Alex Matter / New York Times

Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm

March 3, 2021

PONTIN | A Fourth Grade Lesson in Abstract Expressionism

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As a youngster, I adored art class. I savored the opportunity to fashion absurd objects out of papier-mâché, construct miniature furniture out of old toilet paper tubes and try my hand at the messy discipline of ceramics. To say that I had talent, however, or even mere competency, would be something of a major miscalculation. Don’t believe me? On one occasion, a teacher even asked for permission to use my work as an example of what not to do. I had made the grave mishap of trying to blend non-analogous colors using colored pencils. Amateur mistake, I know.

My sole success, however, sprung up when our teacher made us privy to the grand world of abstract expressionism. I was at once awestruck and unimpressed. The paintings we examined, crafted by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were acutely visually interesting. They captured my gaze and my breath, inviting my young brain into a space that was preposterously yet comfortingly unrecognizable. At the same time, however, I was a keenly judgemental fourth grader. Eternal glory, and for what? All he did was splatter a bunch of paint and make a giant mess. For works that had garnered extensive praise, they sure didn’t look too difficult to replicate.

It was out of that mindset, some strange concoction of apathy and amusement, that my glowing, breathtaking, nine-year-old masterpiece was born. Entitled Rocky November, it was a beautiful array of chaos with a multitude of colors and textures. My approach was disorderly, drawing upon a range of odd household items to craft unlikely patterns in the paint. Cotton balls and yarn became my creative tools of choice; Q-tips and paperclips morphed into vehicles for my own artistic revolution. 

At the time of Abstract Expressionim’s genesis, the globe was grappling with the devastating legacy of the Second World War. Artists struggled to reflect a world that they themselves could barely make sense of on their own. They had been struck dumb by two world wars and an inescapable economic depression that had all occurred in the span of just a few decades. How could they feel compelled to bring to life a world that felt utterly and irreversibly lifeless?

Abstraction, of course, became a major means of resolving this omnipotent inconsistency. They reciprocated on canvas not the ideal postwar society they hoped for, but the world as they perceived it, full of misplaced vigor and deluded zeal.

The drive towards abstract expressionism represented a drastic shift not only in style, but in practice. In many cases, carefully positioned brushstrokes had been exchanged for sweeping, haphazardly induced veins of paint, and the traditional image of the artist posed opposite the easel was abandoned in favor of a more casual approach with the canvas splayed across the floor. It is also crucial to underscore that these were not small, experimental pieces. Many of these works were indeed massive, demonstrating the fervor and the boldness with which these artists approached their creations. Pollock’s Mural, for example, measures in at a width of 20 feet. 

While Pollock’s disarrayed action painting has become largely synonymized with the genre as a whole, the movement also encompasses at least two other similar techniques. The color-field form, for example, is best known for its reliance upon rectangles of smooth, bleeding color, while another method highlighted a more gentle, forgiving approach to imparting familiar images. Unlike the Social Realism and Regionalism that marked the 1930s, astute attention to detail was no longer a primary focus.  There was a greater emphasis on conveying to the viewer a particular state of being, rather than depicting a specific scene with perfect accuracy. 

There exists, however, a striking need for caution here. Abstract expressionism should not be regarded as little more than fourth grade play. The school’s dramatic variation from its more strictly defined, more realistic predecessors is by no means a mechanism with which to discredit it. These works are visceral in terms of both their inception and the feeling they inspire within observers. They challenge us to consider a world in which boundaries are not so clearly drawn, in which the mundane is not necessarily undesirable, in which we learn to find peace within the unprecedented. 

In a more concrete sense, the production of Abstract Expressionist staples like Lee Krasner’s Night Creatures or Mark Rothco’s Multiform required far more than simple flicks of the wrist. Fluid dynamics researchers have undertaken significant study into the specific mechanisms Jackson Pollock used to create his iconic “drip technique,” which was far more complex than it appears at first blush. His pieces are unique in that they do not display evidence of coiling instability, a phenomenon that typically manifests when viscous liquids are poured. These findings indicate that Pollock’s means of crafting these apparently chaotic works was by no means arbitrary, requiring a precise confluence of numerous details including paint texture and amount of space between hand and canvas. 

Abstract Expressionism built upon the existing foundations of Expressionism, popular in Europe before the dawn of World War I, to mirror a world that had since become ever more disrupted and unsettling. This movement was both born out of and contributed to a world that had begun to feel increasingly unclear, with national borders and entire economies bound in a state of flux. The Abstract Expressionists strived to construct for us a world brimming with harmless transgressions, in which challenges to the status quo resulted in neither natural nor national disasters. Despite the misguided judgements my nine-year-old self grasped so tightly, these pieces are not child’s play — instead, they are proof of the remarkable maturity of being able to reframe a world that feels starkly unfamiliar. 

P.S. In case you’re wondering, Rocky November did not make the cut for the elementary art show. The piece is currently in storage after enjoying several years on exhibit in the basement of my childhood home. 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Wednesdays.