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America's Great Paintings: 'Number 23, 1948' (1948) by Jackson Pollock

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With the Second World War over, America feared the outbreak of another conflict, this time against the USSR over the fate of Western Europe. Former Allied and Axis powers alike, with their infrastructures shattered and economies flattened, were seen as vulnerable of falling to communism. To secure peace, the USA needed to prove to wavering Europeans that its values of democracy and meritocracy were the best way forward, but how to convince them when many Europeans saw America as a cultural desert, a land of cartoons, trashy movies and little, if any, interest in high art? After all, why should the Parisian élite, with their impeccable, unchallenged judgement, think any differently about US art when most Americans felt the same way? America needed a great painter like never before, and with an artistic movement to back him up, to sweep away such prejudices. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Jackson Pollock, figurehead of the emerging Abstract Expressionists, could not have been better suited to the task of promoting American art, even if he knew nothing of the CIA's machinations behind Abstract Expressionism's promotion to the global stage. Tough, troubled, virile and hard-drinking, Jackson Pollock helped America move the center of the art world from its traditional home in Paris, to New York, where it remains.

Born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, the home town of another American legend, Buffalo Bill, Pollock studied under the renowned Thomas Hart Benton at the Arts Student League in New York, moving on in 1935 to work for the Federal Arts Project for seven years. Pollock’s career took off in 1943 when he painted a mural for the wealthy socialite and arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, and Pollock exhibited in her gallery later that year. For years however, Pollock had struggled with his own limitations, and the frustrations he experienced of knowing himself as a great artist, yet somehow unable to express that greatness on the easel, caused Pollock mental turmoil, leading to depression and neuroses. Along with alcoholism, Pollock also turned to that other great American institution, the psychoanalyst, for help.

Around 1947, Pollock hit upon the idea of abandoning the easel to more freely express his inner turmoil. Laying his canvases upon the floor, Pollock gave up the brush and painted with tools traditionally associated with the American worker: trowels, sticks and knives, used to apply enamel paints more at home in the workshop and not the artist’s studio. Not just paint, but sand, ground glass, dirt also found its way into the finished article. Even Pollock’s attire, casual work shirts and jeans, gave him the look of an ordinary worker: “The blue-collar duds; the defiant swagger of the cross-legged pose; the surly, squinting stare-down, and the thuggy dangling cigarette,” heralded a new type of American hero, one with its roots in the angry dignity of those ground down by the Great Depression (Nor was Pollock above competitiveness or commercialism; once he begin selling his work for large sums, “he set his sights on and...obtained the epoch’s classic American emblem of arrival...a 1947 Cadillac convertible.”).

Such details were important to win over hearts and minds in the US and Europe. Had Pollock presented to the public as an effete, snobbish ‘French’ artist, dabbing at the canvas with a pallet of oils and producing still life pictures of bowls of fruit, the US may not have had success with Abstract Expressionism over the Soviets’ Social Realism movement of the time; the idea was not to match Paris with what it already had to offer, but to prove America’s cultural superiority with a fresh, exciting movement of artistic freedom, even if it meant the freedom to rail against the American establishment. Paris had to approve of such an artistic method, even if it meant the end of their city as the West’s great cultural hub.  

1948 saw Pollock at the peak of his powers, and his ‘Number 23 1948’ (1948) is typical of his prodigious output of that year. The title gives us no clue about the content, no easy way in, just as Pollock intended; numbers were neutral, words gave too much away. ‘Number 23 1948’ asks us to ask what it is and there are no easy answers. The eye, without reference points or lines of perspective, struggles to rest in one particular place, where we might find some form of immediate recognition. We might believe the black, elongated and vaguely upright figure as human in some form, but there exists nothing elsewhere on the canvas to support this belief. Instead, fast, thin lines lead to pooling swirls, which one might think the mind could rest, but the tireless swirls are of equal importance as the other images we see, making them as non-important as those images.

The colors used also give no clue as to the event, but are more in line with an overall ethic. As critic Irving Sandler put it, Pollock is “a consummate draftsman” through “the clarity with which he articulated his rhythms,” the competing senses of composure and vibrancy that his work projects. “Pollock was primarily a draftsman,” continued Sandler, “and the fact that he favored black and white reinforces that impression.” Ironically, the colors are the only thing about ‘Number 23 1948’ that are black-and-white to the viewer.

