Review of Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, Tate Liverpool

Although Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) is widely considered to be one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Tate Liverpool’s major new retrospective is the first exhibition in over thirty years to properly survey the artist’s late works. Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots has a recuperative agenda, according to assistant curator Stephanie Straine: “the title really alludes to our blind spots, so what we fail to see in his practice. There’s a very focused understanding of Pollock that’s been overplayed through popular culture and around works such as Tiger – they’re incredibly important, but only account for four years of his practice, really.”

The exhibition does employ Pollock’s iconic drip paintings – with their hypnotic, disciplined vigour – but as an introduction and contrast to the later pieces, known as “black pourings”. A radical departure in the artist’s practice, these were created using enamel paint, which both stained and soaked into the unstretched, unprimed canvas. Though critically overlooked, the result is mesmeric: the ground of the canvas is both exposed and infused with blackness. “They have more of a quiet insistence,” says Straine of paintings that share the absorbing qualities of Rothko’s work. They are now extremely fragile due to Pollock’s unconventional use of enamel paint – essentially an industrial or household material (used to coat gutters, not canvases) – and techniques, which included thinning down the consistency so that he could use a basting syringe, drawing with it “like a giant fountain pen,” as described by Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner.

The emergence of the black pourings was also notable for having signalled a return to figuration, which featured at the start of Pollock’s career. Faces and figures appear in the second part of the show, frequently interpreted as psychologically symbolic for the artist; this idea is borne out by both the focus and title of Portrait and a Dream (1953), one of few named works on display. Broadly speaking, however, critics were confounded by the new direction. In fact, Straine suggests, it was other artists who first applauded the work: artists like Helen Frankenthaler, known collectively as the colour field painters, picked up Pollock’s techniques in the following years. And, as Straine points out, it’s here that the gendered reception of Pollock’s work becomes obvious. She says: “because she stained the canvas Frankenthaler was characterized as making a passive, feminine gesture, whereas Pollock’s work was a virile ejaculation of paint dripping in an energetic way, where of course they both did both.” This sexualised interpretation joins other misconceptions about Pollock’s work, including his wife’s own suggestion that Mural was painted in a single night, when restorers have since found layers of paint worked on over weeks or even months. ‘Blind Spots’, then, is a title that points to a range of oversights, both specific and general, that have crept in over the 100 years since Pollock’s birth.

Polly Checkland Harding

Jackson Pollock, Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, until 18 October 2015, Tate Liverpool, Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront, L3 4BB.

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1. Jackson Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952, Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Tate Gallery.