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Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Jackson Pollock's, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, enamel on canvas, 266.7 x 525.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © Pollock-Krasner Foundation) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Steven] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at an enormous painting by Jackson Pollock. This is 17 feet wide and he originally titled it "Number 30" but then later "Autumn Rhythm." So the museum is creating a compromise and they're calling it "Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)". - [Beth] This is a complicated painting. And for some reason to me today in the midst of the pandemic, less than two weeks before a presidential election, I feel like I might be projecting some of my own darkness into this painting that I know is painted in 1950, just five years after the end of World War II. - [Steven] A lot of the discussion about the abstract expressionists of which Pollock was one of the leading figures deals with the issue of an angst and anxiety. These were issues that were dominant in the post-war moment. 1950 was the Cold War. The atomic bombs were threatening in a way that had never happened before in human history. The enormity of the Holocaust had been revealed only a few years earlier. - [Beth] And there were the trials of Nazis that went on for years after the end of the war. I can imagine there was a sense for artists that a new language was needed to express this post World War II era and that the old systems of naturalism coming out of the Renaissance was not a language that was viable given the new circumstances. - [Steven] I think a number of artists didn't feel that naturalism, that figuration, the representation of the human body was going to cut it. They were looking for something that was more profound, that was able to grapple with existential issues, issues of human existence and the potential extinguishing of human existence. - [Beth] If you think about the decade or two before this, we have surrealism and this interest in the unconscious and delving beyond the conscious everyday mind and looking for a greater, deeper truth about human existence, about the way our minds work. - [Steven] Well, there was this idea that goes back to the surrealist. It goes back even to Dada, that the conscious rational mind got in the way, that it was antithetical to the creative impulse, that if we could somehow step out of the way and allow something more elemental, more unintentional to come to the fore, that would somehow be more truthful and more universal. What we're seeing is a high point in modern art, where artists were stepping away from the representation of nature, something that had been central to the making of art, this interest in something that was not abstract in nature, but it was purely abstract. It's radicality can't be overstated. This was completely upending the traditions of image-making. He's turning away from the representation of nature and looking into himself, his own physical movements, his own emotional state at this specific moment in time. - [Beth] So we're not looking at, for example, analytic cubism, which is an abstraction from nature where Picasso takes a guitar and disassembles it into geometric forms, but here, he's not starting from nature, but starting from the place of an individual in a moment in time. - [Steven] And in a particular place, this was made in his studio, a small barn in the back of the house at Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner's property out in the Springs in East Hampton. It's a relatively small space. This is an enormous canvas, he unrolled it on the floor. He didn't prime it, he didn't add gesso. He didn't seal the surface. He painted directly on the raw canvas, but I can't say even that he painted it, he didn't touch the canvas with his brush. He moved over the canvas and let paint fall on it. - [Beth] So there is a kind of rawness. For centuries, whenever an artist painted, not only did they prime the canvas, but they most often prepared drawings, organize the composition, thought it through. There was a real intentionality and consciousness. That was an important part of the value of a work of art. - [Steven] And here he's flipping that value on its head. Pollock used house paint, that black is an enamel. It's a break with the refinements of fine art materials, bringing art into the real world. And that's a reminder that Pollock had been, especially earlier in his career, interested in social issues. This is an enormous canvas that might remind us of large scale mural paintings. - [Beth] So he's looking back to the great Mexican muralists like Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, and thinking about the enormous scale of those murals and in art, that was not a small paintings for a collector, but large paintings for the masses. - [Steven] What Pollock is after here is a kind of spontaneity, it's an immediate invention. He's drawing on his tremendous skill, but he's then letting loose, and probably the best analogy is to a highly accomplished jazz musician. Somebody who can play the saxophone or the piano with extraordinary skill, but then allows themselves to riff, allows themselves to play and allows the unconscious and the moment to come to the fore. - [Beth] And the emotion of the moment becomes the guiding principles. - [Steven] And I want to go back to a point you made a moment before he's not painting on unprimed canvas, simply to break with tradition. He wants the paint to seep in and stay in the canvas itself, not to ride on its surface always. And so there was a specific quality that was achievable because the paint was in direct contact with the weave of the cloth. - [Beth] And there's so many ways that we experienced the paint here. We see areas where it did seep into the fabric. We see dots that look like splashes. We see other dots that have a feeling of a night sky. We see areas where the paint has pulled up and dried and cracked. We see areas where the paint is soft and atmospheric, areas where it's sharp and linear, where it's matte, areas where it's shiny. There's so much to explore when you got up close. - [Steven] But then you can also pull back and you can see these long trails of paint. And you can imagine the artist moving around and rhythmically with large arching motions, flinging that paint into the air and allowing gravity to pull it down. The surface of this painting then becomes of register of Pollock's movement through time and through space. It becomes a kind of stage. And in one sense, it's a shame that the painting is vertical hanging on the wall because it was made horizontally, he was over it. And sometimes when I walk up to a Pollock, I'll look at it from the side and tilt my head so I can look across it the way he saw it, more as an arena to act in than a canvas to look at it. (jazz music)