Jackson Pollock’s black paintings are finally getting their time in the limelight. At the Dallas Museum of Art, “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots,” which is on view through March 20, features 31 of the 50 or so black paintings the artist executed between 1951 and 1953. Ordinarily, Pollock’s monumental poured paintings, like Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 and One: Number 31, 1950, are treated as the be-all and end-all of his career, which was curtailed in 1956, when he died, at age 44, in a car accident. But rather than put on display those remarkable wall-size murals yet again, this show calls attention to such engrossing paintings as Echo: Number 25, 1951 and Number 14, 1951. It also puts into context the great Portrait and a Dream (1953) owned by the DMA.
Pollock rightly suspected the black paintings wouldn’t get their due. Shortly after he began working on the 28 canvases he would complete between May and September 1951, he wrote to his friend and fellow artist Alfonso Ossorio, “I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas in black—with some of my early images coming through—think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing—and the kids who think it’s simple to splash a Pollock out.”
Now, in a sequence of galleries, the DMA’s senior curator of contemporary art, Gavin Delahunty, presents a compelling case for the significance of the black paintings, with portable drip paintings, the first burst of black works, later ones that were exhibited in solo shows at the galleries of Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis in New York, screen prints, and drawings made on Japanese mulberry paper. You leave “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” knowing that, had Pollock never executed his majestic poured paintings, he would still be highly lauded on the basis of these canvases’ contribution to Abstract Expressionism, not to mention the history of American art since World War II.
A small horizontal drawing executed with ink, graphite, and watercolor from around 1943 serves as the exhibition’s prologue. While this untitled work’s format and amorphous black figures call to mind Pablo Picasso’s studies for Guernica (1937), its blacked-out background, establishing a portentous mood, is uniquely Pollock’s own.
By the end of the 1940s, Pollock was expressing himself more lyrically. A gallery filled with abstract works from 1947, 1949, and 1950 tellingly illuminates how the artist, born out West, in Cody, Wyoming, in January 1912, executed canvases that initially look chaotic but upon further viewing reveal themselves to be well structured. In a tall, somewhat narrow panel, like the DMA’s own Cathedral of 1947 and related works nearby, black lines caper and cavort, coil and curl on fields with no breathing room. Unlike their wall-size brethren, no bare canvas is visible. Consequently, you never would assume that figurative imagery of any sort lies beneath their surfaces. Yet, that appears to be how Pollock began many of his seemingly nonfigurative works (just as his then–East End colleague Robert Motherwell and his former Los Angeles schoolmate Philip Guston did).
In 1998, art historian Pepe Karmel described how he used a computer program to investigate the so-called veiled imagery of Pollock’s murals of this period. Or, as Pollock’s wife, the artist Lee Krasner, told collector B. H. Friedman in 1969, “I saw [Pollock’s] paintings evolve. Many of them, many of the most abstract, began with more or less recognizable imagery—heads, parts of the body, fantastic creatures.”
Once he began executing his black paintings, Pollock abandoned covert strategies and left visible figures, all sorts of faces (including at least one Indian head replete with feathers), ears, limbs, hands, feet, foxes, birds, and other animals generally found outdoors in nature. Instead of Picasso, think José Clemente Orozco, the Mexican muralist the New York School artist admired early on and whose massive 1930 wall painting of Prometheus at Pomona College he more than once hitchhiked from Los Angeles to see in Claremont, California, as a teenager.
Besides depicting recognizable imagery in the black paintings, Pollock thickened his lines and pooled reflective enamel paint. These works are smaller than his poured-paint classics; he seems to have executed them more with his wrist and hand than his shoulder and his arm.
In the past, the leitmotifs of the black paintings generally have been regarded as formal elements. Brought together in Dallas, it’s clear many are predicated on dreams as well as the landscape in the Springs area of East Hampton, which has changed little since the days when Pollock and Krasner lived there. In the animated black paintings on view in Dallas, you can picture how the Abstract Expressionist might have been inspired after glimpsing darting animals lit by the headlights of his car as he drove along dark country lanes or been transfixed as the moonlight or the beams of automobiles shone into his home on Springs Fireplace Road.
Then, too, Pollock was not the only New York School artist making art that wavered between abstraction and figuration in the same work. In sculptures like Hudson River Landscape (1951), Australia (1951), and The Letter (1952), David Smith mined similar territory. Both artists created art that has a “now you see it, now you don’t” character. While recognizable imagery is decidedly present, it’s not always paramount.
Still, Pollock did not renounce abstraction. That’s clear in the long gallery filled with marvelous drawings he executed on Japanese mulberry paper given to him by the artist Tony Smith. This suite of graceful, rhythmic works is alone worth a trip to the DMA. Their light-hearted, staccato-like black ink marks congregate in a way that practically makes you feel as if you are looking at rather than listening to music being played.
The exuberant black paintings in the next gallery were exhibited at the Janis Gallery during November 1952. It’s difficult to concentrate on most of these because they are overwhelmed by Convergence (1952). One of the last wall-size poured paintings the artist ever attempted, its surface is a cavalcade of colors. Around its perimeter, where blank canvas is exposed, you can find the sort of images that piqued Pepe Karmel’s curiosity to delve deeper into Pollock’s so-called “veiled imagery.”
With Portrait and a Dream, “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots” closes with a flourish. It is a large work, and the artist chose not to crop it like many of the other black paintings, many of which he executed directly on rolls of cotton duck. It easily could have become two independent canvases. With its title, Pollock pretty much acknowledged that the left side of the work, an inchoate grouping of lines and drips, is “a dream.” The giant head—or “portrait” on the right—is the most successful “late” work to be rendered in color. Portrait and a Dream feels like the future rather than the tragic end.