Art History Everyone Should Know: Benton, Pollock and Rothko

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Jackson Pollock

Thomas Hart Benton. 
Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. 1934
oil and tempera on canvas
American Regionalism
Jackson Pollock. Going West. 1934
Form: This early work of Pollocks is often compared to the wok of Thomas Hart Benton, titled Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley. Though the palette is somewhat monochromatic, the scene is traditional. Iconography and Context: 
Paul Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming on 28 January 1912. He was the fifth and youngest son of LeRoy McCoy Pollock and Stella McClure Pollock. The family left Cody when Pollock was less than a year old, and he was raised in Arizona and California. After a series of unsuccessful farming ventures, his father became a surveyor and worked on road crews at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere in the Southwest. Pollock, who sometimes joined his father on these jobs, later remarked that memories of the panoramic landscape influenced his artistic vision. While attending Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, Pollock was encouraged to pursue his early interest in art. Two of his brothers, Charles and Sanford (known as Sande), were also developing as artists. Charles, the eldest, went to New York to study with the Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League, and he suggested that Jackson should join him. In 1930 Pollock went east and enrolled in Benton's class at the League. It was at about this time that he dropped his first name, Paul, and began using his middle name.
Under Benton's guidance, Pollock analyzed Old Master paintings and learned the rudiments of drawing and composition. He also studied mural painting with Benton and posed for his teacher's 1930-31 murals at the New School for Social Research, where the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco was at work on frescoes. Pollock's first-hand experience of contemporary mural painting is thought to have sparked his ambition to paint large scale works of his own, although he would not realize that aim until 12 years later.
During the 1930s, Pollock's work reflected Benton's "American Scene" aesthetic, although enriched by a brooding, almost mystical quality reminiscent of the work of the visionary painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, whom Pollock admired. Orozco's influence also made itself felt, especially after Pollock saw him at work on his dynamic frescoes for Dartmouth College (1932-34).


Jackson Pollock. 
Birth. 1938 
oil on canvas mounted on plywood. 
Abstract Expressionism
Form: Jackson Pollock started to veer away from his more traditional style of painting at this point. Iconography: Pollock was an extremely agitated and upset man. As an artist he was unable to achieve the degree of proficiency with the paint that his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, had and could never get over his envy of artists such as Picasso and Miro. In writing about the biographical movie of his life, Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post puts it rather succinctly, "Rather than a sudden epi-phany, Pollock's arrival at the new approach to painting is depicted as a difficult birth following a long series of artistic contractions. It's sometime in the late 1940s and Pollock -- after more than a decade of wrestling with his own crippling Picasso envy, his unwillingness to imitate his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, and failed experiments with cubism, surrealism and automatism -- has just stumbled on his signature style after accidentally spilling paint on the floor." ( It may be said that his work is his struggle in trying to reach that 'birth;, to get to the place where he would eventually feel that his paintings had as much value as those of the artists he looked up to.
"With the advent of the New Deal's work-relief projects, Pollock and many of his contemporaries were able to work as artists on the federal payroll. Under government aegis, Pollock enrolled in the easel division of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, which provided him with a source of income for nearly eight years and enabled him to devote himself to artistic development. Some of Pollock's WPA paintings are now lost, but those that survive--together with other canvases, drawings and prints made during this period--illustrate his complex synthesis of source material and the gradual emergence of a deeply personal pictorial language. By the early 1940s, Native American motifs and other pictographic imagery played a central role in his compositions, marking the beginnings of a mature style. Even as his art was gaining in assurance and originality, Pollock was experiencing personal turmoil and recurring bouts of depression. He was also struggling to control his alcoholism, which would continue to plague him throughout his life. His brothers Charles and Sande, with whom he shared living quarters at 46 East 8th Street in Manhattan, encouraged him to seek treatment, including psychoanalysis. Although therapy was not successful in curbing Pollock's drinking or relieving his depression, it introduced him to Jungian concepts that validated the subjective, symbolic direction his art was taking. In late 1941, Sande wrote to Charles, who had left New York, that if Jackson could "hold himself together his work will become of real significance. His painting is abstract, intense, evocative in quality."


