Another season at Tate Liverpool and another major exhibition well worth your time drops by. JACKSON POLLOCK: BLIND SPOTS (running until 18th October 2015) looks to shed light on a lesser-known period in the artist’s career: the black pourings. Beginning with a selection of his iconic drip paintings (1947-49), the exhibition will progress through to this intriguing period (1951-53). Alongside the black pourings will be a selection of relatively unknown drawings, providing a deepened perspective on one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. Bido Lito! writer and head of Rest Relax Records, Jonny Davis Le Brun, takes an in-depth look at the cross-pollinating world of improvisations and expressionism that informed Pollock’s work in this period, as we also introduce an exciting new collaborative In Response To project, a subsidiary of RRR.
Jackson Pollock, or Paul to his mother, played a key role in furthering the American abstract expressionist movement. Why is this important to us music fans? Because what Pollock highlighted with his drip paintings was the ultimate importance of the moment of creation. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in the 1800s, “Life is a journey, not a destination”: but it would take perhaps another century for this enlightened attitude to reach visual and sonic arts practice.
The surrealist movement that had preceded abstract expressionism had ushered in a deep tremor of spontaneity, all but denying logic and representational imagery its once hallowed seat at the throne of fine art. Duchamp’s Fountain, rising up from the anti-art Dadaist movement, had hammered a damning nail into the contextual coffin, paving the way for the following century’s spiral into the ironic scepticism of postmodernism.
Pollock’s most exciting period in the late-40s and early-50s coincided with the bubbling vitality of the burgeoning free-jazz scene in his native USA. The intuitive works of Lennie Tristano and the almighty yet beautiful clatterings of Thelonious Monk’s “elephant on the keys” style gave a shot of life to an already booming bebop scene, throwing the door wide open for the complete freedom of the likes of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor to really cut loose.
Taking a horizontal approach to painting, Pollock laid his large canvases out on the floor and began to move sharply away from the figurative representation of his previous work. Twisting and turning, carefully and with wild red eyes, he set about drip, drip, dripping paint onto the canvas. Some have suggested his resultant works knowingly predate the mathematical complexities of chaos theory. This would more likely seem to be another humanistic attempt at imbuing meaning after the fact, ignoring the journey of discovery to which this worsening alcoholic was becoming increasingly wedded.
It should come as little surprise, then, that Pollock professed a deep kinship with jazz music, believing it to be the only other creative happening to coexist alongside abstract expressionism. Chance, accidents, directness and improvisation in his work likely all stemmed from his love for America’s most intoxicating home-grown genre. Scoffing at critical analysis, he wanted his work to be enjoyed in the moment, just like the highly-charged sonic firecrackers setting alight the smoky bars and clubs from the West Coast to New York.
The flexibility and continuity of Pollock’s wandering paint drips offer a remarkable visual comparison to the flowing solo lines of some of the great jazz improvisers. Take the soft flurries of Coleman Hawkins’ My Ideal (1943) or the multi-instrument improvisations of Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) as examples. The former deals in soft, melancholic tones yet with a wilful divergence from the core melody, not unlike Pollock’s Mural (1943), painted in a single frenetic burst of energy. Mingus’ 1956 track is an all-out romp of colour and confidence, perhaps finding a visual companion in the painting Convergence (1952). Both works are riotous and rebellious in their use of myriad facets pinging off and overlapping with one another.
In 1960 Ornette Coleman released Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. The cover incorporates Pollock’s The White Light (1954), finally cementing the link between the two parallel art forms. The recent passing of Coleman has rightly brought renewed interest in his work and, in conjunction with the Jackson Pollock exhibition at Tate Liverpool, should spark the imaginations of artists throughout the North West and beyond to dig deep into the concurrent worlds of these two giants of their respective trades.
Celebrating a lesser-known period in his career, the exhibition looks into his collection of black pourings created between 1951 and 53. In response to the enormous popularity of his drip paintings and the subsequent pressure it brought him, Pollock dived deeper into alcoholism. This pushed his work into far darker territory, vastly reducing his palette and heavily favouring gushes of uncompromising black.
It is at this point that we notice his influence on the likes of Mark Rothko, an artist often deemed to reside at the opposite end of the abstract expressionist spectrum, but indeed a man with a deepening addiction to melancholia. The darkening palette of Rothko’s Color Field paintings often attract associations to ambient music thanks in part to their minimalist aesthetic. Indeed, the indeterminate music composer Morton Feldman went so far as to adorn the Rothko Chapel with his own soundtrack in 1971, following in the footsteps of Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, who themselves saw fit to provide sonic accompaniment to their favourite works of art.
So what can we learn from one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century? It enables us to develop a deeper knowledge of an intensely creative and socially important period in both American and international history. The combined force of abstract expressionism and free jazz changed lives and continues to prove influential to this day. In just a handful of years, the world saw the coming-of-age of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline. Musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Olivier Messiaen were at varying stages of their respective careers, yet with one principle uniting facets of their methodologies. Improvisation. Being mindful and aware at the moment of creation held a deep importance for each artist, allowing them to formulate theories and new paths for their field, paths still trodden to this day.
Far from the removal of emotional authenticity, as touted by a number of critics at the time, abstract expressionism and, by extension, free jazz propagated the ultimate authenticity. Not content to spin yarns and spell out the emotional feeling behind their work, this new breed of artists offered the rawest-possible presentation of their art. Expression in its purest form, warts and all.