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Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm: The Height of Action Painting

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) painted his first “drip” work in 1947, and by the time he came out with ‘Autumn Rhythm’ in 1950, he had not only mastered the technique, but had also reached the pinnacle of his overall artistic powers. Pollock called his technique “action painting” because art was not about standing in front of a canvas propped up on an easel, but rather about unlimited creative movement. Pollock acts as a kind of choreographer for paint; although spontaneity is an important feature of his work, it is not by any means a total ceding of control. Since movement is implied in the drawing of lines, an extensive amount of action was undoubtedly involved in creating Autumn Rhythm.

Jackson Pollock's Autumn RhythmBeginning with a skeletal framework of black lines, Pollock wove into Autumn Rhythm an intricate web of brown, white and turquoise lines that produce opposing sensations or rhythms such as thick and thin, light and dark, curved and straight, vertical and horizontal, buoyant and heavy. Closer examination reveals the thickness of the paint, where colors meet and wrinkle together, giving the whole a kind of lyrical quality.  Although strictly nonfigurative, it is nonetheless evocative of nature in its colors and orientation.

The impressive size of Autumn Rhythm, which is over 17 feet wide, causes a powerful visual impact.  Upon gaining proximity to the piece, one cannot help but feel enveloped by a whole environment contained within the painting. It is bound to stir a diversity of emotions within viewers, reactions that are based on the unique attributes and proclivities of each individual who gazes upon it. Some might experience a feeling of buoyancy while others may get a sense of heaviness. When a painting is largely nonrepresentational, as is Autumn Rhythm, the beauty does indeed lie in the eye of the beholder.

Pollock’s method of painting was undeniably unconventional.  He would lay an unstretched canvas on the floor and proceed to work on it from all sides, at times crossing over it to apply the paint. He made use of just about anything (except paint brushes) to drip, splatter, pour, dribble and flick paint onto the canvas. Implements included sticks, knives, trowels, and even basting syringes.  The result was a powerful swirl of colors and a network of lines that registered no central focal point. Every section of the painting was as important as the other, the whole lacking organized elements. While some would find the outcome refreshing, others thought it to be disturbing or disconcerting.

Pollock’s drip paintings shocked the art world, single-handedly shifting the focus of avant-garde art to New York when it had previously been focused on Paris. His influence in the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and on thousands of artists around the world was, and still is, truly significant. Several of his works painted during 1950, including ‘Autumn Rhythm’, are considered by many to be his greatest accomplishments. It was produced in October of that year, and serves to highlight the delicate balance between spontaneity and control.

Jackson Pollock was a man plagued with depression, anxiety, and alcohol. He died in an automobile crash in 1956 at just 44 years old. Although it is fascinating to contemplate what new directions his art would have taken had he remained alive, we must be satisfied to enjoy such remarkable works as ‘Autumn Rhythm’, housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, still visually potent after so many decades.


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