The Moon Woman 1942
Abstract Expressionism
Male and Female. 1942. 
oil on canvas, 6'x4'
Abstract Expressionism
Form: Still in the stages before he created the works he would eventually become famous for, it is easy to see the Picasso-inspired style of these two oil paintings. However, he was also influenced strongly by the work of the Native Americans. In Male and Female, it is evident that he was influenced by the Southwest culture, such as navajo rugs and Indian sand paintings. Iconography:  "It has been suggested that Pollock was influenced by Native American sand paintings, made by trickling thin lines of colored sand onto a horizontal surface. It was not until 1947 that Pollock began his "action'' paintings, influenced by
Surrealist ideas of "psychic automatism'' (direct expression of the unconscious). Pollock would fix his canvas to the
floor and drip paint from a can using a variety of objects to manipulate the paint. 
The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle (1943; 109.5 x 104 cm (43 x 41 in)) is an early Pollock, but it shows the passionate intensity with which he pursued his personal vision. This painting is based on a North American Indian myth. It connects the moon with the feminine and shows the creative, slashing power of the female psyche. It is not easy to say what we are actually looking at: a face rises before us, vibrant with power, though perhaps the image does not benefit from labored explanations. If we can respond to this art at a fairly primitive level, then we can also respond to a great abstract work such as Lavender Mist. If we cannot, at least we can appreciate the fusion of colors and the Expressionist feeling of urgency that is communicated. Moon-Woman may be a feathered harridan or a great abstract pattern; the point is that it works on both levels."
(  And, for Male and Female, 
"This article demonstrates that Pollock drew his inspiration for Male and Female not from a wellspring of psychic urges, but from a roll-out drawing of a relatively obscure stela from Chavín de Huántar, Peru. With the skill of a shaman, Pollock transformed this monument's  two-thousand-year-old iconography into a modern idiom, preserving the original motifs in the outlines of his "violent automatism." Even the organization of the stela is retained, providing ample clues to the origin of Pollock's stylized male and female caimans. There exists well-documented evidence that Pollock drew heavily from Native American sources. His admiration of Navajo sand paintings, Northwest Coast masks, and pre-Columbian Mexican imagery are all evident in his work before 1940. What remains undisclosed are the striking parallels between Pollock's early "nonobjective"  paintings and native Peruvian bas-reliefs. Clear stylistic and iconographical affinities characterize not only in Male and Female but also other paintings of the critical period from 1942 through the mid-forties. Documentary evidence further buttresses this observable relationship. Both Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner distinctly remember Pollock's stated goal in the early forties "to create a 'parallel' version of Picasso." Judging from the evidence, it seems likely that Pollock intended to conjure up the native spirits of the New World, just as Picasso had summoned forth African genies from the Old World."
"Jackson Pollock's painting Male and Female has long been recognized as a pivotal work in the artist's career. Completed around 1942 shortly after Pollock underwent Jungian analysis, the painting's imagery is generally attributed to the autonomic manifestation of Jungian archetypes. Consequently, Male and Female is reproduced in numerous scholarly publications, and is acclaimed as a significant step in Pollock's search for prelogical expression—one which eventually culminates in his drip paintings." 


Full Fathom 5. 1947
Oil on canvas with nails, 
tacks, buttons, coins, cigarettes, etc, 
129 x 76.5 cm (50 7/8 x 30 1/8 in) 
Abstract Expressionism

  Form: Oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, coins, cigarettes, etc. At this time Pollock was standing over the canvas he was painting on, and allowing the detritus that fell onto it to become a part of the artwork itself.
Form, Iconography, and Context: 
"Full Fathom Five is one of the earliest masterpieces of Pollock's drip technique. The actual origins and initial development of this technique have never been fully explained, except by reading back from fuller photographic evidence produced about 1950, two or three years after this work was painted. Like other practical breakthroughs in twentieth-century painting, 'creative accident' seems likely to have played an important part, as Pollock probed and tested methods of paint application which promote the continuousness of line rather than the broken lines inevitable in the constant reloadings and readjustments of conventional brushwork. His solution was to pour from a can of domestic paint along a stick resting inside the container, so that a constant 'beam' of pigment came into contact with the canvas (which he left unstretched on the studio floor). The character of the line was determined by certain physical and material variables that could be combined in almost infinite permutations: the viscosity of the paint (controlled by thinning and dilution); the angle and hence speed of the pouring; and the dynamics of Pollock's bodily gestures, his sweep and rhythm, especially in the wrist, arm and shoulder. 'Like a seismograph', noted writer Wemer Haftmann 'the painting recorded the energies and states of the man who drew it.' In addition Pollock would flick, splatter and dab subsidiary colors on to the dominant linear configuration." (
Context: It is most probable that Pollock was thinking of this Shakespeare sonnet as he worked; note the tempest-like appearance and feel of the paint, both in texture and color.
Full Fathom Five
The Tempest (I, II, 329)
by William Shakespeare FERDINAND.
Where should this music be? i'the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: - and, sure, it waits upon
Some god o'the island.  Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father's wrack,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow'd it,
Or hath it drawn me rather: - but 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.
ARIEL, sings.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
     Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
     Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
          [Burden within. Ding-dong.]
Hark! now I hear them, - Ding-dong, bell.
The ditty does remember my drown'd father: -
This is no mortal business, nor no sound
That the earth owes: - I hear it now above me.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) 1950
oil on canvas 8'x17'
Abstract Expressionism
Form: "Action" or "drip" painting on canvas. Iconography and Context:
At this point in hs career, Pollock was begininng to truly come into his own with his new style of 'action' painting. He began to get into the rhythm of the movement inherent in painting and allowed music to influence him, "New York painter Jackson Pollock(1912-1956) was an unquestionable leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement. His above 1950 work Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), exemplifies the careful balance between accident and control that characterizes both his art and the improvisational jazz of the period. Pollock himself was an avowed jazz fan, often attending live performance's at New York's Five Spot club. Critic Ellen Landau notes the influence of jazz on Pollock's painting: As early as prescient critic compared the "flare, spatter and fury" of Pollock's paintings to modern music...Pollock loved jazz..."rocking and rolling" for days on end to Dizzy Gillespie, Bird, Dixieland, and bebop. What undoubtedly attracted him to this type of sound was not just its rhythm and tempo, but its naked presentation of honest and deeply felt emotion...Pollock could tell his wife that jazz was "the only other creative thing happening in the country."
Context: (culled directly from an interview on
JIM LEHRER: Now a painter who changed American art.
Senior Producer Jeffrey Brown reports. JEFFREY BROWN: The painting is violent, like a boxing match.
 KIRK VARNEDOE, Museum of Modern Art: The way that things are flung against the canvas -- the splat, the splatter-- there's a sense of aggression in the picture.
 JEFFREY BROWN: It's lyrical , like a ballet. (music in background)
KIRK VARNEDOE: There's something extremely fine and delicate about a lot of these lines that is choreographed on some level of ecstasy.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's dense, like a dream --.
 KIRK VARNEDOE: There's no foreground, there's no background, there's no tree, there's no dog, there's no recognizable anything in this picture. And yet there's a sense of very complex space that's poised between opposites.
JEFFREY BROWN: That is the view from curator Kirk Varnadoe of "Autumn Rhythm," dripped, poured, and flung into existence by Jackson Pollock in 1950, and now part of a Pollock retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The music is from a CD put out by the museum, the jazz Pollock listened to for days on end, from his own collection.
JACKSON POLLOCK: Sometimes I use a brush but often prefer using a stick. Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can.

