Painting for Peggy
How Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” Revolutionized Art History

The restoration of Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece is like a rebirth. Now the artist’s brightly colored “Mural” is on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin. Sebastian Preuss has an in-depth look at the seminal artwork.
Peggy Guggenheim waited impatiently for the painting. In the summer of 1943, the eccentric collector and patron of the arts had commissioned the then unknown artist Jackson Pollock to execute a wall painting, six meters wide and 2.4 meters high. Mural, as it is called today, was to adorn the entrance hall of her new apartment.

Guggenheim had previously lived with her husband, the Surrealist Max Ernst, in a townhouse on Beekman Place. Since her return from Europe in the summer of 1941, she had met there with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, and many other artists and intellectuals who had fled Hitler and the world war. After separating from Ernst, who had fallen in love with the young artist Dorothea Tanning, Guggenheim had moved to her new spectacular residence on East 61st Street.

FACT & FICTION: Pollock and Jazz

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings have repeatedly been associated with cool jazz and bebop. In his gestural abstract paintings, viewers could see a visual counterpart to the music that characterized the 1950s—the same delight in improvisation, the same complex rhythmic structures. Pollock’s Mural vibrated with musical energy back in 1943, and in 1960 one of his drip paintings adorned the cover of Ornette Coleman’s classic Free Jazz. But popular legend notwithstanding, Pollock was not a fan of the avant-garde. His record collection included pieces from the 1920s and 1930s and musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. That Pollock danced to loud jazz sounds around his lying canvases is also a myth: he didn’t have a gramophone or electricity in his studio. Nevertheless, jazz was omnipresent in his life. He went to clubs and listened to records at home for days on end, until his wife Lee Krasner almost “climbed the roof.” For Pollock, she said, jazz was “the only creative thing happening in the country.”

Six months after the commission, in the winter of 1943, Pollock finally brought the long-awaited painting. But the hanging proved difficult. “He became quite hysterical and began drinking from all the bottles“, Peggy Guggenheim recalls in her autobiography. "He not only telephoned me at the gallery every few minutes to come home at once and help place the painting, but he got so drunk that he undressed and walked quite naked into a party that Jean Connolly, who was living with me, was giving in the sitting room. Finally, Marcel Duchamp and a workman came to the rescue and placed the mural."

Now all of New York wanted to see the mural, and most visitors saw at once that this was a radical kind of painting never seen before. The physical force with which Pollock painted transfers to the viewer and literally absorbs him or her. The longer you look at the work, the more you become a part of the dramatically entwined contours in green, blue, red, pink, and black, of the yellow and white wisps thrown onto the canvas, and of the softly executed network of smears and splashes of paint. As though the product of a violent eruption, the shapes and colors spread out on the surface. There is no beginning or end, no top or bottom. It is the first monumental allover composition, a major breakthrough that impacted postwar Modernism in America and beyond.

Nevertheless, Mural is the least known of Pollock’s great masterpieces, in large part because it is hanging in Iowa City, far away from most of the major art metropolises. In 1948, Guggenheim gifted it to the university there along with a few other works after she had left New York behind her once and for all and moved to her beloved Venice. With the present, she paid tribute to the dedicated art education program in the small, remote city. In addition, she wanted to make Pollock’s work known throughout the U.S., including the Midwest.

Now Mural is on view in Berlin for four months. The exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle explores the genesis, sources, and aftermath of the legendary painting. The University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA) is happy to lend the work for exhibitions because a flood destroyed the museum building in 2008. Although the collection was saved, it has since been shown in alternative locations. While a new facility is being built, the UIMA spent eighteen months cleaning and restoring Pollock’s painting at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. The painting has been revived, mainly because the varnish that had been applied in a previous restoration in 1973 was removed. It’s like a rebirth. The oil paint has regained its old radiance, and the yellow bullet holes sparkle between green and black contours. The painting embodies expression and movement, speed and dynamism, and ultimately offers a completely new kind of visual experience. The sheer monumentality of the canvas magnifies all impressions. Only gradually do we see that the brushstrokes and the fragmented color surfaces push in a hectic rhythm from right to left, from the East Coast to the vast expanses of the American West, according to one of the innumerable interpretations of Mural. Pollock himself hinted at this: “I had a vision. It was a stampede,” he told friends later in reference to the genesis of the wall painting. “Every animal in the American West. Cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes. Everything is charging across that goddamn surface.” Pollock grew up in Wyoming and in his work repeatedly investigated the vast prairie, the untamed power of nature that even defies the people who live there, and the pristineness of America as a counterpoint to European culture.

