Refine Filter Results

Skip to Content ☰ Open Filter >>


Image of Phosphorescence

Jackson Pollock , (Jan 28, 1912–Aug 11, 1956)

Phosphorescence

1947
44 in. x 28 in. (111.76 cm x 71.12 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas
Credit Line: Gift of Peggy Guggenheim
Accession Number: 1950.3

Commentary

In 1947, Jackson Pollock developed his artistic idiom, dripping and looping thin skeins of paint across his canvases and squeezing thick daubs from the tube directly on their surfaces to create spatially complicated, intricately textured abstractions. These works, dubbed “action paintings” by critic Harold Rosenberg, reflected his interior life, as Pollock stated: “The modern artist . . . is working and expressing an inner world–in other words expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces.” Here, Pollock used a metallic house paint that lends the work a silvery shimmer. The title of the painting may refer to the light emitted by aquatic life around his home at East Hampton, New York.

4 x 4 exhibition, Fall 2018


The viewer's impression on first seeing this painting is of brilliant white lines shooting across gray, highlighted with points of bright color, all upon a darker ground beneath. Moving in front of the work reveals that the gray is really the pearly sheen of silver. More careful inspection reveals that everything that appears to be beneath this metallic veil, which covers about four-fifths of the surface, is really on top of it. The actual depth of the painting is due to its rough topography, to multiple ridges and curves created by squeezing oil paint directly from the tube. This is most conspicuous in the upper left corner, where the squeezed paint forms a spiral shape, echoed in the opposite corner. The silver covers these and the smaller ridges, while the black and colors—yellow, red-orange, blue—are carefully applied on top of the silver, as is a fine pouring of dark red. The black areas lend a certain sense of center and edge to the work. The bright white enamel lines form a thin, irregular grid, each starting from an oval before shooting up the surface—which suggests that they were applied while the canvas was both vertical and upside down. The viewer finds, then, that the first impression of surface and depth is offset by a complex interaction of paint textures, metallic sheen, points of color, and linear structure that moves the eye about the surface. Only at the edges can the original canvas weave be seen; it seems dark as if scrubbed with turpentine.

It is possible that this heavily worked painting was done over a rejected canvas of around 1944-45.1 The spiral forms, as well as the slightly slanted vertical white elements, can be found in certain of Pollock's drawings.2 It is clear, however, that Phosphorescence is a transitional work of 1947, painted between the similarly textured Alchemy, or Full Fathom Five, and the open pourings of Lucifer, which introduces Pollock's subsequent poured paintings.

There is no dominant image; the overall facture becomes the image—which is the defining characteristic of an Abstract Expressionist painting.3 This was recognized by the two critics who have addressed the work. When it was first exhibited, Clement Greenberg well understood that "Since Mondrian no one has driven the easel picture quite so far away from itself [to concentrate] ... on surface texture and tactile qualities." He went on to say that he was "certain that 'Phosphorescence,’ whose overpowering surface is stalagmited with metallic paint, will in the future blossom and swell into a superior magnificence; for the present it is almost too dazzling to be looked at indoors.”4

In 1955, five years after he accepted this painting as a gift to the Addison Gallery, its then director, Bartlett Hayes, urged the viewer to study the work until "its web-like structure and consistent texture become evident." He went on to state that:

the painting is an undefined symbol for anything the observer would like to make it, including the point of view that it is a spontaneous performance without any attempt at communication. That this view may be close to the facts, does not imply that spontaneity is unrelated to inner moods or convictions. Indeed, it is a common experience for an artist to make a thing simply because it seems right for him to do so.5

What inner mood or conviction, what sense of rightness, informs this painting? Pollock's titles can mislead if taken to indicate a subject. They are associative, not descriptive. We know that Phosphorescence was most probably suggested as a title by Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, or by their friends the translator Ralph Manheim and his wife, Mary, in a typical naming session before the canvas was shipped to the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. It was first shown there in January 1948, with Alchemy, Lucifer, and similarly titled works—The Nest, Comet, and Sea Change.6 The question, then, is not whether the painting depicts phosphorescence, but why Pollock accepted the word as right for the finished work.