Pollock was invited to participate in a group exhibition of work by French and American painters, including Picasso, Braque, Matisse and other established masters. Among the virtually unknown Americans in the group was Lenore Krassner--later known as Lee Krasner--who became Pollock's lover and later his wife. The work she saw in Pollock's studio convinced her of his extraordinary talent, and it was not long before influential members of New York's avant-garde intellegensia began to share her opinion. His work came to the attention of Peggy Guggenheim, whose gallery, Art of This Century, showed the most challenging new work by American and European abstractionists and Surrealists. Guggenheim became Pollock's dealer and patron, introducing his work to the small but avid audience for vanguard painting.  In 1945 Guggenheim lent Pollock the down payment on a small homestead in The Springs, a rural hamlet near East Hampton, Long Island. This property, now the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, would be Pollock's home for the rest of his life and the site of his most innovative and influential work. Before moving to The Springs, his imagery had been congested, his colors somber, and the general mood of his paintings anxious and conflicted. Soon after establishing his studio in the country, however, his colors brightened, his compositions opened up, and his imagery reflected a new responsiveness to nature. Soon he would pioneer the spontaneous pouring technique for which he became world-renowned.
Although Pollock had first experimented with liquid paint at the Siqueiros workshop in 1936, it would not become his primary medium until more than ten years later. By 1947 he was creating densely layered all-over compositions that earned both praise and scorn from the critics. Some dismissed them as meaningless and chaotic, while others saw them as superbly organized, visually fascinating and psychologically compelling. Clement Greenberg, one of Pollock's most ardent supporters, maintained that he was "the most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one." With several one-person exhibitions to his credit and work included in important group shows, Pollock was receiving significant attention. A profile in the 8 August 1949 issue of Life magazine introduced his challenging art to a nationwide audience and cemented his growing reputation as the foremost modern painter of his generation.
Pollock's radical breakthrough was accompanied by a period of sobriety lasting two years, during which he created some of his most beautiful masterpieces. In his barn studio, he spread his canvas on the floor and developed his compositions by working from all four sides, allowing the imagery to evolve spontaneously, without preconceptions. Pollock described this technique as "direct" painting and likened it to American Indian sand painting. He maintained, however, that the method was "a natural growth out of a need," and that its only importance was as "a means of arriving at a statement." The character and content of that statement were then and remain controversial, subject to widely varying interpretations--which is why Pollock's art has retained its vitality in spite of changing tastes.
In 1951 Pollock's aesthetic underwent a shift in emphasis as he abandoned non-objective imagery in favor of abstracted references to human and animal forms. "When you're working out of your unconscious," he explained, "figures are bound to emerge." He also gave up color to create a series of stark black paintings on unprimed canvas. Many of his admirers were ambivalent about his new direction, which may account at least in part for Pollock's inability to remain sober. For the next five years he would struggle unsuccessfully to solve his drinking problem, while his art underwent a series of revisions, some more successful than others. Color returned, gesture became richer and more various, and Pollock once again veiled his imagery in layers that obscured as much as they revealed. 
By 1955, however, Pollock's personal demons had triumphed over his artistic drive, and he stopped painting altogether. Ironically, his work had begun to earn a respectable income for him and Krasner, who was becoming increasingly estranged from her troubled, alcoholic husband. In the summer of 1956 she took the opportunity of a trip to Europe to re-evaluate their relationship, while Pollock remained at home with a young mistress to distract him from the agonies of self-doubt and inaction that plagued him. In Paris, on the morning of 12 August, Krasner received a telephone call informing her that Pollock had died the night before in an automobile accident. Driving drunk, he had overturned his convertible, killing himself and an acquaintance and seriously injuring his other passenger.
Bio written by Helen Harrison; Director, Pollock-Krasner House

