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On what Jackson Pollock teaches us

There’s a student in my Journal & Sketchbook class who produces these ornate automatic drawings in a constant outpouring of mark-making. He always uses black pen, but after a conference last week in which I suggested that he use colour, he’s started doing drawings with coloured pencils. It’s clear he’s discovered new things, among them the realization that you can overlay shape on shape when you move to a different colour. The latest things that I saw in his sketchbook reminded me of de Kooning, or maybe early Jackson Pollock.
J&S student automatic drawing
The obvious point of comparison is the looping movement of the lines, all over the picture plane, and the way that the abstract swirls and scribbles at certain stages trigger recognition in the mind, making the hand add representational elements, such as eyes or faces. Pollock’s earlier work, just before he broke completely into the world of Action Painting, does this all the time—inserting symbols of the real world into the maelstrom, as if he was trying to impose a little order on the chaos.

'Eyes in the Heat', Jackson Pollock, 1946
Rather than flattering my student, I’m trying to say that it’s intriguing to see how Pollock’s discoveries have a solid foundation in the human psyche. It’s like a scientist who generates a theory, and the theory gets confirmed in experiments conducted by other scientists. The Surrealists were the first visual artists who tried to give themselves over to the Unconscious—that newly discovered submerged continent—but it was Jackson Pollock who cut himself loose entirely from the reality of forms (maybe Kandinsky was the earlier, first pure abstract artist, but I would maintain that there are still nods to representation in his work.) Mejor dicho: instead of producing his pictures by an ordering of the symbols of the Unconscious, Pollock presented us with the purest form of artistic Unconscious, which is the movement of the arm and hand, the gesture, limited only by the size of the canvas, its edges, and human stamina. There is nothing really to ‘see’ in a Pollock Action painting, but they are exhilarating nonetheless.

Of course, Pollock was nagged by the accusation that his work was formless, completely random, and on different occasions he made statements trying to correct that impression:

“When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

So he’s simultaneously unaware of what he’s doing (the Unconscious) yet he tries to see what he’s been about (the Conscious). The painting has a life of its own (the Unconscious) yet he will make changes, he will try to keep in contact with the process (the Conscious). It’s exactly as he puts it in that last line: his process involved a give and take between knowing and not knowing, control and chaos.

And when I do automatic drawing, or I see a student doing automatic drawing, it’s clear that the same push and pull is at work. We make the same discovery of how liberating gestural mark-making can be, and how throwing out random abstract marks leads us to start seeing new things, whether inside our mind or outside it.
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