Along with Picasso, Pollock is probably the source of the most powerful photographic images of the artist at work with the paint, paint cans, brushes and his body. Images of Picasso with a brush tied to a pole while he was painting Guernica amid materials strewn all over the floor are in some way related to the photos that Hans Namuth took of Jackson Pollock, stretching out over the canvas from the edge, hurling paint onto it from a can.
Picasso’s work had left its mark on Pollock ever since the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Jeune fille devant un miroir (Girl before a mirror) in 1938, and later with the large retrospective that this museum dedicated to him in 1939, which included his emblematic mural canvas, Guernica. This relationship was indeed decisive, but is not the only one that enables comprehension of the change that took place in Pollock’s work during the 40s. His contact with the practice of automatism—fomented by the surrealists who were exiled in New York during the Great War (from André Breton to André Masson)—was a fundamental influence. These practices and ideas were primarily being promoted by artists like Robert Motherwell and Roberto Matta. This link would prove to be a crucial one for Pollock; what they had to say was exactly what he needed to hear at that point in his work.
Pollock’s biography can be summarized in a group of significant circumstances that all seem to have been absolutely necessary if read from the standpoint of constructing a mythic tale: his childhood in Cody, Wyoming, his contact with Native American culture on trips with his father, art studies at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, his relationship with his brother, Charles Pollock, who would go to New York to study painting with Thomas Benton, and Pollock’s relocation to that city, where he worked for the WPA, a government art program designed to provide work and sustain artists during the years of the crisis. It was there, in 1936 that he came into contact with Siqueiros (a vital link to understanding the course his work would take) and participated in a brief studio experience in which the Mexican artist upheld the idea that all materials and methods are valid for artistic experimentation: industrial paint, printmaking, liquid paint and pressurized application methods. The impact that Orozco’s murals had on him is also important. In 1936 he went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire with Guston and other artists to see The Epic of the American Civilization. The drawings he made between 1938 and 1942 transferred Orozco’s imagery of skeletons and dramatic crucifixions to the linear structure of his work.
Accounts involving Pollock describe him as irritable and unstable, with recurring alcohol problems. At the outset of the ‘40s he undergoes Jungian school psychoanalysis. As Kirk Varnedoe points out, “there can be no doubt as to whether suggestive words such as ‘archetype’, ‘collective unconscious’ or ‘integration’ generated an echo in Pollock’s thoughts, as they also had on other artists during the ‘30s and ‘40s” (1).
Prior to the beginning of the ‘40s, Pollock was not a well-known artist. In 1943 he formed part of Peggy Guggenheim’s circle and he had a solo exhibition that year in her new gallery, Art of the Century. Influences from Joan Miró and the palette of Matisse can be detected in his works from that period (such as Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York). His contact with automatism techniques would lead him to fragment planes of color and to multiply his gestures that same year.
In 1945 artist Lee Krasner—his companion and soon to be his wife—persuades him to move with her to Long Island. A period of production in isolation accordingly begins. In 1946, he moves his studio from the first floor of their house to the barn, producing a change in his procedure. Pollock was already working on his paintings on the floor, but from 1947 on he begins to drip pigment directly from the can, or using different sticks and brushes. At some point between Summer and Fall, without there being any text, letter or testimony that explains the moment of change, Pollock makes decisions that open a new terrain of possibilities in the field of art. He describes himself walking around the canvas on the floor, approaching it from all four angles and from within; he moves away from painting’s traditional instruments: easel, palette and brushes to work with sticks, spatulas, knives, dripping paint, broken glass and different materials adhered to the canvas (2). This way of making work, which constitutes one of the greatest innovations of the 20th Century, does not lack affiliations, which range from impressionism to cubism and even surrealism. It allows Pollock to dissolve representation in abstraction.