  Color Field Painting

Mark Rothko 1903-1970
Earth and Green c1950

Form: Rothko was the master at a form of painting titled 'color field'. Though known as an Abstract Expressionist, it is his creation of these color field paintings that he is best known for. They are created on huge canvases, and are either one, two, or three horizontal rectangles of color on top of another base color that covers the entire canvas. Their is a very deliberate juxtaposition of warm and cool colors, whose placement next to one another creates its' own type of optical illusion. A viewer may not just glance at a Rothko painting, they must gaze at it for long periods of time in order to see the colors interact. When the viewer begins to immerse themselves in these paintings, the cool colors start to feel as though they are moving forward in the picture plane, while the cool colors begin to recede. The painting seems to be moving, creating its' own environment to pull the viewer into. Often, when one looks for long periods of time at one of these paintings, they begin to feel a sense of calm, as though the effort of looking at the painting has put them into a meditative trance. Iconography: "While it is the glowing, ovoid areas of color that the eye first embraces in a typical Rothko, it is useful to become aware of how they are contextualized with often dramatically emphasized horizons -- and borders. These divisions are mostly two, often three (occasionally more). They define a horizon gestalt between the areas of color; the borders the peripheral limitation of our normal view of any horizon. We thus float at the center of a prospect that falls out as below us, before us and above us -- the artist leaving us to our own associations, but determining within his formal structures, the extent of the world he wants those associations to inhabit. (Here the structure of the works of the early 1940s is crucial -- for they remain latent after 1950.) Thus, Rothko's tripartite and quadripartite compositions present a radical abstraction of the planet in cross-section from below the viewer's feet up, the internal light of that world provides it welcoming warmth or abject negation, as befits the artist's moods. At the end of his life, the last, sad, bipartite images (MRCR 814-831), leave us with a single horizon between the black of space and the earth's lithic interior -- all place of human grace on the surface under the sun having slipped away from his despairing reach." (
Context: (Taken from the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, on ,full transcript at ) "Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia in 1903, he and his family emigrated to Portland, Oregon, where Marcus starred in school and was one of three immigrant seniors to get into Yale. After two years, Rothko dropped out and by his and the century's mid-twenties, he was working odd jobs in New York and becoming an artist. For 30 some odd years that's what he was-an artist-an obscure one. But in the 1950's American culture started to make its global mark. In painting, the style that carried the day was abstract expressionism. Mark Rothko, one of its exemplars, was soon considered an American master. Always melancholy, as Rothko became celebrated and rich, he became more somber, in the end, seriously depressed. He committed suicide in 1970 at age 67. The current exhibit begins with a side of Rothko not often seen, since he destroyed much of his early work. Art historian and Rothko biographer Dore Ashton got to know him when she was a New York Times reporter on the art beat."
PAUL SOLMAN: When the Federation rejected Rothko's proposal, he went his own way. Soon, he became part of the burgeoning abstract New York School, posing for Life Magazine as one of "The Irascibles" with the likes of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning in 1951. And from this period onward Mark Rothkos are as recognizable as Norman Rockwells: variations on a common, in his case transcendental, theme. But, might they not seem a bit-monotonous?
DORE ASHTON: Some people respond, and they think, oh, how could he do the same thing every day, but, of course, if you look at it from his point of view, it's never the same. Each painting is an attempt to express a specific feeling: joy, fear, all of those things.
PAUL SOLMAN: Rothko considered his work spiritual and wanted viewers to be spiritually moved by it. And at the Rothko  show some were. Nicole Asquith and Ned Steiner actually wrote poems inspired by a 1953 Rothko entitled "Number 61."
NICOLE ASQUITH: That long thirsted-for-horizon bleeds into the silent link, smothered in its own blue chalk. White silent ghosts, withered and yellow, glide by. The blue of my perception comes back to me-
NED STEINER: Light shines on the other side and is projected into the dark room. Space hanging in space. The water separated from the waters.
PAUL SOLMAN: Lynn Metheny had a somewhat different way of putting it.
LYNN METHENY: It makes you feel very small in the face of these color fields sort of encompassing you.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you're sort of in the paintings?
 LYNN METHENY: Exactly. Exactly.
 PAUL SOLMAN: He spoke about wanting people to be in the paintings. That's why there are no frames and why it's-the paint is actually all the way over on the sides.
LYNN METHENY: And I think, you know, the size of them as well helps that.
PAUL SOLMAN: Do you think you have a competitive advantage because you're kind of short?
LYNN METHENY: Perhaps, perhaps.


