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Jackson Pollock’s Number 1: The Unity of Opposites

Jackson Pollock’s famous work titled “Number 1” (1948) is more than just another typical example of the action painting technique that Pollock pioneered, and which established Abstract Expressionism as the first uniquely American art movement. In his turning away from conventional techniques and tools, pieces like Number 1 are either appealing or discomforting to viewers. Besides the sheer novelty of their striking departure from art as it was traditionally understood, Pollock’s drip paintings embody a human quest for the unification of opposites. Eli Siegel’s philosophy of Aesthetic Realism captured it best when he stated: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

Jackson Pollock No. 1The struggle with opposites is a fundamental aspect of life. Many people (consciously or unconsciously) choose to inhabit one or the other, as there is a tendency to want to simplify such opposites into an either/or choice. Others, however, point out that, in reality, rather than a clear, black-and-white division, the opposites are in fact two sides of the same coin, connected by what may be called a vast “gray” area. This place of ambiguity exists in Pollock’s Number 1, which, although highly creative, can be somewhat uncomfortable for viewers. Siegel’s notion requires hard work and takes deliberate effort.

Structured or Unstructured?
What opposites does Number 1 unite? First and foremost is the dynamic involved in the technique itself. It is easy to look at his paintings and conclude that the complex fractals were created in a completely random way. But Pollock maintained that it was a true mix of both spontaneous actions and very deliberate decisions. In his own words he said, “When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of paint; there is no accident.” Hence, Number 1 exhibits both freedom and order, and embodies both unrestraint and accuracy.

What about the Title?
Whereas Pollock had given previous works various and often evocative titles, he switched to naming his Action Painting pieces with merely numbers. A numerical title was seen as neutral, giving the viewer yet another opportunity to approach his painting for what it is rather than for what it might mean or represent. However, now and then, his action paintings were given titles by others, including his most ardent supporter, art critic Clement Greenberg, who gave the title Lavender Mist to the painting that was previously called Number One (1950).

When Pollock exhibited Number 1 for the first time in 1949, no one expressed much interest in it. When it was exhibited again in his second solo show, he added an “A” to the title in order to distinguish it from other recent works. That is why it will most often be referred to as Number 1A. It was shortly after its second showing that New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) purchased it.

Pollock himself fell prey to the division of opposites – choosing one view over the other.  He fixated on the negative critiques his works received to the exclusion of recognizing the positive opinions that were present alongside the negative reviews. His obsession led to anxiety, self-doubt, alcoholism and depression. This dark mix of pessimism proved fatal in 1956, when Pollock, aged 44, was killed in an alcohol-induced car accident.


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