Pollock’s Black Paintings: A Conversation

On Wednesday, November 11, art historian and critic, Michael Fried, and Dallas Museum of Art Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, Gavin Delahunty, discussed Jackson Pollock’s black paintings, the focus of the exhibition opening at the DMA this coming Friday, November 20.

Michael Fried holds the J. R. Herbert Boone Chair in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, with a secondary appointment in the Department of the History of Art. Though most of his major scholarly works in art history (Absorption and Theatricality; Courbet’s Realism; Manet’s Modernism) treat on the subject of 19th century art, Fried published a great deal of critical writing on post-war painting and sculpture while still a graduate student at Harvard University in the 1960s.

Fried’s essay “Art and Objecthood,” which originally appeared in the June 1967 issue of Artforum, has been anthologized in countless readers on the history and criticism of art since 1945. It has become a major touchstone in the narrative of twentieth-century sculpture and is required reading for nearly every college course on American post-war art. In the same magazine, two years prior to the publication of “Art and Objecthood,” Fried published his seminal essay on Jackson Pollock, a rallying cry for a serious critical attention to the “formal intelligence” of the artist’s work (“Jackson Pollock,” Artforum 4, no. 1 (Sept. 1965): 14).

A one-time protégé of Clement Greenberg, Fried was a major proponent of non-figurative painting. As Fried noted on Wednesday, though Greenberg was Pollock’s “great critical champion,” his writing on the artist contained “very little actual analysis.” Fried’s 1965 essay, on the other hand, delves deeply into consideration of works like White Cockatoo (1948) and Cut-Out (1949). A discussion of the black paintings is relegated to only a short final paragraph, but Fried declares, “in 1951, Pollock seems to have been on the verge of an entirely new and different kind of painting, combining figuration with opticality in a new pictorial synthesis of virtually limitless potential” (17).

Cathedral by Jackson Pollock
Cathedral by Jackson Pollock. Dallas Museum of Art.

Moments before their discussion, the two speakers walked through theshow—entitled Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots—for the first time. The exhibition was mounted first at the Tate Liverpool, where it ran from June 30 through October 18 of this year. The DMA will be its only U.S. venue. To begin, Fried praised Delahunty’s curatorial choices. As noted in the discussion, only three exhibitions solely composed of Pollock’s work have been mounted in the United States. Prior exhibitions gave comparatively little attention to the black paintings, executed from 1951 to 1953. Typically, more consideration is given to paintings like Cathedral (1947), which saturate the canvas with polychromatic skeins of poured paint.

1947 was the year Pollock began producing these characteristic all-over drip paintings; the DMA’s exhibit has included a room of earlier works to set the stage for the black paintings. According to Fried, Pollock had an “anxious relation to color,” which was “not his natural medium.” It seems, thus, that the Blind Spots exhibition will provide an opportunity to interrogate Pollock’s formal strategies most directly.

Detail from Echo: Number 25, 1951 by Jackson Pollock.
Detail from Echo: Number 25, 1951 by Jackson Pollock.

Fried spoke at length about three particular works, sure to be the must-sees of the show. According to Fried, Number 3, 1952, had “important implications never pursued.” Number 26, 1951 is notable for its “reduced minimal application of paint” and its “fusion of paint and substrate.” Echo: Number 25, 1951 is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art but, as the speakers noted, is rarely displayed there. Fried expressed joy that Blind Spots had given him “a chance to get to know Echo,” which the critic called “a complete fulfillment of [Pollock’s] approaches,” which “is not to say it does everything” that other works accomplish. As Fried noted, the works are “fantastically inventive” despite the “ostensibly narrow terms” on which they were made—namely, a constraint of medium to black enamel paint on canvas. The 32 black paintings that appear in the show demonstrate an incredible diversity sure to astonish visitors unacquainted with these lesser-known works.

Ultimately, Fried lamented the way in which, in his original 1965 essay, he treated Pollock’s black paintings as a “waystation.” The new exhibition at the DMA, Fried stated, has allowed him to “face them in their own right in a new and powerful way.” In commendation of Delahunty’s work, Fried said that he would like to rewrite his essay “on the strength of this show,” which brings an important period in Pollock’s oeuvre into focus.

The opening of Blind Spots, will coincide with the DMA’s November Late Night. At 7:00pm, Delahunty will speak at on the subject of the show in the Horchow Auditorium. Here are a few resources available at the Hamon Fine Arts Library to hold you over until the exhibition opens on November 20.

READ: Varnedoe, Kirk and Pepe Karmel. Jackson Pollock: New Approaches. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999.

Edited by Kirk Varnedoe, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the MOMA from 1988 to 2001, this volume contains essays from esteemed art historians such as T.J. Clark and Rosalind Krauss.

WATCH: Pollock. Directed by Ed Harris. 2000. Culver City, CA: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Ed Harris earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of the titular artist, while Marcia Gay Harden won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner. While a work of fiction, the screenplay was based on a highly researched biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, which won a Pullitzer Prize in 1991.

LISTEN: Feldman, Morton. First Recordings. 1950s. Mode, 1999. Streaming audio files.

American composer Morton Feldman was a member of the experimental New York School (active in the ‘50s and ‘60s) whose ranks included John Cage and Earle Brown. Feldman composed the soundtrack for Hans Namuth’s seminal documentary film. Tracks at the end of this album include a duet for two cellos, “For Jackson Pollack,” and a series of themes that appear in the film, accompanied by dialog from Pollock himself.


Thanks to Lucy McGuigan, MA student in Art History, Meadows School of the Arts, for this guest blogpost!


A Pollock Comes Home on the DMA’s blog.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots.


Echo: Number 25, 1951 by Jackson Pollock, photograph by Sharon Mollerus.

Detail from Echo: Number 25, 1951 by Jackson Pollock, photograph by Sharon Mollerus.

Cathedral by Jackson Pollock, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard J. Reis.

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