Arts & Culture

Art preview: Jackson Pollock’s black paintings see the light of day in Dallas

Jackson Pollock’s Echo: Number 25 is the largest of the all-black paintings in the show at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Jackson Pollock’s Echo: Number 25 is the largest of the all-black paintings in the show at the Dallas Museum of Art. The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of the last great bodies of work from artist Jackson Pollock is going on view at the Dallas Museum of Art.

This exhibition, “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots,” opening Friday, is the largest survey ever assembled of the all-black paintings and prints made between 1947 and 1953. These paintings followed the famous drip paintings that brought him to national notoriety.

There were two exhibits of the all-black paintings, in 1951 and ’52, and not a single one sold.

There were two exhibits of the all-black paintings, in 1951 and ’52, and not a single one sold. They weren’t popular then and, in the ensuing years, they have been given scant attention by scholars and almost excluded from Pollock exhibitions. They were considered aberrations; that’s the reason for the “Blind Spots” title.

They were quite important, though, to subsequent generations of painters, and they have become treasured for their seminal influence. In the ensuing years, some were believed to have been lost. Others have not traveled for decades. They had become almost lost to the timeline of American art.

Gavin Delahunty, the DMA’s senior curator for contemporary art, found the missing and talked the reticent into loans to create an exhibition with more than 70 pieces that show Pollock’s buildup to all black and then his return to color. More than 30 of the works are the famous black paintings, a rarity by any measure.

The collectors who had bought Pollock’s colorful drip fields, earning him the unfortunate nickname “Jack the Dripper,” didn’t know what to make of the black-on-black works. Pollock had used a common house paint intended for sealing gutters and poured it on unprimed cotton duck.

The paint bled into the fabric, making soft, fuzzy edges. As he applied layer after layer of paint, the top layers kept a more refined edge and didn’t seep as much, so the top levels remained glossier and the lines more distinct. The overall effect created shades of black.

While Pollock avoided making any representational marks in his earlier drip paintings, in these, he didn’t mind referencing body parts or recognizable flora and fauna.

Body parts, small birds and Pollock’s handprints are easily evident, as some of these canvases are sparsely painted. In these, it is easy to see the elegance of Pollock’s lines.

For Pollock, painting was a full-body action sport.

Little spurts and big swooshes dance across the canvas. For Pollock, painting was a full-body action sport. He painted with sticks, brushes and turkey basters, dribbling, pouring and slopping his paint from quart-size buckets onto a canvas placed on the studio floor or outside on a concrete pad.

This allowed him to race around the perimeter, working feverishly with speed and intense energy.

The most magnificent of all the black paintings is also the largest, Echo, Number 25, owned by the Museum of Modern Art. Delahunty has it positioned in front of a black leather armchair and insists that visitors stop, take a seat and stare.

“Stare at it for a long time,” he admonishes. “If you see something, embrace it.”

Delahunty wants to impress upon visitors how revolutionary these paintings were almost 70 years ago, and he has built the galleries to resemble the New York art galleries of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Doorways in the DMA galleries have been reduced, walls are white and a gray carpet covers the floors, and ubiquitous mid-century modern furniture — Le Corbusier armchairs and a Barcelona daybed by Mies van der Rohe — are centered in the galleries.

The spaces look more like living rooms than galleries.

“We wanted to revisit the original experience of engaging with a Jackson Pollock painting,” Delahunty says. “In the 1950s there was no Chelsea or White Cube Gallery; the experience of seeing art was a domestic one.

“The spaces were smaller, with carpet and trim; the color palette of the walls was very homey. We’ve tried to re-enact that for an authentic viewing experience.”

We wanted to revisit the original experience of engaging with a Jackson Pollock painting.

Gavin Delahunty, senior curator for contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art

It probably wasn’t necessary, as most people have no recollection of New York art galleries of the mid-1900s. But having a Mies daybed, and a curator that encourages a lie-down for rumination, is quite novel. It might be a museum first.

The black paintings look remarkably fresh. They have held up quite well, and they do invite scrutiny, where the large drip fields encouraged a sort of fuzzy myopia. The latter are best seen from a mid-distance; the black ones are good close up and from a distance.

The Dallas Museum of Art was one of the first museums to buy a Pollock painting, and the board did so only at the urging of Stanley Marcus, founder of the Neiman Marcus stores. He believed that one of Pollock’s pieces should be in a museum outside the Northeast corridor.

The DMA purchased Cathedral, from 1947, a work that precedes the black paintings but that points the way in that it looks black, white and gray. Only on close inspection can you see blue and cream areas and lines of orange. The surface is so heavily worked, though, that individual lines or pours are not distinct.

The institution also owns Portrait and a Dream, 1953, a work that ends the exhibit and ended the all-black series.

It was one of the last great paintings Pollock made while sober. He claimed it was indeed a self-portrait and a dream.

Here, each of the black splotches and gestures is distinct, and the variety is astounding. It illustrates Pollock’s ability and control over his application technique.

Hard pressed for funds, Pollock returned to a more colorful way of painting and lost his sobriety.

Hard pressed for funds, he returned to a more colorful way of painting and lost his sobriety, as he had done several times before. In 1956, Pollock died in an alcohol-related car crash. He was 44 years old.

Gaile Robinson: 817-390-7113, @GaileRobinson

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots

  • Nov. 20-March 20
  • Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., Dallas
  • $16
  • 214-922-1200; www.dma.org
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