Rothko Chapel 1965

Form: "It would be good if little places could be set up all over the country, like a little chapel where the traveler, or wanderer could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself."
Mark Rothko, 1954 
  Iconography: "The Rothko Chapel, on Yupon Street and Sul Ross in Houston, was commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil.qv The building was originally conceived as part of Philip Johnson's campus design for the University of St. Thomas, but became an independent project when the Menils discontinued their association with that institution. The Menils commissioned a series of paintings by Mark Rothko, who collaborated with Johnson in the design of the structure. The chapel itself is an austere structure without windows; the skylight that Rothko insisted upon proved to be a poor source for lighting the paintings, and in 1978 a baffle system was introduced. The chapel has an octagonal floor plan in which fourteen paintings are arrayed in eight panels. A triptych of three abutted canvases hangs on the north wall, the east wall, and the west wall. The south wall holds a single canvas. The remaining four canvases are placed on the diagonal axes. The ascetic paintings are limited in color to deep brown, purplish red, and black and express what Rothko called "the timelessness and tragedy of the human condition." Art historian Robert Rosenblum said of the works, "It is as if the entire current of Western religious art were finally devoid of its narrative complexities and corporeal imagery, leaving us with the dark, compelling presences that pose an ultimate choice between everything and nothing." 
Dominique de Menil said that the works evoke "the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition, [and] the silence of god, the unbearable silence of God."  The Rothko Chapel is owned and directed by the Rothko Chapel  Board, of which Dominique de Menil is president and Thompson L. Shannon executive director. The chapel invited individuals and religious groups of all denominations, as well as non-believers, to use its facilities. It has hosted Quakers, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Sufis, and Buddhists. In addition to providing a neutral venue for such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, who met there with representatives of various religions and disciplines during his visit in September 1979 to the United States, the chapel has hosted performances by such religious ritualists as the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey (1978) and the Gyuto Tantric Monks of Tibet (1985). The park in which the Rothko Chapel is located contains several sculptures from the Menil Collection, including Barnett Newman's sculpture Broken Obelisk, which is situated in a reflecting pool opposite the chapel entrance. John de Menil purchased this monumental, twenty-six-foot-high work in 1968; it is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in that year. Newman requested that the sculpture be blasted free of its rust-proofing so that the Cor-Ten steel surfaces could acquire a typical Houston patina. 
 The Rothko Chapel sponsors colloquia and since 1981 has presented awards for demonstrations of a commitment to truth and freedom. In 1988 the Second Oscar Romero Award for work in the area of human rights was presented to Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of Sâo Paulo, at a chapel ceremony. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., was celebrated there annually until it became a national holiday in 1985; the United Nations Declaration of Human rights continues to receive annual recognition. In July 1973 the chapel sponsored "Traditional Modes of Contemplation and Action," a colloquium that brought together nineteen international religious scholars and resulted in the publication of Contemplation and Action in World Religions. In October 1983 another colloquium, "Ethnicities and Nations," brought anthropologists and other scholars together to discuss problems faced by traditional ethnic communities when they are incorporated into modern nations. This conference produced Ethnicities and Nations: Processes of Interethnic Relations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the pursuit of better understanding between religions and cultural traditions the Rothko Chapel works with such organizations as the Monchanin Cross-Cultural Center in Montréal, Quebec, the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies in Santa Barbara, California, the Fraternité St. Dominique in Cotonou, Benin, the Department of Islamo-Christian Studies in Beirut, Lebanon, and the Instituto per le scienze religiose in Bologna, Italy. 
  BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York:
  Oxford University Press, 1983). Kelly Saenz, The Rothko Chapel:
  The Slow Arrow of Beauty (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at
  Austin, 1980). Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center,
  University of Texas at Austin.(
Context: "...The third set, those now installed in the "Rothko Chapel" of the de Menil collection in Houston, are somewhat more in keeping with the purpose of their environment. They are arranged around the essentially circular space, are fourteen in number in emulation of the Christian devotion of the Stations of the Cross (a theme also taken up by Barnett Newman), and clearly emphasize the sanctuary axis. Here the traditional elements of the church helped articulate the paintings -- as did Rothko's already established reputation for art with some sort of a "spiritual" dimension. Let us recall that behind these murals was the small gallery at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, where, for many years, a set of three, colorful Rothkos were arranged in a small room that became famous as a place of  meditation -- as a "chapel" of sorts. The perception of Rothko's art as somehow conducive to religious emotion began there, and was taken up in the de Menil's commission. It would be useful to ponder all this in terms of traditional and modern ecclesiastical art, but this is not the place for such a tangent. I will simply wonder aloud at the piety that would find the Rothko Chapel's bleakness compelling to devotion." (

