Jackson Pollock

Number 23


In Tate St Ives

Jackson Pollock 1912–1956
Enamel on gesso on paper
Support: 575 × 784 mm
frame: 651 × 861 × 42 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased out of funds provided by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd) 1960


Number 23 is an abstract painting on paper. Comprised of layered skeins of black and white enamel paint, the composition was created by dripping and flicking the paint onto the surface of the paper from all four sides. This unusual technique creates a sense of frenzied movement within the image, and results in a composition that could be read from several orientations, although the small inscription of the artist’s name and the date (‘Jackson Pollock, 48’) along one side suggests this to be the lower edge. The juxtaposition between the thin, interlacing threads of paint and the flat negative space of the paper underscores the speed with which the artist worked; an impression that is reinforced for the viewer by the presence of a bee embedded in the paint in the upper right hand corner of the painting.

This painting was created in 1948 by the American abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. He is best known for pioneering action painting, a vigorous method of dripping paint onto a surface laid out on the floor. For four years from 1947 onwards Pollock employed this drip technique to produce the rhythmic, energetic paintings for which he is renowned. Number 23 was created during this period, in which Pollock worked with commercially available materials, watering down black industrial enamel to a consistency he could apply deftly. The paint was dripped by hand or applied using a syringe, an implement Pollock handled ‘like a giant fountain pen’, as Pollock’s partner, the artist Lee Krasner, described it in 1969 (quoted in Karmel 1999, p.38). Pollock applied the paint from above, circling around the paper’s surface, which he dubbed ‘the arena’. This technique created thin, sweeping arcs of paint, with no central point of focus or hierarchy of elements, imbuing the work with a rhythmic and energetic quality.

Number 23 is one of eleven works on paper of a similar size that Pollock executed in 1948. It was shown alongside twenty-five other Pollock paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, between January and February 1949. Each work in this exhibition had a numbered title. Krasner explained in 1950 that these nonrepresentational works were given numerical titles to avoid steering the viewer towards a particular subject: ‘Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a painting for what it is – pure painting.’ (Quoted in Karmel 1999, p.19.)

Pollock’s drip paintings, which are also represented in the Tate collection by Summertime: Number 9A 1948 (Tate T03977), were met with a mixed reaction by critics. Following the 1949 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, art critic Emily Genauer wrote that the paintings ‘resemble nothing so much as a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out’ (quoted in Karmel 1999, p.62). However, Pollock’s paintings were championed by art historian Clement Greenberg, who wrote in 1949 that the new works ‘quieted any doubts this reviewer may have felt … as to the justness of the superlatives with which he has praised Pollock’s art in the past’ (quoted in Karmel 1999, p.62), and an article on Pollock appeared in the 8 August 1949 issue of Life magazine with the sensationalist title ‘Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?’.

Further reading
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.617.
Pepe Karmel (ed.), Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles and Reviews, New York 1999.
Carolyn Lancher, Jackson Pollock, New York 2009.

Phoebe Roberts
December 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Pollock began to drip and pour paint in 1947. This work, in which streams of black and white enamels were poured onto the surface, shows the improvisatory possibilities of this method. The sweeping arc of Pollock's gesture can be seen in the liquid black, which has bled into the white painted background to become grey. This acts as a base over which the thicker white paint is deliberately woven. The effect is rhythmic but controlled, energetic but delicate. Although there was an element of chance, Pollock frequently emphasised the importance of decisions over the merely accidental.

Gallery label, July 2008

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Jackson Pollock 1912-1956

T00384 Number 23 1948

Inscribed 'Jackson Pollock 48' b.r.
Enamel on gesso on paper, 22 5/8 x 30 7/8 (57.5 x 78.5)
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery (purchased out of funds provided by Mr and Mrs H.J. Heinz II and the H.J. Heinz Co., Ltd.) 1960
Prov: Mr and Mrs Daniel Longwell, New York and Neosho (purchased from the artist through Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1949); purchased from them through Betty Parsons Gallery by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1960
Exh: Jackson Pollock, Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, January-February 1949 (no catalogue); What Businessmen collect, Guild Hall, East Hampton, July 1952 (no catalogue); Fine Arts Festival, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, March 1957 (listed in brochure as 'Number 22'); Kompas 3, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, November-December 1967 (45, repr.); Kompas New York, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, December 1967-February 1968 (43, repr.)
Lit: Francis Valentine O'Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works (New Haven-London 1978), No.199, Vol.2, p.20, repr. p.21
Repr: Studio, CLXII, 1961, p.45 Terry Measham, The Moderns 1945-1975 (Oxford 1976), pl.5

Executed in 1948, the second year of Pollock's drip paintings. It may be thought that the slight spread of the grey-black paint tracks was due to using a wet ground, but Lee Krasner (Mrs Pollock) says that her husband never worked like this, though he frequently applied paint with a basting syringe in order to obtain a long, continuous line. Fragments of a winged insect like a bee are embedded in the paint towards the upper right. Several other drip paintings also have objects embedded in them; for example 'Full Fathom Five' has paint-tube caps, and 'Blue Poles' has fragments of glass.

The 1948 works he exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in January-February 1949 were numbered from 1 to 26, this one being No.23. It is one of about eleven paintings on paper done in this year, most of which were more or less this size.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.617, reproduced p.617

You might like