How to Look at Art, Part 2: And Now For Something Completely Different

In front of Blue Poles, 1952 at the National Gallery of Australia

Last time we looked closely at a painting of Mary Magdalene from 1859. We went over what art historians call “visual analysis” and the historical and biographical context of the painting. I hope this made sense to many of you, and helped you to learn to look critically at a work of art.

Now, let’s make this harder.

Today, we’ll look at another painting. A few days ago, I received a museum selfie from my in-laws and was inspired to write about modern art. Looking at modern or contemporary¹ art can be tricky for some people, but I hope you’ll come along for the ride anyway!


Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, 1947 (Click here to open this in a new tab) (Click here to view a zoomable version)

The Basics

This painting by Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, was done in 1947. It is a large 104 x 268cm (41 x 105.5 inches, or roughly 8 feet x 3 feet). It is oil paint and enamel on canvas, and can be found in the Anderson Collection at Stanford University in California.

It is a massive drip-fest, with no realistic elements or traditional methods of painting. The drips vary in length and width, with some areas covered in several thick layers, and some areas with no paint at all.

Formal Analysis

If you remember from last week, formal analysis is how we look at the physical properties of a painting, including composition, colour, size and line.

Let’s start with the most obvious characteristic of this painting: line. There are..uh..lots of lines. Paint drips, to be more specific. Of varying thickness and texture,these lines are powerfully distinct. That is, you can see them all individually— there is no attempt at blending.

Next, the painting’s size— it’s pretty massive. So large, in fact, that you can’t see the whole thing at once. If you were to visit Lucifer at Stanford, you may find it difficult to find a comfortable distance to view the painting. Close up, and you can see all the detail, and little bits of canvas peeking through all the dripping paint. But you can’t see everything, so you step back. Now you’ve lost the detail, but can more clearly see the lines as the zoom and zig all around the canvas. Large paintings are meant to engulf you, overwhelm you. It was virtual reality before virtual reality. Standing in front of Lucifer, you are now in a crazy world of drip and chaos.

You might not notice much colour at first, but it’s there. From the cream and grey peeking through the black drips to the bright splashes of every colour of the rainbow, Pollock uses colour to give a unsettling sense of depth. The bright colour seems to float on top of (or is it underneath?) the black lines. The cream and grey recede into the background, then pop into the front. What’s on top of what here? It’s an unanswerable question. 

You may think, “Surely there’s no composition here, right?” And you would be right, in the traditional sense. Those lines we drew with Mary Mags last week won’t really work here. Pollocks lines go everywhere and nowhere. Follow one, run into another, repeat. In addition to pure lines, there are areas of the canvas where the paint has congealed into a pool, creating a dark patch. These are pretty evenly, if randomly, distributed around the canvas— though perhaps a few more in the lower right hand corner. So this composition of elements gives you no place to rest your eye,² you are constantly moving around the huge canvas, following chaotic line after chaotic line.

Historical Context

The title of this painting, Lucifer, refers one of the many names we traditionally call the devil or Satan.  “Lucifer” means “morning star” or “light-bringer” and was the ancient Roman name for the planet Venus. A pretty weird nickname for the “Prince of Darkness”, don’t you think? Yet the whole mythology behind Satan is that he was a fallen angel. This passage from the book of Isaiah describes his fall:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
-Isaiah 14:12

I don’t think Pollock was a religious man, but he chose a very specific name for this painting— one that references a present of evil and darkness masquerading as light.

Artist’s Biography

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was born in Wyoming, but moved away when he was only 10 months old. He grew up in Arizona and Chico, California. When he was 17 he came to New York to study art, and became part of what we now know as the “New York School” of abstract expressionists. Pollock is most famous for his drip paintings, a technique he discovered in the mid 30’s. His large scale drip paintings, like Lucifer, were mostly done between 1947 and 1952. He later went on to do different kinds of abstract and figurative work, but they were never as popular as his drip paintings.

Pollock’s popularity at this time may also owe something to his friendship with the legendary art critic Clement Greenberg, who wrote about his genius and promoted him extensively. This video from Vox gives interesting insight into Greenberg and Pollock’s relationship, making the point that Pollock used his Wyoming birthplace to create a mythos around himself. He presented himself as the strong, silent, all-American man with deep western roots. Think John Wayne. Or Jack Kerouac. Or Earnest Hemingway. Or nearly any of Hollywood’s leading men of the time. They were depicted as manly, rugged, detached and potentially aggressive in their creativity.