Franz Kline (1910-1962). Painting 2. 1952
Kline. New York New York. 1953

Kline. Zinc Yellow, 1959
Oil on canvas, 93 x 79 1/2 inches
Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.
Form: Franz kline was formally known as a an Abstract Expressionist. His most well known pieces are these black and white calligraphy style paintings, in which the emphasis is on the moment of creation. The paint used is a quick drying enamel, which meant that each stroke is permanent and filled with its' own importance. Much the same way that Rothkos' work was seen as transcendent, so too did Klines work appear to have its' own meditative qualities. Iconography: Excerpted from The man who painted impact. by Robert Hughes. Time, 1/23/95, Vol. 145 Issue 3, p54, 2p, 2bw HTML Full Text 
EVEN AMONG FAMOUS ARTISTS there are degrees of neglect. Nobody could call the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline overlooked. Not when his pictures have sold for a million dollars and up. Not with his signature style recognizable in an eye blink, the black girderlike slashes on the white ground. But compared with Jackson Pollock, who has been a household word -- well, in some households anyway -- for the past quarter-century, Kline is positively obscure. It's like comparing Sal Mineo with James Dean. Both were in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, but only one of them car-smashed his way into permanent Valhalla. Kline died in 1961 at the early age of 51, and since then he has not turned out to be a darling of the museums and the art historians. The last full museum show of his work was back in 1985, and in Cincinnati, Ohio; it never came to New York City. So the present show at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, ``Franz Kline: Black & White, 1950-1961,'' breaks an unwelcome silence on a strong, if admittedly somewhat limited, artist. It is really the black-and-white works that bear Kline's claim to importance; he was mainly an artist of impact, and when that kind of sensibility uses color, it tends to over- or underuse it, in either case stressing its declarative rather than its sensuous nature. But in monochrome he could really cook. His early figurative work is not in the show, but it is worth remembering for its origins. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Kline had an entirely traditional training at the Art Students League in Boston, wanted to be an illustrator and studied for a time (1936-38) in London. He was imbued with the thick-massed but linear realism that came out of the Ashcan School and filled the cartoons that John Sloan and others did for periodicals like the New Masses. He doted on Krazy Kat (as did his friend Philip Guston) and the superstylish illustrations of John Held Jr. The black-and-white tradition was in his head, where it coexisted with a considerable range of other references. People who knew him in the '40s and '50s remember that Kline liked to talk about Gericault and Velazquez, about old silver and 18th century political cartoons, rather than the gaseous rodomontade of ``tragic chaos'' and ``existential risk'' that got loaded onto Abstract Expressionism by such artists as Barnett Newman and such critics as Harold Rosenberg. In short, he was very interested in style, a suspect idea then but one that his paintings are none the worse for raising. We can't see Kline the way the art world did 40 years ago, when critics wrote about his ``desperate shriek'' or his ``total and instantaneous conversion'' to black and white. Ab Ex was less apocalyptic than its fans once thought, and Kline was not so at all. His black-and-white style was a real invention, but its roots are not hard to see. If one was illustration, another was the black-and-white paintings of de Kooning in the late '40s. An early Kline like Ninth Street, 1951, with its traces of looping body shapes, makes that clear. Where it did not come from, though, was where it was often said to have come from: Oriental calligraphy. Of course, there is a superficial likeness between Kline's structures and ideograms in sumi ink on silk, especially in reproduction, when the particular qualities of paint and surface are lost. But the things themselves are very different. ``People sometimes think I take a white canvas and paint a black sign on it,'' protested Kline, ``but this is not true. I paint the white as well as the black, and the white is just as important.'' The black masses and bars aren't just gestures, they're forms; the white isn't an absence but a color. Sometimes the speed of the brush is important -- it leaves frayed edges, something like the speed lines in cartoons, but in other paintings, like the impressive Wotan, 1950, nothing moves or is meant to. The big rectangle anchored by one edge to the top of the canvas has a massive presence and thickness of paint, and its blunt authority looks forward to what American minimalists would be doing a generation later, in the '60s. 
Context: "Franz Kline was born May 23, 1910, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. While enrolled at Boston University, he took art classes at the Boston Art Students League from 1931 to 1935. In 1935, Kline went to London and attended Heatherley’s Art School from 1936 to 1938. He settled permanently in New York in 1939. During the late 1930s and 1940s, Kline painted cityscapes and landscapes of the coal-mining district where he was raised as well as  commissioned murals and portraits. Kline was fortunate to have the financial support and friendship of two patrons, Dr. Theodore J. Edlich, Jr., and I. David Orr, who commissioned numerous portraits and bought many other works from him. In this period, he received awards in several National Academy of Design Annuals.  In 1943, Kline met Willem de Kooning at Conrad Marca-Relli’s studio and within the next few years also met Jackson Pollock. Kline’s interest in Japanese art began at this time. His mature abstract style, developed in the late1940s, is characterized by bold gestural strokes of fast-drying black and white enamel. His first solo exhibition was held at the Egan Gallery, New York, in 1950. Soon after, he was recognized as a major figure in the  emerging Abstract Expressionist movement. Although Kline was best-knownfor his black-and-white paintings, he also worked extensively in color, from the mid-1950s to the end of his life." (


Willem de Kooning, Excavation
Oil on canvas, 1950; 206.2 x 257.3 cm 
Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize; gift of 
Mr. and Mrs. Noah Goldowsky and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., 1952.1

