Blue poles was first exhibited at Pollock's solo show at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952 ('Jackson Pollock, 10-29 November 1952) where it was titled Number 11, 1952. Pollock's decision to forego conventional descriptive titles and simply number his paintings, including the year oftheir execution, began with his 1949 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery ('Jackson Pollock, Recent Paintings', 24 January-12 February 1949). Some painting originally given number titles when they were first exhibited were later given more descriptive titles. For example, Number 10, 1952 became Convergence (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York). This is also the case with Number 11, 1952. The painting was first given the title Blue poles, and dated separately as 1952, in the exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1954 ('9 American Painters Today', 4-23 January 1954). Sidney Janis recalled clearly that the new title came from Pollock himself.1Thereafter the painting is usually referred to as Blue Poles, although occasionally the earlier and late titles are combined as Blue poles: number 11, 1952.
The date of the painting has frequently and mistakenly been given as 1953. It is clear from the inscription in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting that Pollock initially dated it '53', then changed the '3' to a '2'. The correction should not confuse the date of the painting however, for it was exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952 and was reproduced in the issue of Artnews for December 1952, accompanying a review of the Janis exhibition by Robert Goodnough.2
The genesis of Blue poles attracted a good deal of attention following the publication of an article by Stanley P. Friedman in the New York Magazine in 1973, in which he reported that he had been told by Tony Smith, a close friend of Pollock, that Smith himself had initially painted on the canvas that subsequently became Blue Poles.3 Smith told Friedman that he visited Pollock early in 1952:
We were drinking. We decided to paint something together. I wanted to get him out of himself and into colour again. We spread out a large piece of Belgian linen. It must have taken an hour, because it was wrapped in a canvas sack, and inside, it was wrapped in a kind of wax paper.
Jackson started taking down paint. Tube after tube of cadmium red. Jackson said, 'I can't start a painting in red'. The tubes came in sets of three. He kept discarding them. And I thought, hell, we are getting away from what I'm trying to do. So I said I'd start. And by luck, the next tube was cadmium orange. It was the fifteenth tube so I squiggled it on. We had eighteen feet of canvas rolled out. And then I laid the wax paper over the squiggles because they were just lines, and I walked on the paper. I flattened the paint out, and then I took the waxed paper off. And Jackson said, 'So that's the way you do it. Here's how I do it,' end he took a pot of Duco that was black and threw the paint on. It turned out a sort of bilious green. And then we started to lay it on. We were drinking. The paint ended up a half-inch thick on the canvas. You can see it. We took off our shoes because we were walking on it. Jackson was using glass tubes filled with paint. They were basting tubes, with rubber bulbs on one end and about an eighth-of-an-inch opening. But he was gripping the bulbs so hard — because he was in this state — that they clogged. He would throw them down and they would break. So he broke them all.
Tony Smith also told Friedman of another visit to Pollock's studio shortly after, in the company of Barnett Newman (1905-70):
I don't think Jackson had done any work on it [the painting] since that night he and I began it. I'm now hazy about that time in the studio with Barney but I've been reminded by friends about what I told them. They tell me that Barney put in the poles. It would be Barney's approach all right, but it's Jackson's thing too. You can see that the poles were worked on after our visit.
Friedman dutifully reported that when Lee Krasner Pollock (1908-84) confronted Barnett Newman himself with this story, Newman denied that he had had anything to do with the 'poles', which are clearly a late development in the painting. He admitted to Thomas B. Hess, however, that during a visit to the studio with Tony Smith Pollock had used the canvas that would subsequently become Blue poles to demonstrate to them a technique for forcing paint from a tube with a single squeeze and that they all had a go at squeezing from the tube onto the canvas. 'Just a smearing', Hess told Friedman, 'it's all underpainting.'
None of those questioned by Friedman at the time, including Thomas B. Hess, Clement Greenberg, Lee Krasner Pollock and 'a museum official' who preferred to remain anonymous, denied the possibility that Smith or Newman painted on the canvas that subsequently became Blue poles. What they all emphatically denied is that these initial exercises on the canvas contributed in any way to the work which Pollock then built up on the canvas to become Blue poles. This point was not sufficiently emphasised by Friedman in his reporting and this failure provoked angry reaction. The next issue of the New York Magazine (9November 1973) published letters from Thomas B. Hess and Barbara Rose attacking Friedman's interpretation. Hess succinctly put the matter in its proper perspective:
I thought I'd made one thing perfectly clear to New York's reporter Stanley P Friedman … the painting Blue poles is entirely the work of Jackson Pollock. Somebody e/se wove the canvas, of course. And whoever did that had just as important a hand in it as Barnett Newman when he squirted some paint on it in its very first stages. It was tantamount to helping Pollock prepare the canvas for painting — or to stretching it when it was finished. Newman told me that he'd had nothing to do with the painting of Blue poles; he only mentioned the playful first moves to prove his point, and he only brought up the matter at all in order to puncture as emphatically as possible the rumour that he ever had had a part in the picture …4
The issue did not rest there. It was raised again by Francis Valentine O'Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw as editors of the catalogue raisonné of Pollock's works. On 7 January 1974 they convened a meeting at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, to carry out a careful examination of Blue poles, which had been on exhibition there in 'American Art of Mid-Century 1' before its shipment to Australia. Present at this meeting, in addition to the two editors were Lee Krasner Pollock, Bryan Robertson, Gene Baro and Kay Silberfeld, the conservator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Their findings were published in 1978:
An examination of the entire painting revealed that it was painted on a heavy piece of commercially prepared linen, that the paint had not bled through to the back, and that except for a few shards of curved glass embedded in the paint surface toward the lower right, the paint surface, which was in excellent condition, in no way substantiated the description of the initial painting stages published by Stanley P Friedman in 1973.5
The conclusion made here is not that Tony Smith's and Barnett Newman's involvement was incidental, as had been maintained in the earlier critical backlash to Friedman's article, but that it was non-existent, although Lee Krasner Pollock's reported statement in the catalogue raisonné is entirely consistent with her earlier statements: 'Lee Krasner Pollock denied that any other artist participated in the creation of this painting as it looks today' (authors' emphasis).6
On the basis of the few points noted in the catalogue raisonné as the results of their examination of the painting it is difficult to understand the categorical conclusion reached by the editors.7 The problem, as Thomas B. Hess and Clement Greenberg were at pains to point out in their initial response to Friedman's reporting, is that any trace of earlier involvement by Smith or Newman has been covered over by the painting which Pollock subsequently made on this canvas. In fact, it is the evidence of Pollock at work, in a long and exacting process, that is most clearly revealed by a close inspection of Blue poles. Although it appears marvellously spontaneous, exactly as Pollock wished it to appear, close inspection of Blue Poles shows that this effect was achieved neither effortlessly nor spontaneously, neither in a moment of inspired 'action painting' nor drunken fury, the kind of misconceptions Pollock's working method created by Friedman's article.
