Abstract painting

On Jackson Pollock’s Controversial Abstract Painting ‘Blue Poles’

When the reformist government of Gough Whitlam came to power in Australia in 1972 after 23 years of conservative rule, it embarked on an agenda of policies ranging from the loftiest policies – recognition of the People’s Republic of China, restitution indigenous lands, abolishing the death penalty and scrapping university fees – to more prosaic but pressing issues like connecting the sprawling outer suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne to a modern sewage system.

Cultural investment was also highlighted, with Queen Elizabeth opening the iconic Sydney Opera House in October 1973 after two decades of construction – a resentful project that saw Danish architect Jørn Utzen return home to Denmark, only to never come back, while cost overruns reached tens of millions. dollars.

That fateful year also saw the start of the Gulf States oil embargo and the recession of the mid-1970s. So when it emerged that the brand new National Gallery of Australia in Canberra had paid 1.3 million Australian dollars (HK$6.5 million) for a painting by an American artist, the 1952 work by Jackson Pollock blue poles, which looked like someone had laid the canvas on the ground and poured, dribbled and smeared household paint everywhere, the public and popular media reacted as if they had just learned that someone had strangled the Queen’s corgies. (After paying for blue polesthe NGA acquired another work, Woman V, by the American painter of Dutch origin Willem de Kooning, for the modest sum of 650,000 USD. Both painters were colleagues in the so-called New York School of Abstract Expressionism which formed after World War II).

Fast forward to the present, where times and attitudes have of course changed. In a short video on the NGA’s website, Christine Dixon, Senior Curator of International Painting and Sculpture, explains why the painting is the gallery’s most popular exhibit today, starting with its size: “People forget that when they see reproductions of works of art, everything looks flat. But when you get to this beautiful work, you will see that it is almost two meters high and more than five meters long.

And, yes, Pollock painted on the floor – his paintings were just too big to lean on the wall – where he “used whatever tool he liked to pour, dribble and throw paint at the Web”. And yet, Dixon adds, “he could draw so subtly with such complex ideas about latticework and the three-dimensionality of painting. The closer you look at the work, the deeper it becomes. If you step away, it becomes a area.

And therein lies one of the most intriguing features of blue poles (and Pollock’s other works from this period): that, according to some mathematicians, painting is composed almost entirely of fractals, of which Pollock was probably not even vaguely aware. Fractals are patterns formed by congregations of identical or very similar patterns. For example, imagine an equilateral triangle itself made up of four smaller triangles with exactly the same pattern. Or take the original and stack three more of the same size to get a new triangle four times bigger. Fractal patterns are ubiquitous in nature in forms as diverse as snowflakes or biological structures – in fact, they are the patterns of life. Look closely at a snail shell or leaf veining. They are also found in art, especially in East Asian images of water and clouds: think of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, and notice how the shapes of giant waves and the foam that breaks at their tops are fractals of each other. .

Meanwhile, it has been nearly five decades since the NGA paid what was then a world record for a work by an American painter. Was he taken for a ride, or did they get a good deal? In September 2016, the Australian Financial Review reported that the painting had an insurance value of around US$350 million (HK$2.71 billion), about 300 times the 1973 price – a frenzy of fractals at a fraction of the price.

This story first appeared on Prestige Hong Kong.

(Main photo: National Gallery of Australia)