Form: Oil on canvas, Abstract Expressionist. Sometimes, because of the loose brushwork and frenzied strokes he was even referred to as an 'action painter', much like Jackson Pollock. Excavation is one of his earliest works, where he is alluding to a landscape and perhaps figures more than actually representing them. Iconography: (Seeing the face in the fire. by Robert Hughes. Time, 5/30/94, Vol. 143 Issue 22, p62, 3p, 5c HTML Full Text) 
"De Kooning is probably the most libidinal painter America has ever had. One sees him as the consummate anti-Duchamp, a permanent relief from over-theorized art, a man so in touch with the sources of his pictorial pleasure (the body of paint and the body of the world) that he can render you dizzy with exhilaration. This isn't dumbness but a particular form of sensory intelligence that has always been rare in American art and came, in this case, from outside it. De Kooning arrived in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant from Rotterdam in 1926. He was a gifted draftsman who had already achieved a high level of academic training. But he gradually learned to connect that to a modernist syntax, fusing the line of Ingres and the fragmentation of the antique torso to 1930s Picasso and his American derivatives like Arshile Gorky. Seated Figure (Classic Male), 1940, shows the early stage of this process to perfection. The forms through which De Kooning reached abstraction were always connected to an earlier kind of abstraction, that of academic drawing. If one were forced to pick the best single picture De Kooning ever painted, it would probably have to be Excavation, 1950: that tangled, not-quite monochrome, dirty-cream image of -- what? Bodies is the short answer: every one of the countless forms that seem embedded in the paint, jostling and slipping against one another in a tempo that seems to get faster toward the corners, can be read as an elbow, a thigh, a buttock, but never quite literally. There is even a set of floating teeth -- the dentures the Women would soon be sporting. De Kooning's characteristically hooked, recurving line takes on an invigorating speed, charging and skidding through the dense paint, slits open with the promise of spatial depth, only to shut again. The only relief from the close churning of forms is a curious ``window'' at the middle of the painting -- red, white and blue -- that looks like a blurred American flag. The work's space is not deep, as the title might suggest, but shallow, like a bas-relief. You keep expecting the image to fly apart into formal incoherence, but it never does: it has the kind of control you see in great drivers or skaters, a supple rigor that seems to exist only on the edge of its own dissolution. One is tempted to say that Excavation is the last great Cubist painting, 30 years after Cubism petered out. All of De Kooning's relation to Picasso is in it. Marla Prather's catalog essay provides the intriguing gloss that the genesis of Excavation began with a black-and-white film, Bitter Rice, a classic of Italian neorealist cinema, starring Silvana Mangano as a rice gatherer in the Po Delta; evidently De Kooning ``responded'' (as what red-blooded Dutch-American artist of 46 might not?) to a sequence of peasant women in tight shorts mud-wrestling in the paddies. If true, this tale illustrates clearly how De Kooning never conceived of painting as a purely Apollonian art: fragments of pop culture -- movies, ads, the immense bric-a-brac of the American desire industry -- were always sailing into his images and sticking there, like bugs on a windshield. The extreme ``reductionist'' view of De Kooning's career, held by Clement Greenberg and maintained by some critics today, is that after 1950 it went kerflooie. Like Western civilization itself, as his friend and chief critical promoter Harold Rosenberg sardonically remarked, De Kooning was always in decline. This katabasis is supposed to have begun in the early '50s, with the Women series. Greenberg is said to have opined to De Kooning that at this juncture in history (meaning 40 years ago), you can't paint a human face. Sure, said the painter, and you can't not paint one either -- meaning, by this laconic koan, that no matter how abstract you get, people will always tend to read images in the work, like seeing faces in the fire. So why not come right out with the figure? At least it might save the abstractions from gliding into decoration, losing their crankiness and urgency, which was, indeed, what New York abstract painting did when lyric acrylic on unprimed duck became all the rage in the 1960s. Abstract Expressionism in the hands of its two masters, Pollock and De Kooning, at least -- had a way of disappointing the critics who wanted it to be more abstract than it was. Just as Pollock's all-over paintings wouldn't be so great if they weren't landscapes, full of wind and weather, light and pollen, so De Kooning's work benefited from the grand ghosts of Dutch baroque figure painting, who kept jolting the artist's elbow.
Context: "Willem de Kooning, born in Rotterdam in 1904, was apprenticed to a commercial arts and decorating firm there from 1916 to 1921. From 1917 to 1921 he also studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Techniques. In 1926 he left Holland illegally for the United States by working in the engine room of a ship and, newly arrived in New Jersey, supported himself as a house painter. De Kooning moved to New York City in 1927, and within a few years he was friends with the artists John Graham, Stuart Davis, David Smith, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. From the late 1930s through the 1950s his biomorphic abstractions (which allude to figures and landscapes) and his series Women placed him in the center of the Abstract Expressionist art movement. The gestural style of painting and the visual vocabulary of forms that he developed at this time continued to inform his later work. De Kooning was an accomplished draftsman as well as painter and made his first sculptures in 1969. "Woman" belongs to his first series of women, begun about 1940. Like other works in this series, the colors are raucously bright — jarring hues of green, ocher, blue, and orange — and the imagery is tenuously balanced between realism and abstraction. An awkwardly posed, somewhat grotesquely formed female figure is broadly painted without modeling. The parts of her body are reduced to independent abstract shapes and lines, as is the spatially flattened environment in which she exists. Her comical, masklike face, with smiling bow-shaped lipsand large bulging eyes, adds to the light air of the picture. Although de Kooning's image is recognizable as a woman, the emphasis is on the abstract arrangement of form, line, and color." (

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman IV 1952, 

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman 1954, oil on paper,
25 3/4 in. by 19 5/8 in.
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture
Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
F. M. Hall Collection

Willem de Kooning. 
Portrait of a Woman. 1940

Willem de Kooning Woman, 1943 
Oil on board, 
23 1/4 x 23 1/16 in.