Without planes, perspectives or reference points, we have no foreground or background. The

painting is both coming towards us and moving away from us, it is both shallow and deep, as it is impossible to tell how far the lines and curls extend in any direction. This gives us the ideas of the picture as a snapshot of infinity, a one-billionth of a second of the life of a human thought. There is something electrical and of the synapses in ‘Number 23 1948,’ an arena that is both of outer space and of inner mind. Are we witnessing an atomic explosion, or some great galactic disaster, or a human mind witnessing those events? What counts as totality? Which way is up, and does it matter? The painting may project around an eternity of dimensions, yet if it does, then the fraction we see is as relevant as any other part of this psycho-structure. In racing along Pollock’s paint and his thoughts, we race along our own, yet pause and reflect on those thoughts in so doing. ‘Number 23 1948,’ is at once private and public, something minuscule and intimate taking on a cosmic scale, drawing us in even as it repels us.

And Pollock’s work, with its confrontational way, repelled many. After the shock of witnessing such works for the first time, viewers became angry of what they perceived as the ‘easiness’ of creating such a piece; everything about Pollock’s work appeared accidental, so surely anyone could create such art? Where was the skill involved in something like ‘Number 23 1948’? Aside from the fact that witnesses, and film recorded of Pollock at work, substantiate the deliberate process of Pollock’s decision-making over his paintings, that every positioned drop of paint mattered, such accusations miss the point, which is such accusations are the point. The story around the painting, and of the painter, is story of the painting, the story of ourselves and of the United States, with its limitless possibilities and open expanses.

Of course, Pollock and his methods were controversial; that was the intention, for the work to provoke free, unfettered discussion, and debates raged over his ‘drip paintings,’ vast all-over canvases of paint without a single brush stroke (aside from Pollock’s signature), with colors flung at the canvas, or leaked from punctured tin cans suspended about the painting. Pollock used not just his hands and arms, but his whole body, projecting his mental condition through sheer physicality, with art the result. To look at a Pollock canvas is to see the mind of the man, and through reflection, our own minds and the spaces we inhabit, bodily, psychically and spiritually, even spiritual absence. Pollock’s most famous works are about the gesture, and not the mere representation, or duplication, of artifacts as they appeared to us in reality. America, and the Free West, needed art of the new age – atomic, psychoanalytic, outer space – and Abstract Expressionism gave them all of this.

From a political point of view, the most important part of Jackson Pollock’s work is Pollock’s freedom to create a work expressing freedom, and our freedom to interpret the painting as we see fit, and whether we agree or disagree is irrelevant. This aspect is lost on many, including Americans of the time; Congress often disapproved strongly of modern American art, seeing it as subversive and playing into the hands of foreign powers. Some politicians even suspected abstract works contained coded references to weaknesses in strategic American defenses and one congressman, George Dondero (R – Missouri) launched a fierce campaign against all forms of new American art. Not for the first time, American politicians were not aware of the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the CIA, who funded exhibitions of Pollock’s work and that of fellow Abstract Expressionists (Motherwell, Rothko, de Kooning, Cline) throughout Western


Perhaps the oddest thing of it all is that America won the ideological war with the USSR not on the battlefield, but in the art gallery. Abstract Expressionism won over the minds of the cultural élite of Western Europe and New York replaced Paris as the home of world art. They might be crazy, good-for-nothing beatniks, but they’re our crazy, good-for-nothing beatniks, free men in a free world, loners by choice, voices in the wilderness. As for Pollock, the James Dean of the movement, critics believe he lost his way after reverting to more traditional artistic techniques around 1950, but he had already served his country well. Pollock died in 1956 in, what else, a car crash, adding to the great and tragic legend that, like his work without stories, remains a source of fascination to this day.

‘Number 23 1948’ (1948) is available to view at the Tate Modern gallery, London, UK.



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  1. Irving Sandler Abstract Expressionism: The Triumph of American Painting. London: Pall Mall Press, 1970.
  2. Jackson Pollock: The Irascibles and the New York School. Milan: Skira, 2002.
  3. Hugh Honour & John Fleming A World History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005.

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