After Mural, American art was never the same again. The critic Clement Greenberg raved: “I took one look at it and I thought, ‘Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced.” Greenberg became the most eloquent apostle of Pollock and the New York School, of Abstract Expressionist painting, with which America broke the artistic dominance of Europe after the war. But Pollock’s work wouldn’t have been conceivable without the influence of European Modernism.

Jackson Pollock was born to a poor family in the small town of Cody in 1912. He had an alcohol problem early on and suffered from depression. In 1930, Pollock started studying art in New York. His not-very-autonomous early work fluctuated between expressive mystical landscapes and a dramatic figurativeness that Pollock admired in the Mexican Muralistas. In search of primitivism, he took up the forms of Native American masks and paintings. In addition, he went into psychoanalysis with two disciples of C.G. Jung.

But he was influenced most by European artists, whose work was shown increasingly in New York. Pollock appropriated the biomorphic dream image from the Surrealists and showed even more admiration for Joan Miró’s rounded color surfaces and Picasso’s fragmented, torn figures.

>From all of this, he developed a flickering visual language full of dramatic gestures and increasingly free in the improvised flow of lines and formations. In 1943, he covered smears of paint applied by brush with a network of dripped-on lines and splashes. This drip technique, which would later become Pollock’s trademark and his most important contribution to the history of Modernism, likely also came from the Surrealists exiled in New York. In a performance at Wakefield Bookshop in 1942, Ernst dripped paint onto the canvas using a perforated can that he swung around in circles on a string.

In these circumstances, Guggenheim took notice of Pollock. Since 1921, the heiress had taken refuge from the Puritanism of the New York moneyed aristocracy in bohemian life in France and England. She snubbed bourgeois conventions whenever she could. For many literati and artists, she was a loyal friend and generous supporter. At the suggestion of Samuel Beckett, with whom she had any unhappy love affair, she began collecting contemporary art in 1937. Duchamp, among others, provided ideas for her first gallery, which she maintained in London in 1938 and 1939. Subsequently, in wartime Paris, she built up her famous collection, which included works by all of the important modernist artists. She acquired a work a day. Guggenheim was advised by Howard Putzel, an art dealer and proponent of the avant-garde from California. In the summer of 1941, the situation became too dangerous for her as a Jew, and she fled with her two children, her new love Max Ernst, a few artist friends, and a crate of pictures to New York.

Back in her home city, she set up a museum for her collection—called The Art of This Century— in a two-story loft. For the Surrealist section, the architect Friedrich Kiesler designed a kind of tunnel out of bent eucalyptus wood. The works hung on baseball bats that protruded from the wall, and visitors sat in front of them on biomorphic chairs that looked like something from a Dalí painting. In a separate room contemporary art, primarily American, was shown and sold.

In the five short years of its existence, The Art of This Century had a lasting impact on the American art scene, mainly due to Guggenheim’s backing of contemporary art from her own country. Putzel, who directed Guggenheim’s gallery, recommended Pollock to her, and after initial hesitation the painter became her most important protégé. She gave him a monthly advance of 150 dollars, devoted several exhibitions to him, and did everything in her power to sell his works to collectors and to the Museum of Modern Art. Putzel urged her to commission the mural, because he hoped that with it Pollock would be able to finally unleash the still restrained and awkward forces of his small paintings in a large format. And that is exactly what happened, after the painter had brooded for a long time in front of the empty canvas. Legend has it that he created Mural in one night in a single burst0 of energy. But today we know better on account of a more precise examination of the canvas. While Pollock seems to have drafted a dynamic basic structure at one go, he subsequently worked on the painting for months in several sessions.

For the first time, Pollock radically lived out the physical act of painting. This paved the way for his later “dances” around the canvas lying on the floor. Mural represented a breakthrough in Pollock’s work and for the entire Abstract Expressionist movement. The pulsating forms, which he had essayed only halfheartedly previously, unfolded for the first time with great freedom. On the enormous surface, Pollock found himself, discovered the explosive power of his later drip paintings.

Peggy Guggenheim’s personality was diametrically opposed to Jackson Pollock’s. His unruly, at times brutal behavior, and particularly his excessive alcohol consumption, repulsed her. Still, a momentous relationship arose. An uncouth painter from Wyoming and an eccentric art collector from the New York financial world: two outsiders joined forces and revolutionized art history.

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural”: Energy Made Visible
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
11/25/2015 – 4/10/2016