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman IV 1952, 

Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
Woman 1954, oil on paper,
25 3/4 in. by 19 5/8 in.
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture
Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
F. M. Hall Collection
Form: Mainly abstract, expressionistic portraits or interpretations of women. It is rumored that DeKooning was a horrible misogynist who hated women, and by the looks of his works that deal with women, it is easy to believe this rumor to be true. According to "In the late 1930s, De Kooning worked for the WPA Federal Art Project and, for the first time, earned his living as an artist. It was not until 1948, however, that he was ready for his first one-man show of masterful black paintings with white-line drawing.  That same year, his friend Gorky committed suicide. It was a stunning blow to De Kooning and yet, at the same time, a liberation. Paintings, sardonic and violent, began to pour from his brush. In 1952, obsessed with interest in the human figure, De Kooning began a long series of paintings of women, the most powerful work that he had yet done.He explored the theme over and over again. Sometimes it was woman as sex symbol; other times, as in Woman 1 (1952, Museum of Modern Art), she is depicted as a repellent, sharp-fanged, horn-bosomed vampire. Each time, De Kooning seemed to attack the canvas savagely, letting paint drip and dribble down the surface. Since the 1960s, he has alternated between pure abstractions and paintings of women. "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure," De Kooning once said. "I always seem to be wrapped up in the melodrama of vulgarity." Iconography: It can be dficult to look at the paintings DeKooning does of women and not see them as violent and disturbing. DeKooning was married, and his wife was an artist as well. Miriam Shapiro, a prominent female artist, has this to say of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the works of DeKooning, "While in New York, Schapiro and Block spent much of their time at the Cedar Club, which Schapiro described as "one of the strongholds of Abstract Expressionism, presided over by the king - [Willem] DeKooning." DeKooning, who gained considerable acclaim among Abstract Expressionists, painted a number of aggressive and often dehumanizing paintings under the title "Woman." These paintings have been since railed upon by feminist critics.  "If you were a man," said Schapiro, "you walked into the Cedar Club, you had lots of confidence, [and] you made your way from table to table. I had a husband, and therefore there was a sign on me that read: 'Don't bother her.'" While the Abstract Expressionists plumbed the depths of their emotional potential through painting, the emotional impact of the marginalization of their
female counterparts went wholly unexamined. The wife of Willem DeKooning, Elaine De Kooning, was "a writer, [and] belonged to a group of critics," explained Schapiro. "There were many women in the club, sitting quiet, and [Elaine] knew that the wives of those artists were very good artists themselves." As a result, Elaine De Kooning curated a show of all women artists, of which Miriam Schapiro was a part.  "This was long before feminism," said Schapiro.  When feminism did begin to gain attention, a whole set of institutional and psychological undercurrents in society found expression in the works of artists and writers. "I remember," said Golden, "reading Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique - I was on an airplane and I turned to the man next to me and said, 'Isn't this exciting?'" 
Context: "The pupils of Woman I, 1950-1952, glare at you like a pair of black head lamps. She has the worst overbite in all of Western art. She looks like a school matron, seen in a bad dream, imposing and commonplace, and full of a power that flows from the slashing brushstrokes into the body. De Kooning -- the ``slipping glimpser,'' as he called himself, open to a constant stream of momentary impressions -- loved contradictory vernaculars, visual slang that collided with the huge amount of high-art language that he had internalized since his student days in the Dutch academy. Smiles from Camel ads; shoulders from Ingres; pinup girls and Raphael's The School of Athens; high and low, everywhere. It was his mode of reception, never intellectualized but often extremely funny. By the late 1950s, De Kooning was surrounded by imitators; there was a ``look,'' a gestural rhetoric fatally easy to mimic, that they got from him and reduced to parody. (The artists who would really make something of his legacy were not in New York but in California: Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud.) Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns reacted against him, sons against the parent; but Rauschenberg's now classic Oedipal gesture of rubbing out a De Kooning drawing could not erase the obvious fact that the paint in his combine-pictures came straight out of the older Dutch master, drips, clots and all. Such things make an artist feel old. As his followers were becoming more prominent, De Kooning was easing himself out of Manhattan, spending more and more time on the South Fork of Long Island. The flat potato fields, beaches and glittering air of that tongue of land must often have reminded him of the Dutch seacoast, but what mattered most to his paintings in the late '50s was the experience of getting there, being driven up Route 495 -- fast movement through unscrolling American highway space. Hence the road images of 1957-1958, in which the full-reach, broad-brush speed of the paint becomes a headlong road movie, analogous to Jack Kerouac's writing (though without its hectoring blither) or the photographs of De Kooning's friend Robert Frank. See America now! And you do -- in abstraction; you feel its rush and tonic vitality in the toppling blue strokes of Ruth's Zowie, 1957, which echo Franz Kline's big-girder structures but move them into a pastoral context. What De Kooning found at the end of this highway, however, when he moved permanently to Long Island in 1963, was mostly suds and mayonnaise. The long series of pink squidgy pictures -- landscapes, nudes splayed like frogs in memory of Dubuffet, and female clam diggers -- that issued from his studio over the next 15 years was lush and trivial. The drawing is submerged in weak, declamatory, wambling brushstrokes; the color -- mostly pink -- is bright and boring. Yet you could never write De Kooning off. He came back in the late '70s with some big, rapturously congested landscape-body images with a deeper tonal structure that, though they do not support the comparisons to late Monet, Renoir, Bonnard ``and, of course, Titian'' that David Sylvester makes in his catalog essay, certainly confirm that the movement of De Kooning's talent was not on-off, but ebb and flow. Then came the thin, pale, intensely lyrical paintings of the early '80s, which spin away the congestion altogether, and for a few years recapitulate the graphic intensity of his work in the 1940s, but in terms of an almost Chinese delicacy, in the colors of famille-rose porcelain. Looking at them is like seeing an old man's veins through his skin: the abiding network of the style is set forth, but in its last physical form."Seeing the face in the fire. by Robert Hughes. Time, 5/30/94, Vol. 143 Issue 22, p62, 3p, 5c HTML Full Text


Willem de Kooning. Composition, 1955. 
Oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas, 
79 1/8 x 69 1/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 
Form: "Composition serves as a bridge between the Women and de Kooning’s next series of work, classified by critic Thomas Hess as the Abstract Urban Landscapes (1955–58). According to the artist, “the landscape is in the Woman and there is Woman in the landscapes.” Indeed, Composition reads as a Woman obfuscated by de Kooning’s agitated brushwork, clashing colors, and allover composition with no fixed viewpoint. Completed while the artist had a studio in downtown New York, Composition’s energized dashes of red, turquoise, and chrome yellow suggest the frenetic pace of city life, without representing any identifiable urban inhabitants or forms."( Iconography: This early work by DeKooning shows him at his abstract best. Here it is evident that emotion ruled his paintbrush, as evidenced by his slashing brushstrokes and violent colors. One would be interested to note, however, that he did not do his paintings as quickly as it would appear. He often spent hours agonizing over the strokes, wiping away the paint when it angered him, leaving it when he felt it was right. This obsession with detail and feeling in his work may be what adds to it the aura of unease and feeling of psychological unrest.
Context: This painting was done a few years after his close friends suicide, and it is apparent the frustration and unhappiness with which he seems to paint. There is, in popular culture, an ideal of an artist as a struggling, unbalanced, and unhappy head case. Though we as a society may romanticize such notions of the awful muse that inspires such work, it can be difficult to look at this work and not feel empathy for someone who is in such obvious pain.



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