By Nicholas Alahverdian
The Beauty of the End, the Hope of the Beginning
The art of Jackson Pollock was critical to the growth and development of the Beat Generation. His approach to abstract impressionism influenced his fellow painters, as well as writers and poets. The visual complexity of his artwork served as a conduit through which he was able to relate the chaos of his generation to viewers of his paintings. His action paintings, including “Autumn Rhythm,” exhibited his command of the abstract expressionist form. My essay will focus on the creative process and the implications of this unique piece of art.
Obviously, Pollock’s work was that of a genius. His painting style was not merely improvisational – it also incorporated characteristics reminiscent of those artists and authors who engaged in the practice of writing and/or painting in the style of stream-of-consciousness. Drip after drip, smear after smear, mixing the two – these techniques cumulatively defined the greatness of his work. Loyal to his art and chronically dissatisfied with his performance, he lengthened his artistic stride to further his aesthetic interpretation of the world we live in.
Pollock’s work defined the movement of abstract impressionism. As noted by S. Lee in an article in the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts:
In the late 1940s, the American painter Jackson Pollock developed a style of painting that helped define the movement known as abstract expressionism. He rolled a large canvas across the floor of his barn onto which he dripped, drizzled and poured household paint. His technique generated a sensation among critics accustomed to traditional brush strokes who thought Pollock’s work purely accidental, but he denied such claims. ‘I can control the flow of the paint,’ Pollock contended. ‘There is no accident.’
Pollock did indeed control the flow of the paint. There were no accidents. He meticulously dripped each drop, smeared each smear, and blotted each blot. The stream-of-consciousness attitude that is prevalent throughout Pollock’s work is about living in the moment: that is, explaining a situation to another person in another time and in another place through a work of art.
Furthermore, it means transporting the person (as close as is possible) to the mentality of the artist at the exact second of each drip of paint or stroke of the brush. It means exposing the passion and supplanting the viewer’s skepticism of the painting’s apparent nothingness (in some cases) or irrelevance with a genuine taste of what is was like to be in the artist’s shoes at that very moment, to think his thoughts, and to join him for the ride. In the case of Pollock, and especially in “Autumn Rhythm,” we are transported to an artistic valley unlike that of which most paintings can offer. It truly is an existential, moving experience to view “Autumn Rhythm,” with its overtones of the endless and the infinite, the cyclical, the beginning, as well as the inevitable end. This painting is steeped in thought-provoking, inspired symbols. It truly is close to a religious experience.
The notion of the eternal is most evident in “Autumn Rhythm.” When one thinks of autumn, decay, dying, and ageing come to mind. Perhaps the crisp, brightly covered (albeit dying) leaves and the nearly bare branches late into the season come into mind. The brisk wind, the striking scenes upon witnessing sun-stained trees, branches flailing and waving in the latter months, all of these characteristics admonish one to ponder the phenomenal beauty and amazing, aesthetically pleasing sights of autumn.
Pollock focuses on integrating his ubiquitous drip style with certain secondary and tertiary examples of autumnal bliss. For example, the labyrinths of paint ribbons scattered about the canvas are evocative of the wind-tattered, brave leaves constantly afloat in the sky. The manic depiction of paint; the beautiful, thrown-about lines seemingly searching for an end; these are all reflective of the search for meaning. It goes without saying that leaves are not conscious beings, however, the fact that autumn and autumnal metaphors transcend the mere seasonal implications in this painting, and Pollock expertly employs techniques that are evocative of the cyclical seasons.
White splotches, tan blobs, black dots – these all could perhaps represent the mad rush to meaning. Autumn typically identifies with death and dying – subjects that humanity finds fascinating – due to what remains after the life we now live. What becomes of us? What becomes of organisms? Is there a purpose to this life? Pollock answers these important, crucial (and existential) questions in an abstract (albeit powerful) fashion.
When one first glances at the painting, the chaos is immediately detected. Among the other substantial, initially-noticed characteristics, the viewer notes the endless paths of the drips, the throwing of the paint, the encompassing nature of the canvas, and the fervent intent of the work to draw its viewer in closer and closer until s/he can finally grasp the powerful complexity (yet, paradoxically, the beautiful simplicity) of the painting.
The maze of lines interspersed with the striking aimlessness of the autumnal objects are strategically placed to make the viewer’s eyes wander and wander in an endless cycle, reminiscent of the endless cyclical seasons that we see throughout our lives. One is admonished to continue to view the work, to admire its shapeless yet substantial perfection. The beauty is intoxicating, and it somehow inhibits the ability to move on – the piece remains in the mind for a period of time lasting much longer than the time spent in front of the canvas.
The painting is the antithesis of objectivity. Each viewer has a different interpretation of the work, as is the case with most works of art. Subjectivity is key here – and rightfully so. Scholar Matthew Rampley, speaking of Pollock’s work, has noted that “the decentering of subjectivity occupies a familiar place in the contemporary intellectual landscape.” Autumn and autumnal themes are inherently subjective, and the desire to independently and individually interpret the beauty and/or dismal nature of autumn has been artistically explored throughout the ages. The same conceptual framework of subjective interpretation applies to Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm.”
Analytically, the work can legitimately be viewed as a crash course in autumnal bliss. The tan colors are perhaps evocative of foliage, whereas the black spirals and blots suggest to the viewer that death (whether it be the death of a season, the death of a loved one, or the death of leaves) is imminent. The sad, melancholy nature of the color black is purposely prominent in this work of art.
Following the explication of both the term “Autumn” in the title of the work and the properties attributed to autumnal tendencies in the actual painting, one must ponder the significance of the term “rhythm” and why Pollock utilized this nomenclature to not only name his painting, but also to describe the constant, chaotic, and manic elements of the painting that cumulatively form a pattern. This pattern may not be immediately identifiable – but upon further observation, it becomes apparent. The viewer is admonished to ponder the wonder of the rhythm of time, that amazing yet ruthless reality which allows humanity to flourish and yet sadly also ensures the demise of an organism. That is what is reflected in this painting.
Following the beauty of summer, humanity has placed its faith in the hope of the sun. When the sun is clouded, and the leaves turn colors, and the grass becomes less green, and warmer clothes begin to be unpacked, a sea change of both attitude and mentality occurs. For some, it signifies the beginning of harvest, for others, the initiation of the academic year. What is spoken of in the Pollock painting?
The action occurring in “Autumn Rhythm” symbolizes the death of summer and the beginning of new tasks, perhaps new aspirations, and even suggests the inevitable wintery cloak that will soon blanket the land with snow. Again, the color black, with its suggestions of death and decay, is prominent throughout the painting, and thus is a segment of the rhythm. Alternately, the white splotches could perhaps indicate the coming of the snow, the beginning of winter, and the end of the year. A dichotomy is present in the color white – the snow does not only symbolize the end of the year, but it also semiotically details the newness of the earth, the cleanness of a new year, as well as new beginnings. The binary implications – the colors on opposite poles – illustrate this paradox. This epitomizes the expressionistic methodology of painting.
By Nicholas Alahverdian