Number 14 is a large unframed oil painting on a horizontally orientated rectangular canvas. The black paint used in this monochromatic painting is applied onto unprimed cotton duck canvas. Impressions of figures appear from the space of the raw canvas, and these can be read as at least two and possibly three horizontal forms and two or three vertical forms. In the upper left and upper right corners of the canvas are the suggestion of eyes, yet the full scene depicted remains ambiguous. The work has had a small patch added by the artist to the upper right-hand corner to cover a tear. It is signed and dated in the lower left-hand corner.
Number 14 was created by the American abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock in 1951. He is best known for pioneering action painting, a method of dripping paint onto a canvas laid out on the floor by means of the vigorous action of his body. From 1947 Pollock employed this drip technique to produce colourful and rhythmic abstract paintings, such as Summertime: Number 9A 1948 (Tate T03977). However, after four years of creating these, Pollock moved away from pure abstraction, advancing towards a more figurative and starkly monochromatic practice, as is seen in Number 14. Pollock began to restrain his method of applying the paint to the surface by pouring it rather than dripping. Due to the restricted palette and the method of paint application this series of paintings, created between 1951 and 1954, became known as Pollock’s ‘black pourings’.
Pollock worked with commercially available materials, watering down black industrial enamel to a consistency he could deftly apply. The paint was poured by hand onto a roll of commercial cotton canvas or applied using a syringe, an implement Pollock handled ‘like a giant fountain pen’, according to his partner, the artist Lee Krasner. (Krasner in B.H. Friedman, ‘An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock’, in Jackson Pollock: Black and White, exhibition catalogue, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York 1969, p.8.) Pollock applied the paint from above, circling around the canvas, which he dubbed ‘the arena’. When the paint met the unprimed surface it bled into the weave of the cotton. The critic Lawrence Alloway observed that this blurring effect linked these paintings to the drawings Pollock was also making at the time:
The black, even when applied in a continuous stream, does not produce a strongly directional reading. It burrs at the edges as it leaks out onto the canvas. The effect is somewhat like photographic enlargements of an etched line, in which the irregularities of the edges turn the contours into sensually fraying thresholds. The black line tends to dilate as a mark rather than to converge upon enclosed areas. Thus what looks like drawing is, in fact, a restrained but pervasive way of painting; the black paintings are concerned with the fusion of colour and surface, of paint and field.
(Alloway 1969, p.41.)
In keeping with Pollock’s earlier series, the ‘black pourings’ were titled by number, allowing the viewer scope to form their own interpretation of the work’s subject. The individual paintings in the series were cut from the roll of canvas once completed. A photograph taken in Pollock’s studio by Hans Namuth in late 1951 shows Number 14 on the same piece of cloth as Number 10 1951. This method of painting several works onto a continuous stretch of canvas provides a possible explanation for the splashes of red, green and yellow along the bottom edge of Number 14 and a reddish stain towards the centre. It seems unlikely that these were deliberately applied but they appear to have been intentionally retained.
Pollock exhibited this series of paintings in early 1952 and they formed his last major body of work before his death four years later. Within the series, Number 14 was particularly well received by Pollock’s contemporaries, with critic Clement Greenberg writing, ‘“Fourteen” and “Twenty-Five” in the recent show represent high classical art: not only the identification of form and feeling, but the acceptance and exploitation of the very circumstances of the medium of painting that limit such identification’ (Greenberg, ‘Art Chronicle: Feeling is All’, Partisan Review, January–February 1952, p.102). The series was not met with the universal acclaim afforded the drip paintings, but many contemporary critics welcomed Pollock’s bravery in revisiting the figurative, which had shaped his early practice, a period of his career represented in Tate’s collection by Naked Man with Knife c.1938–40 (Tate T03327). For Greenberg, the slower rhythm and ambiguity of the ‘black pourings’ represented ‘a turn but not a sharp change of direction; there is a kind of relaxation, but the outcome is a newer and loftier triumph’ (Greenberg 1952, p.102).
Lawrence Alloway, ‘Pollock’s Black Paintings’, Arts Magazine, vol.43, May 1969, pp.40–4.
The Tate Gallery 1984–86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984–86, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.238–45, reproduced p.238.
Gavin Delahunty, Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, London 2015.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.