It is clear from formal and iconic changes in his work that Pollock's move to East Hampton in 1945 reintroduced him to nature for the first time since boyhood. Krasner recalled one dramatic natural phenomenon that frightened her but fascinated Pollock: the strands of phosphorescence that sometimes drifted eerily over the wetlands between their property and Accabonic Creek beyond.7 We know also that Pollock had learned the trick of inducing phosphorescent effects by passing his hands over wet sand—"painting in light," as it were.8 So he must have liked associating these somewhat uncanny natural occurrences with a picture covered with dazzling silver and flashes of brilliant white. He may also have thought of the irony of inducing light from wetness and of the parallel with paint, which surrenders moisture to image, as here in this beautiful work—the coolest of Heraclitean
fires.

Francis V. O'Connor, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 448-49


1. See Francis V. O'Connor and Eugene V. Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works, vol. 1 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1978), no. 183; see also nos. 134-41.

2. See, for instance, Drawing with Spirals of c. 1946 and Drawing with Poles of
1949 in Francis V. O'Connor, ed., Supplement Number One to Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings, and Other Works (New York: The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Inc., 1995), nos. 20 and 21.

3. See Francis V. O'Connor, "Jackson Pollock: Down to the Weave—Thoughts on Facture and Image in the Defining of Abstract Expressionism," lecture, Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York, 9 July 1995.

4. "Art” The Nation 166 (24 January 1948), p. 108. It is clear from this first report of the new work that the present state of Phosphorescence has changed from the bright metallic gleam that dazzled Greenberg to its present subtle sheen—-a mellowing perhaps induced by cleaning and relining in 1975.

5. Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., The Naked Truth and Personal Vision: A Discussion about the Length of the Artistic Road (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 1955), p. 90.

6. See O'Connor and Thaw, vol. 1, nos. 179, 185, 174, 181, and 177 respectively. Concerning the titling of these works, see Judith Wolfe, "Jungian Aspects of Jackson Pollock's Imagery," Artforum 11 (November 1972), p. 72 and p. 73 n. 41. Ms. Wolfe obtained her information directly from Lee Krasner. See also B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1972), pp. 119-20, for an interesting grouping of the titles in respect to the four elements.

7. Lee Krasner, conversation with the author, c. 1979.

8. Ruth Kligman, Love Affair: A Memoir of Jackson Pollock (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1974), p. 81.

-------------------------------

The first impression upon seeing Jackson Pollock’s Phosphorescence is of brilliant white lines shooting across gray, highlighted with points of bright color, all upon a darker ground beneath. Moving in front of the work reveals that the gray is really the pearly sheen of silver. More careful inspection reveals that everything that appears to be beneath this metallic veil, which covers about four-fifths of the surface, is really on top of it. The actual depth of the painting is due to multiple ridges and curves created by squeezing oil paint directly from the tube. Through careful viewing the first impression is ultimately of surface and depth is offset by a complex interaction of paint textures, metallic sheen, points of color, and linear structure that moves the eye about the surface. Only at the edges can the original canvas weave be seen; it seems dark as if scrubbed with turpentine.

A transitional work of 1947, situated between his similarly textured paintings and Pollock's subsequent poured paintings that were to follow, Phosphorescence was first exhibited at Betty Parsons Gallery with other Pollock paintings given titles referencing nature. Because Pollock’s titles are associative, rather than descriptive, the question, then, is not whether the painting depicts phosphorescence, but why Pollock accepted the title for the finished work.

At the time that Pollock created the Addison’s painting, he was living near the ocean in East Hampton, NY. Experiencing strands of phosphorescence in the wetlands of Long Island, it is possible he liked associating the natural phosphorescent effect with a painting covered with dazzling silver and flashes of brilliant white. He may also have thought of the irony of inducing light from wetness and of the parallel with paint, which surrenders moisture to image, as here in this magical work.

Exhibition List
This object was included in the following exhibitions:

Bibliography List
This object has the following bibliographic references:

Portfolio List Click a portfolio name to view all the objects in that portfolio
This object is a member of the following portfolios:


Your current search criteria is: Exhibition is "Eye on the Collection".