As you may be aware, my theme for the 2018 Blogging A-Z April Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I will be writing to American Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). He will be accompanied by Elvis singing: I Did It My Way
In 1973 the National Gallery of Australia purchased Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece, Blue Poles, for a staggering $1.3 million…the highest amount ever paid for an American painting at the time. Perhaps, not unsurprisingly, the purchase was highly controversial, triggering a wave of debate across the country.
Opinions came in thick and fast. Indeed, I even saw him described as “Jack the Dripper”:
“I THINK the money spent on Jackson Pollock’s painting “Blue Poles” would have been better spent on building a four-lane highway linking the capital cities of the Eastern States. The Hume and Pacific Highways are not fit for the traffic they carry these days, and many lives, as well as time and money, would be saved by their improvement.$2 to A. W. (name supplied), Gladstone, N.S.W.”
“Mr Daniel Thomas, senior curator of the Art Gallery of NSW and Sydney Morning Herald art critic, described the purchase as “the greatest thing that has happened to art in Australia”.
Artist Sali Herman said, “The whole thing just stinks. I am all in favour of the National Gallery buying good paintings . . . It seems that they have money to give away. I don’t think Pollock is worth two million”.
Mr Henry Hanke, a winner of the Archibald and Sulman art prizes, said he had not seen ‘Blue Poles’ but he “did not think much of paintings created by dribbling paint”.
Another Australian artist, Russell Drysdale, was in favour of the purchase. He said, “The whole art world was affected by Pollock and this was one of his masterpieces. If you have a masterpiece then it is priceless“.
After arriving in Australia in 1974, Blue Poles was first exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney and our family joined the throngs of Sydneysiders to just to see it. I was almost 5 years old at the time and had just started school. Indeed, I hadn’t even had the suggestion of a wobbly tooth.
This is where our visit starts getting personal, because when I saw Blue Poles up on the wall, it reminded me of the painting my father had done blowing swirls of colourful paint across a dark blue background through a straw. So, what does this one in a million, little kid do? She walks straight up to Blue Poles with all the confidence of the Director of the Art Gallery himself and points a finger right on the painting: “My Daddy painted that!” My 2 year old younger brother also touched it, at least as far as our memories are concerned. Humph! I also remember just as clearly being told off by a very austere Guide of Gestapo proportions, who snapped: “Don’t touch the painting!!” Clearly, I’m lucky I kept my fingers. But, isn’t that what every little kid wants to do, especially with all that thick, oozy paint splashed all over the canvas? It was just begging for sensory-seeking little fingers to touch it, especially back in the olden days when we didn’t have fidget spinners to keep them occupied.
Dad’s painting 1974. This now reminds me of fireworks over Sydney Harbour, which weren’t a thing back then.
I was quite excited to find this film footage from 1974 showing Blue Poles on display.
After such an experience, how could I not write to Jackson Pollock in this series? Blue Poles could well have been the very first painting I ever saw in an art gallery, and that scolding “Do not touch the paintings” hasn’t left me either. Of course, we can’t have such masterpieces destroyed by grotty fingerprints, but surely art can also be tactile, a complete sensory experience? Indeed, couldn’t art also be an active thing for the viewer, as much as the artist themselves, the creator? Why should they have all the fun?
I was reminded of this hands-off rule of art, when my husband and I took our then four year old son to the Art Gallery of NSW (returning to the scene of my crime as a parent this time, not the child). He was very well-behaved, but he was active. Indeed, I remember feeling very nervous as he started looking at some thousand year old sculptures, wondering if he’d accidentally knock of a head. He wasn’t always looking where he was going. Could you imagine the guilt of that as a parent? The headlines! No, thanks.
Then, taking after his mother, he walked up to a painting, and said he’d painted one like that at school and I photographed him standing beside it.
