Jackson Pollock’s Hymn To Freedom: Action Painting

by Asia Leonardi

The antithesis between abstract and realistic art, which lasted for a long time in the 1950s, was overcome during the decade which — although difficult to reduce to a common denominator — can be grouped under the definition of “informal.”  This term, used for the first time in 1951 by the critic Georges Mathieu, obviously in its French sense, appears to be preferable to others — tachisme, that alludes to a painting with irregular spots (tache = spot); action painting, which refers to a sort of submission of the language to gesture, to action; lyrical abstractionism — precisely because of its generic nature, which lends itself to giving a minimum of unity to not very similar experiences.

Jackson Pollock, The Deep, 1953, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Informal art, not only a European phenomenon, has its roots in the climate of mistrust in the cognitive abilities of reason, that arose following the Second World War. The deep devaluation of conventional means of expression — form and color — leads artists to focus their explorations on material, sign and spot. The premises of the informal are to be found in works by fairly isolated artists, active in the last years of the war in New York (Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning) and Paris (Wols, Jean Fautrier, Jean Debuffet). But mostly, it is in America where action painting arises, and indeed, Paris has lost its role as artistic capital since then.

Common elements are the detachment from history, even from the history of art, and often the refusal of political commitment: for many weighed the disappointment felt in having seen the hopes lit at the end of the conflict gradually vanished. The philosophical currents of the time (above all existentialism) accounted for the precariousness of life and paralyzing anguish, and from which there was no escape by gestures of revolt. The artist, having relations with reality become precarious, anxiously looked for an original and primitive artistic creativity.

The movement was influenced by the art of the Russian Vasilij Kandinsky, but also by surrealism, which sought to express the unconscious most directly and spontaneously. The main thrust, which gives impulse to the movement, is fueled by the artist’s need for improvisation, spontaneity and motor movement. The artist acts by giving free rein to his unconscious, and in this way he frees himself from the anguish and his restlessness with the physical movement of painting.

Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1953, New York Collection of Ben Heller

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) founder of American action painting, sought in a technique of automatism, similar to certain surrealist proposals, the way to free creativity from the unconscious. In this way he made his painting progressively more abstract until he made his first works in 1946 with the procedure called by himself, dripping, consisting in dripping, precisely, the color from a brush or a stick onto the canvas spread on the floor. The movement of the artist’s hand created an intricate set of lines on the surface, according to a more or less convulsive “rhythm” that has quite reasonably been compared to a piece of jazz music. Art, for Pollock, therefore loses its cognitive purposes, becomes an act of violent, angry participation, a testimony to the malaise in which the new generations find themselves.

Pollock also said that, spreading the canvas on the ground, it was better to walk around it and he felt an integral part of the picture. In the course of his experimentation he made some studies on the radiation of the Native American Indians and realized that the prayers addressed to the “Gods” took place through repeated turns of the Indians around the fire, during a state of trance and semi-awareness. From this experience Pollock associated the canvas to the fireplace, and the painter to the shaman. This union will transmit all of its most intimate interiority to future paintings, thanks to an accurate and spiritual escape from reality.

It is the artist’s ego that looms completely over the painting, and it is the painting itself that commands like the fire in a shamanic rite. Action painting never shows nor expresses an objective or subjective reality, but releases a tension that has accumulated in large quantities in the artist. It is an action not conceived and not planned in the ways of execution and in the final effects. It expresses the artist’s malaise in a well-structured society where everything is planned; it is a violent reaction of the artist-intellectual against the artistic-technician. “When I’m inside my paintings,” said Pollock “I’m not fully aware of what I’m doing. Only after a moment of awareness I realize what I have achieved. I am not afraid to make changes or to spoil the image, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to get it out. It is only when I happen to lose touch with the painting that the result is confusing and poor.”

Pollock’s drippings do not want to hit the viewer with colors or with a pleasant appearance, but only be the testimony of the artist’s life and presence. This is why observing the painting does not convey anything to us; because we have to think about the action that happens first, what Jackson did on the canvas. The painting is only the result, the work of art is the process of creation. To help understand the purpose of his works, in the 1950s Jackson began a collaboration with his friend and photographer Hans Namuth, creating some extraordinary photo shoots that portray the artist at work. There are more than 500 black and white shots where we see Pollock using brushes as sticks and “splashing” the paint directly on the canvas. Jackson chooses huge canvases for two specific reasons: the first is to represent the power of the United States, which after World War II will become the first world power. The second is to show the artist’s physical strength, who also sees the canvas as a sort of “gymnasium”.

The constraints of reason have little to do with art. Dripping is a true hymn to freedom, to the point that Pollock soon stopped giving a title to his works to limit himself to numbering them. If there had been a title, he argued, the observer would have been conditioned in some way. The canvases had to speak to each one only through color, leaving aside all that was rational. Words included.


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Also by Asia Leonardi: The Photography of Francesca Woodman
Find Asia Leonardi here: www.asialeonardi.com
MOMA’s artist page on Jackson Pollock here.

Between Introspection and Surrealism: the Photography of Francesca Woodman

by Asia Leonardi

One day in 1977, a young girl entered the “Maldoror” art gallery in Rome, handed the owner a gray box and exclaimed: “I’m a photographer!” She is not yet twenty and her name is Francesca Woodman.

