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Jackson Pollock’s Stenographic: An Ongoing Debate of Content and Meaning

When Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) painted “Stenographic”(the official title is Stenographic Figure) in 1942, the art world was at once both impressed and wildly confused. Reputable artist Piet Mondrian described it as nothing short of “the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America.” There was no agreement, however, on exactly what was depicted, let alone what was signified. As with previous works, Pollock remained silent as to both its content and meaning. He strongly felt that interpreting his works would essentially destroy them. It was up to each viewer to take away from Stenographic what they c ould.

Jackson Pollock's StenographicMuch of Pollock’s early work tends to be composed of muted colors and congested canvases. By comparison, Stenographic is downright bright and airy, an oil-on-canvas painting measuring 40 by 56 inches. Most would agree that there is a vaguely humanoid figure on the left side of the canvas. There are a lot of calligraphy-like brushstrokes all across the canvas, many of which appear to be numbers as they have a certain mathematical feel to them, while others present themselves as mere wavy, curvy lines. 

Content and Meaning
The content and meaning of Stenographic has been an ongoing debate since it was first shown in 1943 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery during the Spring Salon for Young Artists (Pollock would have been 31 years old at the time). One point of contention is whether or not there is more than one figure in the painting. Many believe that there is a second figure on the right side of the canvas. Given the title of the painting, some have suggested that the figure on the left is indeed a female stenographer while the figure on the right is a male giving dictation, and that the numbers are plausibly part of the short-hand transcript .

More than one art scholar has observed that Stenographic was created at a time when Pollock had recently emerged from years (1938-1941) of Jungian psychotherapy, striving to break alcoholism’s grip on his life. Since part of his therapy involved making and analyzing drawings, it is reasonable to assume that Jungian concepts would most likely appear in some of his subsequent works. Hence, those scholars, who engage in intense Jungian analysis of the painting, inevitably point to the artist’s need for reconciling opposites .

It is worth noting that the painting was not always titled “Stenographic”. When first completed, it was simply called “Painting”. Unlike some of Pollock’s later works, whose eventual titles were suggested by others, the artist renamed the painting Stenographic in 1943. Taking into account this more literal approach to the title , some have suggested that the painting is Pollock himself in psychoanalysis, spouting his dictation to a Jungian analyst, of which he had two – Dr. Joseph Henderson and later on Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.

Jackson Pollock’s Stenographic is currently housed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). To examine the painting is definitely interesting; see what you can make of the perennial debates regarding the content and meaning of this work by one of America’s most celebrated artists.


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