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Case Study 18 “Seeing Through Paintings”

Case Study 18 attempts to “expose the gap between the modernist effect of spontaneity and the slow and deliberate paint application that produced it.” Utilizing Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles as an example of a work in question, this study proves visual examination alone can reveal a paintings true origin. In 1973 press attention and controversy surrounded Blue Poles because of its high price and especially Tony Smith’s assertion that Blue Poles was a product of joint participation among Smith, Newman, and Pollock. This revelation angered many and was ultimately rejected by two curators at the National Gallery in Australia, Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond.

Lloyd and Desmond scrutinized the surface of the painting in visible light; due to the nature of the examination, further analytical techniques were not required. Lloyd and Desmond distinguished at least five separate layers from the overlapping paint. They concluded that this separation is visible because Pollock must have let each layer dry before applying a new one. 1. Pollock paints initial black puddles; due to the way the paint has pooled and flowed, it is determined that the canvas has been moved from the wall to the floor repeatedly. 2. Pollock tacks the canvas to the wall, allowing streams of fluid white paint to drip and spread over the dark pools of the previous layer. 3. Pollock moves the canvas to the floor and paints a tangled web of yellow, orange, and aluminum paint. 4. After previous layer dries, Pollock paints blue poles, which are distinct from the background – very clear that the other paint layers have dried. 5. The final layer is applied, lacing the canvas with fine webs of white, black, and blue paint. The five layers have been applied with brushes, rags, and pouring.

Despite the painting’s casual and spontaneous quality, these five layers denote a long process of creation. The five layers also indicate Pollock’s great control of his medium, as we see his diverse paint application: the size of the brushstroke and in the speed in which the paint is put on. It is also clear that Pollock moved around the whole large canvas to create a cohesive, unified whole. Therefore, as Lloyd and Desmond found, the spontaneous effect of Blue Poles was not created effortlessly. The case study reveals how long and hard Pollock worked at achieving these effects.

What I found most interesting about this study is the total focus on the surface if the painting. The curators claimed that the effects of the painting were not achieved in a moment of inspired action painting or drunken fury; rather, the painting was created systematically. Lloyd and Desmond assume that Jackson Pollock was in a right state of mind due to the thoughtfulness of each layer of paint and they assume he painted alone due to the artist’s supposed control over the canvas. While they may have been correct in their assumptions, the surface of the painting cannot reveal any of this as fact.

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