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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


Of all twentieth century artists, the American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) arguably embodies most fully the popular conception of the angry, passionate, volatile and troubled action-painter. The art critic Jonathan Jones has written of him: “His paintings are of inner and outer space. They intuit a complex reality that cannot be put into words. This makes Pollock one of the most moving artists I know.”

LAVENDER MIST - Jackson Pollock (1950)

My artist mother, steeped in traditional drawing and painting techniques used to tell me of Pollock who, she said wearily, used to ride a bicycle over his paintings. Sorry Mum, I'm pretty sure he didn't, though it's not a bad idea – perhaps one I might explore myself! Sceptical though my dear mother was, to her great credit, she was wholeheartedly encouraging when I set off on the long road-trip to Abstraction. Just as Mondrian could not have produced his majestic abstract geometry without the artistic food with which his marvellous trees had earlier nourished him, I could not do what I do now but for my mother's nurturing influence on my early figurative style.

Some of the greatest abstractionists of the past hundred years have been lambasted as 'easy to imitate'. The implication is that, because copying that style of mark-making might flow easily off the brush (usually on a much-reduced scale), the lazy imitator's painting will inevitably succeed structurally, compositionally and emotionally. Try it and you will see how hard this is to achieve.

Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell are prime examples of the above myopic prejudice, but the reigning monarch of misrepresentation in this sense must surely be Jackson Pollock.

The internet is awash with videos inviting us to 'Paint Like Jackson Pollock', usually on a tiny canvas on a table. Not only does such clownishness miss the point that Pollock's action painting was achieved using the whole body as if the painter himself was both brush and paint but it sidesteps the fundamental question: why would anyone want to paint like anyone else?

On occasion, emulation stems from reverence and respect, but more frequently it is born out of insecurity and laziness. The legendary piano pedagogue Peter Feuchtwanger, with whom I studied during my concertising days, was often asked by insecure students: 'how long will it be before I can play like Ashkenazy?'....or Pollini or whoever. Prof Feuchtwanger would answer: 'No one can play like Ashkenazy, but remember that no one, including Ashkenazy, can play like you'. Naturally, the same holds true for the Visual Arts.

The Abstract Expressionism movement, of which Jackson Pollock was a prime and revolutionary exponent, was chiefly concerned with feeling, gesture, psychological-emotional outpouring, and spontaneity.

Spontaneity in art arises out of the artist's following of a subconscious impulse. The human subconscious is profoundly infused with and influenced by our position in the universe. Order and chaos are highly compatible bedfellows when they erupt out of the creative core of a great artist; the seemingly random can, when contemplated with an open mind and heart, manifest as divinely ordered.

Today I stood in awe before Jackson Pollock's NO. 14 (1951) at the Tate Modern in London.


As I have done countless times, I took in the detail, straining as far as I dared across the alarm-wire to inspect the minutiae that inform the grandeur. I saw the way in which the great communicator of this picture which is, on the face of it, stark, but also lyrical and musical, placed with unbridled passion the giant but delicate gestures of part-shiny, part-foggy oil paint on the unprimed canvas.

I saw how the paint bleeds into the canvas, creating an impression, through brown halos, that it is burning into the surface. I saw the thick, tarry marks that Pollock forced into the centre of the piece, and places where it seems that he applied tape to the canvas before smothering it in viscous black. I was reminded, indelibly, of the violence and beauty inherent in the act of painting.

I saw how intuitively the marks on the canvas are organised, each one reacting with its neighbour in a cosmic rhythm.

I saw the dots of yellow and orange at the base of the painting, perhaps betraying its placing on the floor, at the time of creation, close to another, more polychromatic piece that was being ejaculated at close proximity to this glorious twilight utterance.

I saw the thin, raw-wood frame hugging the picture, juxtaposing its almost shaker-like austerity with the sooty sensuality of that which it encloses.

NO. 14 - Jackson Pollock (1951)

I was also prompted to recall the painter's wife, the magnificent artist Lee Krasner's recollection that Pollock applied paint using sticks and basting syringes, using them 'like a giant fountain-pen'; and I was minded to affirm through Jonathan Jones' words, quoted at the head of this article, that, by and through Pollock, we are confronted with Reality – something that my readers know is a central tenet in my attitude towards abstract art.

To conclude, Mr Jones' postulation that Jackson Pollock “spins out some delicate weft of insight, at once mystical, scientific and psychological” is one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023

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