September 5, 2014 // Amsterdam Trans-Idiomatic Arts Practicum
Jackson Pollock - Reflection of the Big Dipper
1947, Paint on canvas, 111x92cm // Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
My edit history (of late-ness):
3:28pm Friday - submitted photos + all but last paragraph
4:02pm Friday - finished writing last paragraph
9:52am Saturday - better organised and resized photos, added edit history
Pictured: three CoBrA works
As I walked through the vibrantly coloured, tribally rough, aggressively textured work of Appel, Constant, Jorn, and other artists from the 1948-51 movement in European art called CoBrA, a different type of painting boldly peeked through the next doorway. Pollock’s “Reflection of the Big Dipper” was a clear outlier, an outsider among its completely European gallery companions, and pulled me strongly into the next room.
Stedelijk’s placement of the Pollock painting made sense; there was a clear progression from the more figurative CoBrA works to the more abstract CoBrA works where material was the subject (see above photos). Despite being created before most of the preceding CoBrA pieces, “Reflection of the Big Dipper” functioned as an ending point to this section of the gallery. This anachronism is appropriate because this early Pollock work is almost the ultimate realisation of abstract expressionism and a tough act to follow (at least on those terms - the gallery continues with an entirely different movement: cubism).
This was not the first time I’ve seen a Pollock in person but it was the first time I’ve really experienced one; the lack of crowds allowed me to selfishly spend a long time in front of the painting and the lack of a proximity rope fence allowed me to get very close to the painting’s surface. This closeness let me almost breath in, smell, and notice the incredible three dimensionality of the paint; I never before knew dimension to be such an important component of Pollock’s work, which we will discuss shortly. When the painting entirely contained my peripheral vision, I would dare call the experience “spiritual”, even though a Pollock work is less explicitly designed to elicit this reaction than, say, a Rothko.
Formally, immersion in Pollock’s wild expressions of lines and galaxies of splatters elicits this spiritual experience. When close to the piece, I felt like I was one of many particles of Pollock’s nebulae. Compared to other works of Abstract Expressionism, I found it natural to let this canvas become my reality. If a work of art is easily comprehensible, you “get it” and consequently, in your mind, the work can be easily thought of and distinguished from your own self. It is a separate entity that exists there, on the museum wall, and your emotional and intellectual experience of it is very much confined to the thing. That experience may still be profound and beautiful, but it is not “spiritual” because it it restricted to the material thing, requiring the constant external influence of the physical piece.
In contrast, I really struggled to separate myself from “Reflection of the Big Dipper”, to merely look away, whip out my phone, and jot down notes. The experience of the painting had infiltrated my personal experience and now, retrospectively, I realise that I was quite uncomfortable with the fact that I didn’t have thoughts “about the painting” but more “of the painting”. Pollock’s visual language briefly became the only language I knew; there was a particular moment, the first time where I pulled away from the painting to write thoughts down, where I legitimately failed to remember English. This is similar to that brief moment of mental uncertainty and in-between when one is switching between spoken languages. When “in” the painting, I thought in terms of line, blob, splatter, brush stroke, drip, and colour. That type of immersion is why I use the word “spiritual” to describe my experience, because “Reflection of the Big Dipper” was wonderfully, surprisingly, and uncomfortably internal.
This painting naturally becomes one’s reality because it is incomprehensible; the chaotic mixture of lines, splatter, and colour defies any sort of neat organisation or method of “packaging” it into smaller components which one’s mind can retain and remember. This chaos closely approximates the beautiful unpredictability and deterministic randomness of the natural world. The beauty of this work is that it is reminiscent of nature on varying size scales from the largest: galaxy clusters, galaxies, and nebula, to the smallest: bacteria, atomic collision graphs, etcetera. Thus “Reflection of the Big Dipper” is fractal, and indeed on closer inspection one notices that Pollock’s splatters have smaller splatters within them, that his lines have smaller lines accompanying them. The artist likely achieved this not through explicit planning but through natural physical gestures (to create natural-looking forms) repeated several times with different levels of energy (to reproduce those same forms at different scales).
One both consciously and unconsciously notices Pollock’s progressively growing energy and intensity over the course of painting “Reflection of the Big Dipper”. After the “oldest” thick, calm brush strokes of burgundy, green, and silver come more intense, thinner strokes of blue, orange, yellow, and other colours, where Pollock’s brush begins to skip and bounce of the canvas. The visual pace becomes more visually piercing and emotionally evocative with strong stabs of white “comets” that have very long, very straight tails and thick, three dimensional heads. Their strong linearity is contrasted and infected by purple and yellow, which Pollock applied as spritzes/splatters without any sense of “stroke”. Finally, non-viscous black, applied with line-splatter hybrid strokes, sits boldly, defiantly on top.
It is very difficult to analyse the importance of individual components of Pollock’s diverse visual vocabulary here, especially because “Reflection of the Big Dipper” is one of his earliest drip-style paintings, where he leaned more towards pure chaos before discovering more harmonious “meaningful” forms in his more mature work. Yet for all its chaos, this painting has a few “rules of physics”. The black and white sit in front of the more chaotic, colourful bed; they had the most clearly defined shape and most powerfully shaped my experience. The space around the black line-splatters and white comets around the edges of the canvas is essential to accentuating their “collisions” (of extra-splattery black) in the centre of the canvas. The black lines gracefully extend to the edges of the canvas, conveying their fast, swirling motion and consequently your eye is caught following their powerful paths.
My eye found nowhere to comfortably rest, contributing to the immersive effect of the piece. However, the straightness of the white comet tails provided key moments, not of “rest”, but at least of “orientation” - lines by which to orient my sense of direction and briefly halt my eye’s relentless movement. Importantly though, they sit somewhere in the middle of the painting’s production and their linear “pureness” is viciously interrupted by splatters - a strong vote for the painting’s ultimate “organic-ness”. But, in short, Pollock’s chaos is beautifully immersive, strong, and inescapable.