You’ll see exactly what I mean by watching the video below, by Hans Namuth. Namuth was a friend of Pollock’s who was fascinated by his art, and in 1951 he filmed him (in COLOUR = big deal) doing his drip paintings and talking about his technique. I remember watching this as an undergraduate, and I doubt there is an art historian out there who hasn’t seen this iconic short film.


I’ve transcribed my favourite quote from this film below. Pollock describes his technique:

I don’t work from drawings or colored sketches. My painting is direct. I usually paint on the floor. I enjoy working on a large canvas. I feel more at home, more at ease in a big area. Having the canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting. This way I can walk around it, work from all four sides and be in the painting. Similar to the Indian sand painters of the West. Sometimes I use a brush, but often prefer using a stick. Sometimes I pour the paint straight out of the can. I like to use a dripping, fluid paint. I also use sand, broken glass, pebbles, string, nails or other foreign matter. A method of painting is the natural growth out of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them. The technique is just a means of arriving at a statement. [empahsis mine]

Pollock explains that the paintings are not illustrative, they don’t look like anything. But they are expressions of how he feels. Think about that for a sec. This painting, Lucifer, is a statement of Pollock’s feelings.

Does a man that stoic-looking have feelings? Of course, like all artificial personas, this is only half the story.

Pollock owed much of his success to his talented wife, the artist Lee Krasner. She was highly trained, historically aware and an amazing abstract expressionist herself. Pollock depended upon her input and opinion.  He was also a lifelong alcoholic, prone to violence. He cheated on Lee, and died when he was only 44 by drunkenly crashing his Oldsmobile, killing another passenger and injuring his mistress. He was tragic and a bit of an asshole, but undeniably talented.

Cultural Context

The Abstract Expressionists rejected traditional techniques of painting and drawing, preferring their work to have no “realistic” elements. As Pollock suggests above, they were trying to express emotion without realistic forms. They did this in lots of ways, and were pretty shocking to many folks who couldn’t understand what they were on about. But for many people, this was a new form of art that captured the post-war era perfectly.

Emotionally, the post-war era was complex. Though the first years of peace brought reunion and joy to many, the trauma lingered, and the demons of war hadn’t gone away.  People were still mourning their dead. Most men had come home from the fighting having seen horrors. Women had been working in factories and farms, only to be shooed back into the home. Gender roles were rigid, the pressure to get “back to normal” was immense.  Lots of men and women were traumatised and angry. Lots of them drank to excess.

My Own Thoughts

Pollock says his work is an expression of his own feelings. So, how do YOU feel looking at it? Imagine yourself in front of the original: eight long feet of chaos.

I’ll tell you how I feel: unsettled. And frustrated. And confused. And maybe even a little angry? That might not be how Pollock felt, but that’s the vibe I get.

It makes perfect sense to me that Pollock’s drip paintings would have been so popular: this is how people felt in the postwar period. When you’re told to get back to normal, deny the trauma, deny the war ever happened, deny women their hard-earned agency, and think about YOUR IDEAL HOME IN THE SUBURBS WITH ALL THE CONVENIENCE OF A MODERN KITCHEN, you’ve got the perfect recipe for cognitive dissonance.

Think of Lucifer as the fuzzy static between this perfect new post-war life and the horrible traumas that continued to lurk in the mind. And that’s why I think this is so perfectly named: Lucifer, the bright morning star, now fallen and evil. The evil masquerading as light.

The chaos of of trying to be “normal” when you’re traumatised.

¹ Usually, work dubbed “modern art” is dated from the 1880s until approximately the 1960’s. “Contemporary art” is usually from the 1960’s until the present.

² It was brought to my attention last time that the theory of guiding a viewer’s eye around the canvas, which was taught to me as an undergraduate (and has been taught to artists for centuries) has recently been debunked. We now know that viewers are most likely to look at something in a painting which has the most psychological impact (a face, for example) and then after that their eye patterns are pretty random. This is great to know, but still doesn’t change the importance of composition. Whether the artist “guides the eye” or not, composition will give an energy to the painting (peaceful, action, or in this case, chaos) that is intentional.  Thanks for the feedback, folks!

One thought on “How to Look at Art, Part 2: And Now For Something Completely Different

  1. Nancy,
    This is beautifully written and you kept my attention the entire time I read it
    Thanks for having me come along for the ride. I’m glad I stepped out of my realm today to read your story. Otherwise, I would never have learned about Jackson Pollock.
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.
    All My Love,
    Robin Webster ( Fremont CA)

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