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Jackson Pollock’s Number 32: A Repudiation of Color

Jackson Pollock’s stature as the preeminent abstract expressionistic artist in the United States and around the world was firmly established with paintings like Number 32 (1950). This work of varnish paint on canvas was innovative for both Pollock and the art world in the post-World War II era. Measuring nearly 9 feet high by 15 feet wide, the massive piece played a critical role, along with Pollock’s other action paintings such as Autumn Rhythm (1950) and One: Number 31 (1950), in forging the first distinctly American art movement.

Jackson Pollock No. 32Paint Application and Composition
Number 32’s distinction from Pollock’s other so-called drip paintings lies in its monochromatic simplicity. Unlike the subtle yet complex interaction of colors in works such as Number 1A (1948) or Lavender Mist (1950), which used at least 7 different colors in its palette, Number 32 consists of only black paint with lighter support. The areas where the paint has been completely absorbed by the unprimed canvas are bordering areas where the paint has remained on the surface , creating raised, glossy fractals.

Lacking any central figure or grounding, the viewer is invited to scan the entire painting, following the interactions of the lines and splotches in a never-ending, dizzying movement created by Pollock’s “all-over” technique to fill the large space. The dense weave of the fractals extends right off the canvas, essentially negating any notion of boundaries.

Eschewing the traditional use of an easel, Pollock would spread a giant canvas flat on the floor, moving all around the perimeter of the canvas, and at times walking directly upon it to reach the center. He also departed from the use of conventional brushstrokes to apply the paint, experimenting instead with sticks and other ordinary instruments to drip and flick paint onto the canvas. Occasionally, he would pour the paint onto the canvas directly from its container.

Although Pollock’s action paintings appear to be random and chaotic, the actual production of these works consisted of a dynamic balance between spontaneity and conscious decision. He was known to return to the painting from time to time, and delicately modify specific lines on the canvas.

Exhibition of Number 32
It was not until its first showing at the Betty Parsons Gallery (November 28 – December 16, 1950) that Number 32 was attached to a stretching frame. Only the signature on the back of the work determines which is “top” and which is “bottom”. This was Pollock’s fourth solo exhibition. It was his biggest show opening to date with many important people from the art world in attendance. Although the exhibition was met with mixed reviews in the media, the coverage was extensive. Pollock’s brother, Jay, noted that the typically self-conscious painter fulfilled the role of famous artist quite handily on this occasion.

Pollock’s Number 32 preceded the appearance of his black series of paintings in 1951, although periods of shifting away from color can be seen throughout his career.  Some may deem Number 32 and the subsequent black paintings as foreshadowing the storm clouds of Pollock’s final years. Plagued by self-doubt brought on by his persistent antagonists who pegged him as “Jack the Dripper,” the artist’s final four years saw him caught in the clutches of both alcoholism and depression. His downward spiral culminated in the 1956 alcohol-induced car accident that claimed his life at the age of 44.


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