Born in Denver in April 1958, Francesca was the daughter of a potter and a painter. Her father George initiated her into photography, giving her a camera he never used, and which he would return to after his daughter’s premature death in 1983.

“We were all artists, and all our friends were artists themselves,” says George Woodman in an interview. “It was therefore something normal for Francesca. But she didn’t try what we already did. She immediately went her way.” He gave to her that camera when Francesca was only 13 years old and was about to start her first art school – more or less the age in which today you get your first smartphone, but at that time starting to photograph so early meant being precocious, even for a daughter of Art.

Her first self-portrait dates to 1972 (“Self-portrait at 13,” Boulder, Colorado), a square shot, in a soft blackened white and set indoors, in which emerges a strong relationship of the body of the subject against the surrounding space, thanks to the play of perspectives. As in selfies you can often see the arm of someone holding a smartphone or a camera to shoot, here you see — and occupies half the scene — the wire that connects the camera to the self-timer button. Francesca’s face is partially hidden by her hair, in a play of the visible with the hidden that will continue to captivate her throughout most of her future experiments. This work inaugurates all of her considerable production with precise rules, even if only a small part of these are known. Incredibly prolific, Francesca Woodman in the only eight years in which she worked with photography produced ten thousand negatives and 800 prints before taking her own life. Only about a hundred of these images have been published and exhibited.

Francesca Woodman used herself and various objects, even symbolic ones, to explore themes concerning the adolescence she was going through: the question of identity and body image, relationships and sexuality, alienation, and isolation. “It’s a question of convenience, I’m always available” the photographer replied lightly with a touch of irony to those who asked why she always chose to be the subject of her photos.

To find answers about her identity, Francesca Woodman often strips, literally, and naturally photographs her naked body, which is ever-changing as she progresses through adolescence to adulthood, and which is never quite resolved, often hidden behind furniture and objects, wallpaper, plants mirrors. This staging of the nude never comes across as with sexual intent, but more functional in the exploration of the relationship of full and empty in space, between the presence and the absence of the body and the status of the self, which is both subject and object, conscious, explorable, purely material, beyond any transcendence. There is no intent of celebration, but a desire for communion with the world and with nature that is accomplished in transfiguring oneself and becoming a work of art.

Francesca experimented not just in composition, but also, on a more technical level, with the long exposure modes of the camera, seen as a tool for making possible one’s presence in the negative, capturing movement, creating ghosts, a mysterious atmosphere, and playing with time, challenging its limits: even if the photographs were taken by her during the 70s, thanks to the settings, between abandoned interiors and peeling walls, and to the timeless clothes, which could belong to other eras, to her taste for the image and black and white, they seem placed in an atemporal moment, suspended between past and present.

In 1975 Francesca Woodman attended and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): her career had already begun and her self-taught training already advanced, and here she was able to stand out among her classmates, recognized by all as a sort of natural star with a more than a promising future. After graduation, she moved to New York with the desire to prove herself, and launch her career, but providing for herself and getting recognition turned out to be difficult for her. She held various jobs, from secretary to assistant to photographers, to model, while sending her portfolio of self-portraits to galleries and fashion magazines in the hope of being published. However, the positive feedback was slow to arrive, thanks to the loss of attention for the photographic medium towards the end of the 70’s, and the fierce competition common in a big city like New York, where too many tried to make their dreams come true.

This precariousness and the difficulty in establishing herself, after the school years in which her precocious talent was recognized and exalted by everyone, slowly led her to depression, until the National Endowment for the Arts — a U.S. federal agency that offers support to the most promising artistic projects — refused her request to obtain funds and in the autumn of 1980, Francesca attempted suicide for the first time, without success. “I have standards,” she wrote a few weeks later to a former classmate in Rhode Island, “and my life, at this point, is like an old coffee ground, and I’d rather die young, leaving behind a series of succeeding works, some jobs, my friendship with you and others … intact, instead of letting these delicate things vanish”.

The great hopes, combined with the impatience of youth, made the rejections received in the New York years unbearable and a few months later, in January 1981, Francesca took her life at the age of 22. Although Woodman’s self-portraits are not narcissistic products, the artist’s ultimate goal obviously could only be to live off her art, to be recognized, a feat in which her parents had succeeded before her. “She was much more sophisticated than a lot of us,” says Betsy Berge, her friend, journalist, and writer. “She was 21 and many were jealous of her talent. When you are twenty, everything seems very urgent. You think you have to achieve fame in 20 seconds, especially in her case, having started to do a really good job since she was 14. There was a lot of pressure on her”. The recognition she sought came shortly after, posthumously: the first exhibition was organized by Ann Gabhart, director of the Wellesley College Museum, in 1986, followed by a critical text by Rosalind Krauss and Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Immediately after, her work began traveling the United States, arriving in Europe in the early 1990s. Without being able to witness it, with her self-portraits, which we take so much for granted today, and the obsessive research of the self that belongs to everyone in the years in which one becomes an adult, Francesca Woodman has managed to change the history of photography.

Homepage: https://carlkruse.net

For another take on Francesca Woodman, see a review of “The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman.”

The blog’s earlier snippet on Jack Delano is here.

Contact: CARL at CARLKRUSE dot ORG