• Angélica

Staging Jackson Pollock

Whitechapel Gallery, London

On until 24th March 2019 (FREE)

Jackson Pollock, Summertime: Number 9A, 1948

My first exhibition of 2019. YAY! And what a start! I am writing this from the Café at the Whitechapel Gallery where I have just spent the last two hours in Gallery 4 that is now showcasing one of the Whitechapel Gallery Archive Exhibitions: Staging Jackson Pollock. When I saw on Whitechapel Gallery’s website that they have had an exhibition on Jackson Pollock since September last year I wondered why I hadn’t heard/read of it anywhere. As I stood outside of the exhibition room I no longer wondered.

The first impression was: what?! Small room, low ceilings, one painting and no one inside. How can they do that to Jackson Pollock???? However, contrary to what people say, the first impression didn’t stay with me. And I am glad I gave that exhibition a chance. The painting being exhibited is Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, borrowed from the Tate’s collection. It was the first time I’d seen that particular painting in person, even though it felt like I'd seen it before. I then remembered a short video I watched about it a few weeks ago by Lizzie Perrotte at London Art Studies (you might need a subscription to watch this video, but there are others available for free - and there is always good ol' You Tube).

There is an amazing harmony for such a crowded painting. For a while the only colours I saw were black, yellow and blue. I could imagine Pollock pouring that black paint on the canvas as he unrolled the fabric on the floor. And then filling in some of the shapes created by the dried black paint with the yellow and the blue. After enjoying it for a while (I took a seat!) I started to notice the silvery grey that followed the black unruly lines. And that some of the shapes were filled with a burgundy red and some others dabbed with purple. I also started to notice the golden brown colours dabbed at the bottom of the painting (I don’t think he dripped that...) and some drops of green paint that seemed like they were slightly smothered over the canvas afterwards. On closer look I noticed the cracks in the thicker parts of the black paint and I wondered whether that will withstand the test of time. I guess future generations will find out. It's also interesting to think that a work like this - which was painted 70 years ago - was something never seen or done before and it caused a lot of upset and diverging opinions then. Some of the documents displayed at the exhibition make reference to that and try to remediate that by contextualising the work and explaining Pollock's innovative technique.

I could imagine Pollock pouring that black paint on the canvas as he unrolled the fabric on the floor.

All of that I took notice while listening to the 40-minute interview of architect Trevor Dannat, who designed (I think today we would probably say 'he curated') JP’s first exhibition in the UK in 1958 (he'd been dead for two years by then). I am so glad I picked up those headphones! It was such a treat to listen to Dannat recalling his work 60 years ago. To me it was that interview, which was conducted in February 2018 at Dannat’s residence (they have the poor man’s address at the transcript – no need for that!), that helped me make sense of that room and put it into context.

The contextualisation of today’s exhibition could have been made a little more self-evident. A lot of people were coming in to the room for only a few minutes (if not seconds) for a quick selfie with a Pollock - I think most visitors didn’t realise what that room was about. There really was only one painting, a few photographs of the original exhibition 60 years ago, some letters of the behind-the-scenes of the original exhibition, newspaper extracts and old catalogues. Sometimes I wonder whether museums really want us to read the documents they put out for viewing. If they do, they should do something about how they display them: showing the reading documents horizontally really does something to your neck (here I am writing this doing intermittent neck rolls).

I took a double take at some of the documents displayed, and one of them is a letter from the Tate to the Whitechapel Gallery showing interest in purchasing a few of Pollock’s works and asking for the price. Then, scribbled right next to the works listed are the prices which range from $3,000 to $5,000. Yes, you read it right! But before you get too excited that was 60 years ago. The economist in me (I was an economist in another life) did some maths to figure out what that is worth today. So $5,000 is worth a little over $43,000 today. What a great investment hey?!

Jackson Pollock's prices ranged from $3,000 to $5,000

I came to Whitechapel thinking I would see all of the exhibitions they had on and I am now packing my laptop having seen just one tiny room overlooked by the staff in The Foyle Reading room. But I loved that room! And if you are up for one piece of advice, from someone that wasn’t that into art six months ago, is this: STAY! Stay longer than you want to stay in an exhibition. Don’t close your mind after the first impression. Let what you see sink into you. Even today (I am such a veteran art connoisseur with six months under my belt!) I walk into an exhibition and after only a few minutes I think that I have seen everything. Then I go back and do another tour of the exhibition. I conscientiously stand and stare at a painting that I particularly like. And then the magic happens. I start to notice things, to see things that I hadn’t before. To notice the colours that don’t initially stand out, to notice the details. So, if I had one word of advice, it is: STAY!

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