Pollock’s Stampede

The Getty’s conservation of Jackson Pollock‘s 1943 Mural (now on view at the Getty Center) has offered opportunities to re-assessing the myths surrounding it. New evidence disputes the claim that it was painted in a day and has showed how Pollock achieved “drip” effects on a vertical surface. Harder to resolve are speculations about the painting’s figurative content (if any).

Mural was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim—gallerist, hedonist, and copper heiress. She specified the painting’s size and delivery date though little else. A few years after its creation, Pollock described Mural as being inspired by a vision or memory of a Western stampede:

“It was a stampede… every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.”

Herbert Matter photo of Pollock with"Mural." Image © Estate of Herbert Matter. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.

It’s not clear how literally this is to be taken. But many have seen mustangs or other animals in the painting’s swirls. Indeed, Mural has been a Rorschach blot to art-history conspiracy buffs. The most Dan Brown-ish theory is that Mural encodes Pollock’s name. This was advanced by Henry Adams in his 2009 book Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. There Adams proposes,

“He simply wrote the words ‘Jackson Pollock‘ very large across the canvas. By a nice coincidence, both first and last name had the same number of letters, so it wasn’t too hard to make them fit. So as not to make the effect too obvious, he introduced some dazzle patterns, like those used to camouflage a ship, which makes the outlines a little difficult to read, but the ‘son’ on the right is not too hard to make out…”

Last week Christopher Knight asked Getty conservators about Adams’ big-signature theory.  The Getty Conservation Institute’s Tom Learner said, “None of the scanning techniques employed (X-ray fluorescence and hyper spectral imaging) detected anything resembling his name.”

That may be looking through the wrong end of the hyper-spectral imager. I don’t find Adams’ signature theory convincing in the least, but this is a little like a meteorologist disputing a claim that a cloud looks like a big, fluffy lamb.

FWIW, I was able to perceive the “son” part at the Getty. I couldn’t see the rest of the alleged signature, though, even after prepping myself with a Mural “decoder” key I found on the web.

The real issue is what Pollock intended. There’s no historical evidence supporting the signature idea, but Pollock did talk about a stampede. Furthermore, Pollock’s work leading up to Mural had been figurative abstractions. She-Wolf, now at MoMA, was created the same year as Mural. The “wolf” is plain enough, head at left, rump at right, and with a suggestion of teats. Pollock was presumably referring to the myth of Romulus and Remus.

If Mural represents a stampede, that would connect it to a sub-genre of Western painting, such as Frederic Remington‘s 1908 Cutting Out Pony Herds (A Stampede). Pollock’s teacher Thomas Hart Benton also did sprawling paintings of Western livestock, in sinewy El Greco rhythms.

I found it easy to see suggestions of horses and/or cattle in Mural. At upper far right is a detail (shown here) that looks to me like a white horse’s head. There are suggestions of ears, eyes, a nostril, teeth, and even a lolling pink tongue. The teeth are like those in some of de Kooning’s women, and the drawing has something the quality of Gorky’s biomorphs.

There are other candidate horse heads in Mural; and at far left is a lyrical horse (and rider?) in the spirit of Franz Marc.

Wyoming born, Pollock was raised in Arizona and Echo Park. He crafted a New York persona as an authentic American of the West. Adams recites the claim that Pollock bedded Guggenheim wearing cowboy boots, and quotes a Guggenheim comment that would be perfect for an app rating horrible dates.

“Predictably, Peggy is said to have attempted to go to bed with Pollock, although there are contradictory stories about what happened. It’s variously reported that Pollock went to bed with her wearing his cowboy boots, that he threw his underwear out the window, that he was too drunk to perform, that he passed out, and that he peed on the mattress. Whatever happened, it was evidently not a big success. While Guggenheim later spoke glowingly of Pollock’s achievements as an artist, she was less flattering about his qualities as a human being, describing him as ‘a poor frightened animal that should have stayed in its burrow.'”

If Mural takes a Western stampede as its point of departure, it’s more like a Muybridge motion study than the sort of abstractions Pollock had been painting on smaller scale. The Getty is showing Mural in a spacious square room. But the hall in Guggenheim’s New York apartment was only 13.5 feet wide. As Pollock’s painting is 20 feet across, the experience of viewing it there would have been more like viewing a Chinese scroll painting—serial and cinematic.

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