Shooting Star corresponds to that crucial year. It is at this point that Clement Greenberg writes an article in The Nation where he ranks Pollock above Jean Dubuffet. This hierarchy was not at all random. Greenberg deployed plastic reasons for this, but his arguments were not removed from a mass of discourse through which North American critics were searching with great perseverance for an artist and artwork that would support their claim that the center of the avant-garde was no longer to be found in Europe (specifically, Paris) but in New York. In Greenberg’s view, there were several determining factors in Pollock’s painting that allowed evolution to be cited. The fundamental notion was one related to the surface, that is, to annulling representation and pictorial depth; in the second place, there was this type of painting’s destiny as a mural: for this critic, it foretold the disappearance of easel painting (3). Murals had occupied an important position during the ‘30s WPA program, but Greenberg now proceeded to rewrite the terms of its social function. He proposed that it was not by way of the artist’s insertion in society, but in his isolation from society that his or her art would acquire status as such. The greater the artist’s isolation, the closer he or she would be to modern life and avant-garde ideals. Greenberg emphasized abstract painting’s self-referential nature. For him, Pollock’s painting constituted a crucial moment in painting’s self-awareness process, an inevitable moment in a historical evolution from a Hegelian perspective. Many traits of Pollock’s work did not fit into Greenberg’s ideal (sexuality, mystery, the idea of metamorphosis), but he maintained silence regarding these aspects, especially in reference to his early works.
Focusing on the MNBA’s work. It is a small-scale piece with connections to the earliest pieces produced when Pollock begins working in the ring that was his studio. The title of the work ties it to others done that year (like Galaxy, 1947, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), where drips predominate in relation to the brushstrokes that can still be perceived in works from 1946. The pigment goes past the border of the stretcher, distributed along the canvas’ lateral edges. This allows an approximation to the mural sense that Greenberg pointed to, as if it were a fragment of a composition that could continue to expand over unlimited surfaces. Silver pigments are present, as are fragments of things adhered to the canvas, both additional elements that evoke a cosmic world (the effect that Long Island’s landscape may have had on his art has been mentioned) and the artist’s physical proximity to the canvas, walking around it, moving his arms. At the same time, its formal tension does not lie only in the act of hurling paint. Areas of orange can be seen underneath the drips that can be understood as a base or imprimature on top of which pigment is applied in arabesques. Shooting Star is a central work, from the moment at which the change that will convert Pollock’s work into a paradigm of North American painting takes place.
If in 1960 Guido Di Tella hoped to make the collection his father had initiated into the most modern one in all of Latin America, he could hardly do without a Pollock. In fact, he wanted to incorporate it along with a work by De Kooning in 1961 when he visited Sidney Janis’ gallery. However, as he declared in a letter to gallery owner Alfredo Bonino, “I very much doubt they will be willing to send an important painting to Argentina” (4). He was nevertheless able to buy the piece that is part of the MNBA collection today from the Beyler gallery in Basel.
Hans Mamuth’s photographs and his account of the sight of Pollock’s incessant movements, as if he were dancing, have provided us with a parallel source in order to imagine the moment when Pollock created Shooting Star. Movement, time, energy, rhythm and the artist’s physical route around its surface are all elements that contribute to perceiving—almost literally—a real fragment of a crucial time in modern art’s narrative in this work: the moment that signaled the eruption of abstract expressionism and Jackson Pollock’s drips, establishing the idea that the center of the avant-garde had been displaced from Paris to New York.Andrea Giunta
1— Kirk Varnedoe, “Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work” in: Jackson Pollock, exhib. cat. New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1999, p. 15-77, 29.
2— See: Jackson Pollock, “My Painting”, Possibilities, New York, nº 1, Summer, 1947-48, p. 79.
3— Clement Greenberg, “Art”, The Nation, New York, vol. 164, nº 5, February 1, 1947, p. 139.
4— Letter from Guido Di Tella to Alfredo Bonino, dated “Buenos Aires, February 2, 1961”, Correspondence Di Tella/ Oteiza/Romero Brest 1954-66, Box 2, Instituto Torcuato Di Tella Archive.
1962. Instituto Torcuato Di Tella 1960-1962, dos años y medio de actividad. Buenos Aires, Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, reprod. [s.p.] (detalle).
1985. KING, John, El Di Tella. Buenos Aires, Gaglianone, reprod. byn p. 68.
2002. HOVING, Kirsten A., “Jackson Pollock’s ‘Galaxy’: Outer Space and Artist’s Space in Pollock’s Cosmic Paintings”, American Art, Chicago, vol. 16, n. 1, enero, p. 82.
2008 . GIUNTA, Andrea, Vanguardia, internacionalismo y política. Arte argentino en los años sesenta. Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, p. 107, 329.