Illustrated companion

From about 1946 Pollock developed his now famous technique of pouring and dripping paint onto the canvas as a means of achieving his stated goal of creating art from the unconscious. Using this method he was able to work in a free and highly intuitive way, his ideas and feelings finding direct expression in the rhythmic patterns he created. In a well-known statement of 1947-8 Pollock described his way of working: 'My painting does not come from the easel. I hardly ever stretch my canvas before painting. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting'. This gives some idea of the unprecedented extent to which for Pollock the process of painting was a physical action, driven by inner impulses, in the arena of the canvas. According to Pollock, he would begin a painting with an almost trance-like, unconscious phase: 'When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I am doing.' However he also makes clear that this is followed by a much more considered phase: 'It is only after a sort of "get acquainted" period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes ... because the painting has a life of its own ...' He goes on to speak of 'an easy give and take' between him and the painting and these statements also bring out vividly the way in which, after the initial phase, Pollock's paintings continued to develop through a deeply intuitive process.

From about 1946-50 Pollock's work was effectively abstract, as in the Tate Gallery's 'Summertime' of 1948. In 1951, however, his art changed and he began to paint predominantly black pictures in which symbolic figurative imagery reappears, akin to that of his early works such as 'Birth'. In 'Number 14' a horizontal form which might be an animal or a human figure dominates the upper centre right of the canvas. At the right-hand end appears what might be a grotesque head on a stalk-like body and at the other end there appears to be a large face looming through the bars of black paint in the upper left-hand corner. There is also a suggestion of another horizontal figure lying beneath the principal one. 'Number 14' is one of a group of Pollock's black paintings all with similar imagery which have been given a Jungian interpretation by the art historian Francis V. O'Connor, a leading authority on Pollock. (It is well known that Pollock underwent psychotherapy with two Jungian practitioners in 1939-40 and 1941). O'Connor identifies the main figure with the artist himself and sees the paintings as being about the artist's relationships; '... they are best understood not in terms of explicit sexual congress ... but in terms of the figure/protagonist/artist's struggle in these works of 1951 to re-establish his sense of, and capacity for, relationship. The overriding drama of all these dark paintings is the eternal struggle to break away from the stranglehold of the mother complex ...' All such interpretations remain highly speculative, but there is no doubt that this painting powerfully evokes a psychological drama all the more disturbing for being ill-defined. A full and extensive discussion of 'Number 14', together with Pollock's 'Birth' [Tate Gallery T03979] and 'Summertime' [Tate Gallery T03977], is in the Tate Gallery Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984-86, pp. 231-251 [and also displayed on the 'full catalogue entry' Web pages for these works].

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.214