Next, after leaving the gallery, we were walking through the park across the road when he found a large autumn leaf on the footpath. He was so excited and he wanted to take it back to the art gallery so someone could make a painting. You should’ve seen his eyes light up with childish enthusiasm and he was so sweet. Meanwhile, I was lost for words. How could I explain that they didn’t want a leaf? Or, for that matter, a pressing of a leaf like he’d made at pre-school? How could I throw cold water on his flame?
Who’d refuse a leaf from this little rock star…
Perhaps, we should’ve taken him back. I’m sure the gallery staff would’ve thanked him for it and been considerate. She wouldn’t have laughed in his face and told him how much the paintings in the gallery are worth, and how they’re only done by real artists. In other words, that they don’t have leaf prints hanging in the gallery. Instead, I just told him that they don’t make the paintings there. That they’re only on display.
Who Was Jackson Pollock?
Beyond all these family anecdotes, there was an artist…Jackson Pollock.
In terms of his bio, he was born on the 28th January, 1912 in Wyoming and grew up in Arizona and California. In 1930, he moved to New York with his brother. 1938 – 1942 he underwent Jungian therapy to treat his alcoholism . October, 1945 he married fellow abstract artist, Lee Krasner and in November, they moved to Long Island. On August 11, 1956 Jackson Pollock died aged 44 when he crashed his car within a mile of his house under the influence of alcohol. Jackson Pollock was an Abstract expressionist.
Pollock provided a solid account of his artistic processes in an interview with Life Magazine in 1949, which was headed: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
“Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyo. He studied in New York under Realist Thomas Benton but soon gave this up in utter frustration and turned to his present style. When Pollock decides to start a painting, the first thing he does is to tack a large piece of canvas on the floor of his barn. “My painting does not come from the easel,” he explains, writing in a small magazine called Possibilities 1. “I need the resistance of a hard surface.” Working on the floor gives him room to scramble around the canvas, attacking it from the top, the bottom or the side (if his pictures can be said to have a top, a bottom or a side) as the mood suits him. In this way, “I can… literally be in the painting.” He surrounds himself with quart cans of aluminum paint and many hues of ordinary household enamel. Then, starting anywhere on the canvas, he goes to work. Sometimes he dribbles the paint on with a brush (above). Sometimes he scrawls it on with a stick, scoops it with a trowel or even pours it on straight out of the can. In with it all he deliberately mixes sand (below), broken glass, nails, screws or other foreign matter lying around. Cigarette ashes and an occasional dead bee sometimes get in the picture inadvertently. “When I am in my painting,” says Pollock, “I‘m not aware of what I’m doing.” To find out what he has been doing he stops and contemplate the picture during what he calls his “get acquainted” period. Once in a while a life-like image appears in the painting by mistake. But Pollock cheerfully rubs it out because the picture must retain “a life of its own.” Finally, after days of brooding and doodling, Pollock decides the painting is finished, a deduction few others are equipped to make. ”
Of course, so much more could be said, but I guess it already has been. So, that leaves me with a letter to write.
A Letter to Jackson Pollock:
There’s so much I could ask you, but I couldn’t resist this simple question:
Are you the greatest dead painter in the United States?
A Reply From Jackson Pollock
Am I the greatest dead painter in the United States?
I’m still not saying.
Heard you playing the violin(4) last night. Smashed mine as a kid, after it refused to cooperate.
Left you one of my signature apples pies (5) in the fridge, but I ate your pavlova. Would love the recipe. Could you please send it in your next letter. Promise not to get paint all over it.
Keep up these letters. We’ve been passing them round so much, they’re about to fall apart. Looking forward to “K”.
 Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 6 March 1974, page 43
 Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), Tuesday 25 September 1973, page 7
(4) Bruce Claser “Jackson Pollock: An Interview with Lee Krasner” Arts Magazine 41, No. 6 (April 1967) pp 36-39. Reprinted in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles & Reviews edited by Pepe Karmel, 1999, The Museum of Modern Art. Distributed by HN Abrams. p 34. Link.
(5) Jackson Pollock loved baking and also made a great spaghetti sauce Ibid p 33.