The Philosophy of a Jackson Pollock drip painting

This painting is not a big favourite of mine, but it’s important to me because the work is unconventional and what it symbolises.

I like this work because it represents the unconventional. The Abstract Expressionists were reinventing what art could be by using new materials in new ways—here, working on the floor, using house paint or radiator paint, drawing splattering, drizzling with fluid paint.

He’s famous because he’s so hyped; the market likes controversial groundbreakers, so he’s radical in one sense. He’s part of today’s love affair with creativity, newness, breaking with tradition, and the future.

But he’s a poster boy of the establishment, a part of the art world yet lionised for rebelling against it, another paradox, you might say. Another thing is politics; it was a drive-by the US to break with European art and found an American, capitalistic art and against communism.

Pollock spread the canvas out on the floor, dripping, splattering and throwing the paint onto the canvas. There’s even a short video that documents this. It’s therefore a record of motion.

What’s special when looking at it is us the canvas is all treated equally. There’s no foreground or background relationship. No up or down: it can be hung at any orientation.

There’s no focal point where your eye can rest. It makes for a very unsettling work to look at because your eye never stops, never ceases.

It reminds me of the imagery of Indras Net.

What it symbolises for me is what Hindus and Buddhists talk about when describing the cosmos. A reality in flux, a reality interconnected and interdependent.

It was of it’s time, the 50s and 60s, Buddhism, especially Zen were becoming more popular, with authors like Alan Watts, Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. People were looking for new ways to live; capitalism, the accumulation of possessions, and wealth criticised.

It was a period in history where traditions were being questioned. Not least what art could be. They were letting of the European hold on to art.

The work itself is puzzling, there’s no focal point or object to look upon; a landscape, animal, or person. There are no objects at all, so in a way, it depicts nothing, no form to identify.

Reality is empty of intrinsic unchanging existence. In Buddhism, this is called Anatman, or Non-Self. later called Shunyata. There’s no idea of a soul or self in Buddhism; such statements and ideas are illusory.

There’s no clarity and no resolution to find in the piece. On the plus side, there is no problem to fix, so a solution isn’t necessary.

So you’re left looking at the work not in puzzle/problem-solving mode, but as an experience to be had.

There’s also no suggestion in the work as to what the painting is about; it’s more a record of Pollocks’ movement. Works like this is called Action Painting because of this.

The painting is untitled, merely Number 31, because a title would be suggestive, drawing the viewer down a path of ideas and meaning. What we have is ambiguity; we’re left to our own devices.

What’s notable about abstract art is the ambiguity. It’s there to draw in the viewer and invite a personal interpretation of the work.

Another feature of his drip paintings is they follow the rules of fractal geometry. There’s the same pattern at every level you look at.

Effortless spontaneity is making without forethought or plan, and it’s revealed in this work. Something more figurative artists can’t achieve because they have to think about composition, shape, form etc.

Another point about the piece is that if you take a passage or area, it’s not the same as another area, yet it is the same or similar, same but not the same? A paradox. 

We all see and live and work in well-worn ways. Abstract paintings like these offer a lesson by undermining conventions about art, and what it can be, supposed to be. The invitation is to do the same with our lives.

Abstract askes us to be aware of our expectations, what we want from art. It challenges the idea art has to live up to our expectations and provide answers, clarity. In this way, it reminds me of a Zen Koan.

We can look upon abstract works and leave unsatisfied, but our ego wants the art is to be agreeable, understandable, and accessible.

Difficult art like this asks us to reflect upon life in the same way. To be more aware of our needs and expectations.

Art doesn’t have to make sense, and neither does life.

What I see in a work is the artistic capturing of actual existence. Life is uncertain, obscure, and unsettling. That makes drip paintings like these meaningful and relevant in a way I think many of us don’t see, perhaps because we don’t look hard enough.

It’s an artwork about no-thing, that makes it an artwork about everything.

Pollock at Work