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Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1951, Screenprint

Jackson Pollock, Untitled (1951), after Number 9, 1951, Screenprint, Singed by artist 25/14; Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas.

Guest Writer: Todd Giles, PhD, Associate Professor of English at MSU Texas

Jackson Pollock’s earliest surviving prints are a group of lithographs produced from 1934–1937, some reflecting the regionalist influences of his early mentor, Thomas Hart Benton, others Pollock’s debt to the 1930s Mexican muralists. Between the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945, Pollock experimented with engraving at Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 in New York City, where he made a further eleven prints. Six years later, Pollock produced a series of six screenprints in an edition of twenty-five each to coincide with his fifth solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York.

1951 was a pivotal year for Pollock’s creative output—a pivotal year, but one largely ignored by critics and scholars until recently. Pollock had just fallen off the wagon after two years of relative sobriety due to the stresses he felt being filmed working by Hans Namuth for his now famous documentary on the artist. 1951 also saw Pollock’s fourth solo exhibition with Betty Parsons largely panned by the critics and all but ignored by the art-buying public. Indeed, of the thirty-two paintings exhibited, only one, Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, sold (for half the asking price). Whether it was Pollock’s inner turmoil that inspired him to radically break from producing the kinds of paintings that made him the most famous artist in American in the late 1940s, or the influence of the black paintings produced by his contemporaries William de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Barnet Newman and Robert Rauschenberg at the time, the “black pourings,” as they came to be known, mark an interesting moment in the artist’s oeuvre in that they engage in a fascinating dialogue between figuration and abstraction, between the graphic and the spatial.

The six prints from 1951 were made from photographic screens copied from a handful of Pollock’s black paintings of that same year. To create the screenprints, photographic negatives of the paintings were projected onto screens treated with a light-sensitive chemical that hardened on exposure. Once the screens were prepared, the prints were created by pushing ink through the screens onto paper, a technique soon to be embraced by Andy Warhol. The screenprints are not exact copies of the original enamel paintings which were composed on bleached sailcloth; they are smaller in size and lack the subtlety and depth of the original paintings. We might think of them more as translations rather than reproductions.

The prints were packaged in portfolios and sold to gallery patrons as mementos of the exhibition. Pollock originally signed the portfolios themselves, not the individual prints; however, he later signed and numbered some of the remaining individual prints after the exhibition, as is the case of the one under discussion. Many others were left unsignedat the time of his death five years later in 1956. A second printing of 50 of each of the six screenprints were pulled twelve years later with the approval of his wife, artist Lee Krasner, in January of 1964. The posthumous prints differ from the earlier ones in that they have an embossed dry-stamp from the Pollock estate rather than the artist’s signature, and show the later production date. 

Unlike his more well-known paintings composed of thick, tangled, overlapping webs of color that fully cover the canvas, the black pourings leave much of the canvas visible. In dripping and flicking the thinned-out enamel onto unprimed canvas, Pollock was able to explore points of contact—moments in time and space where the paint seeps into the canvas as opposed to simply resting atop it, in a similar fashion to Helen Frankenthaler’s explorations with thinned paint, color and canvas. Here, Pollock employs a diversity of lines, thicknesses, shapes and movements where thin and thick meet, sometimes bumping up against one another, other times converging to create new forms and movements.

Though still largely abstract in composition, in Untitled (1951) one can make out several anthropomorphic images, such as the large forearm and clenched fist that acts as a kind of visual ballast at the bottom of the work; a rather stylized 1950s alienesque head with shoulders, arm and hand; and several horrific faces seemingly frozen mid-scream. The controlled spontaneity of the work speaks a hypnotic and disturbing intensity not dissimilar to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” composed just four years later. While most of the black pourings are left untitled, some provide anthropocentric subtitles like “Frogman” and “Elegant Lady,” and are reminiscent in style to his surrealist-inspired works from the early 1940s. Some critics saw his explorations with the human figure as a theoretical slip backwards in that this shift had the potential to undermine the strides Pollock’s earlier paintings made in moving the art form into complete abstraction. On the other hand, one could see the stripping down and minimalizing of technique in the black pourings as an early presage to the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella as the American art scene shifted from abstraction to Pop to Minimalism.

Works Consulted

Acton, David. Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints. MA: Worcester Art Museum, 2001.

Cernuschi, Claude. Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Delahunty, Gavin. Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots. London: Tate Publishing, 2015.

Harrison, Helen A. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956): Prints. Exh. cat. Dallas, The Gallery, SMU, 1997.

Untitled from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas