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“Like fabulous roman candles exploding across the stars…”

December 16th, 2010

This week, the AGO announced the two major exhibitions it will be hosting in 2011: Abstract Expressionist New York from The Museum of Modern Art, and Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde from Centre Pompidou-Paris. David Moos, AGO curator of modern and contemporary art, writes below about Jackson Pollock’s No. 1A, 1948, a seminal work of the abstract expressionist movement and a highlight of the AGO’s presentation of the exhibition, opening May 28, 2011.

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912 – 1956), Number 1A, 1948. 1948. Oil and enamel paint on canvas. 68” x 8’ 8” (172.7 x 264.2 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”
– Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1848

When I see the hand of Jackson Pollock imprinted onto the canvas of No. 1A, 1948 (1948), I cannot but think of the America that was observed and envisioned by Thoreau who knew of the need to specify the enormity of the landscape. In his writing, he endeavored to catalogue the incalculable, unknowable essences of a forest, a pond, a mountain, an American ecology. And, perhaps above all, he sought to understand his role and his place in this infinite infrastructure of nature that he embraced so fully.

Looking at the surface of Pollock’s painting one ponders such terms not because among his terse yet oddly eloquent phrases he famously proclaimed as a retort to the older painter Hans Hofmann, “I am Nature,” but because of the unwinding plentitude of his creation, its perpetual energy and infinite complexity.

The painting was painted in the Springs, a small community near the end of Eastern Long Island, a rural place that was the opposite of New York City. When he stepped out of his studio Pollock had a view to of Accabonac creek, a wide low vista onto the water that ultimately opened to a sweeping bay that led out to the Atlantic. Nature was all around him, as he unrolled his expanse of canvas onto the wooden floor of the studio and delivered paint to its surface from all four sides. His balletic aerial action–existential, performative and improvisational–gave rise to possibilities that had never before been realized in paint. Pollock sensed, and in fact immediately knew, how radical a break with tradition his so-called drip paintings achieved and he declares its departure status by reaching through the imaginary realm of Modernism to actually feel what that is…to actually touch it.

His hand, dipped in black paint and pressed onto the surface shows us the presence of the artist. The hand, the artist’s hand, reaches to touch something tangible–not simply the canvas laid onto the studio floor, but by extension, the earth itself. “Contact! Contact!” this hand print proclaims–seeking to ascribe and appraise the detail and enormity of both the natural world and his own painting.

David Moos
Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art


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