “Abstract Expressionist”, he painted canvases flat on the floor, and he was a reclusive who underwent psychoanalysis to treat his alcoholism. Now you’ve got some context.
So, let’s put it all together.
What was Pollock trying to do?
Blue poles is a painting, but not a conventional “easel painting”.
The footprint and the paint not running down the canvas tell us it was painted flat on the floor. It was not made with brushes or intended to represent identifiable things in the world.
Clearly, Pollock rejected that historical idea of painting – the small canvas on the easel on which paint is arranged to look like a real thing, like a landscape or a bowl of flowers.
You’ll hear Pollock was an “Abstract Expressionist”, which might sound like art-speak, but often names of historical art movements – those “isms” – are pretty literal: Conceptualism – its about concepts; Impressionism – it’s about an impression of a scene; Futurism – it’s about modernity; Hard-Edge Abstraction – oh, come on.
Unpack the phrase “Abstract Expressionism”: “Abstract”, well, this is certainly abstract art; “Expressionist” surely means it’s about expressing something; that is, an outpouring of something internal, such as an emotional or psychological state.
So, the lack of recognisable symbolism in Blue poles is deliberate. Much of Pollock’s work was about externalising his seemingly troubled internal states.
He was interested in Jungian psychoanalysis, which is based on ideas of a “collective unconsciousness” that all humans share.
Pollock’s erratic splashes of paint are intended to communicate to us the way he was feeling and thinking at the time he made the painting.
Even the blue “poles” on the canvas, which are the only ordered part of the painting, are smashed onto the surface, vertical but at different angles.
If you investigate further, you’ll find that Blue poles has quite a story behind it. According to Stanley Friedman, writing in New York magazine in 1973, Pollock’s friend Tony Smith had arrived at Pollock’s studio and found him severely depressed, so Smith started the painting to distract the artist from his suicidal thoughts.
Both Pollock and Smith got extremely drunk during the painting session, and by the end of the evening they were smashing glass on the canvas and treading it in with their bare feet.
That’s where the footprint comes from. You can see shards of broken glass on the canvas if you see the actual painting. And no doubt there’s some blood in there somewhere.
(It’s worth noting that Smith takes no credit for Blue poles; he only claims to have started the painting process.)
Lindsay Barrett’s book, The Prime Minister’s Christmas Card (2001), discusses the controversy of when Blue poles was bought by the National Gallery of Australia. Barrett argues that in the early-1970s the painting came to symbolise for supporters the Whitlam Government’s progressive, politically modernist government, while detractors saw it as emblematic of the extravagant fiscal wastefulness of Whitlamism.
Whitlam himself defended the purchase, saying Blue poles was “a masterpiece”, and the Daily Mirror’s headline about drunks painting “our $1m masterpiece”, seemed to be mocking this endorsement by Whitlam.
The newspaper story accused Whitlam and other supporters of the purchase as creating an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario.
Is it a masterpiece?
From an art historian’s point of view, whether or not Blue poles is a “masterpiece” depends mostly on how you regard Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. Certainly Pollock was a legend in his own lifetime, and Blue poles was produced at the height of his career.
In August 1949, LIFE magazine asked, “is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”, and in 1951, the year before Blue poles was painted, Vogue magazine used his paintings as a hip and happening backdrop to one of its fashion spreads.
The historical significance of Blue poles is indisputable; whether any artwork is “great” or a “masterpiece” is debatable.
Others have also considered different and interesting aspects of Blue poles. Richard Taylor, Director of the Materials Science Institute at The University of Oregon, has studied the painting as an example of chaos theory and fractals.
He argues that Blue poles is an example of a fractal pattern – that if we examine the drips closely, we see the basic form of the whole repeated.
In fact, Taylor actually claims that the aesthetic pleasure we might get from looking at Blue poles is a result of its chaotic forms, and the way that this resonates with a basic human preference for the chaos of nature over the order of culture.
It’s an interesting and, from an art theory point of view, potentially problematic argument – but it does illustrate how interesting interpreting art can be.