Blue Poles was a painting that took time and plotting to 'come through' as Lee Krasner Pollock pointed out in an interview with Barbara Rose published in 1980:
A painting like Blue poles he re-entered many many times, and just kept saying, 'This won't come through'. That went on for quite a long time … when he got hung up in something, like Blue poles, where he did get hung up, it took quite a long time. This went on beyond weeks. He might just walk away from it for a stretch of time, and me back, re-enter.8
This is precisely what a close inspection of Blue poles confirms.
The canvas is of high-quality Belgian linen with a commercially oil-primed ground. The earliest visible layer of paint is black, thinning at the edges to a sort of 'bilious green', although this green appears to have been formed by the mixing of yellow and black, not the cadmium orange and black recalled by Tony Smith. This dark layer of paint does not resemble the intricate tracery of black lines that one finds at the base of the contemporaneous painting Convergence 1952, but would appear to have been a thick puddle of paint concentrated towards the centre of the canvas, with sprays emanating out to the edges, particularly noticeable in the top left of the canvas.
The first layer of paint was applied, as had become customary practice for Pollock since 1947, while the canvas was stretched out on the floor. 'On the floor I am more at ease', Pollock wrote in 1947, 'I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting'.9
In several places around the edge of the canvas there are footprints in the dark green and black of the first layer of paint. In most cases the imprint is of shoes and in one case at least, the imprint of a bare foot (top right). This is by no means an exclusive feature of Blue poles. Footprints are equally in evidence around the Convergence 1952, for instance, and were bound to occur in working on paintings of this scale laid out on the floor. The extraordinary photographs which Hans Namuth took of Pollock at work in the summer of 1950 frequently show the artist standing on the edge of the canvas leaning in, and occasionally stretching with his foot right into the centre of the canvas, in order better to control the distribution of paint, particularly when working on the early stages of a painting. 'I do step into the canvas occasionally', Pollock told William Wright in an interview during that same summer, '[but] working from the four sides I don't have to get into the canvas too much'.10
Fragments of glass are also embedded in this layer of paint. Although a concentration of these fragments occurs in a patch in the lower right of the painting, as noted in the catalogue raisonné, tiny shards of glass can be found in many other areas over the canvas. Again, this is not unusual, and again in 1947 Pollock wrote of his technique: 'I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass and other foreign matter added'.11The fragments of glass in Blue poles appear to be all of the same consistency, very thin and of a very narrow curvature. It is definitely not bottle glass, as has been suggested.12 The glass is consistent, however, with the glass of basting tubes, mentioned by both Smith and Newman, as an instrument which Pollock was experimenting with in order to exercise greater control over the flow of his paint. Lee Krasner Pollock also remembered the artist using these syringes:
his 'palette' was typically a can or two of this enamel, thinned to the point he wanted it, standing on the floor beside the rolled-out canvas. Then, using sticks and hardened or worn-out brushes (which were In effect like sticks), and basting syringes, he'd begin. His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it he had to control the flow of ink [paint], as well as his gesture. He used to buy those syringes by the dozen.13
When the first layer of paint was dry the unstretched canvas was put up on the wall by tacking it along the top edge to a beam that ran along the wall of the studio. Downward arching stretchmarks along the top edge of the canvas are a legacy of the hanging of this canvas. While the painting was hanging in this position, liquid white paint was applied, perhaps squirted onto the canvas using the basting syringes, and allowed to run down, veiling the dark underpaint in a delicate tracery of dribbles.
For the next campaign on the painting the canvas was back on the floor. Using his characteristic method of skeining paint, of pouring fluid paint in a continuous stream onto the canvas from above, using sticks, dried brushes or syringes, Pollock built up a web of rhythmic linear accents using yellow, orange and aluminium paint. The bright colours were unusual for Pollock, but the dark puddle of paint covering the canvas left him little option. In compelling one to look at these linear accents, Frank O'Hara's 1959 description of the finesse and control that Pollock visibly exercised in this process of drawing with flowing paint remains unsurpassed:
There has never been enough said about Pollock's draughtsmanship, that amazing ability to quicken a line by thinning it, to slow it by flooding, to elaborate that simplest of elements, the line — to change, to reinvigorate, to extend, to build up an embarrassment of riches in the mass by drawing alone. And each change in the individual line is what every draftsman has always dreamed of: color.14
Pollock then left the canvas alone for quite some time, for when he next worked on the painting, having decided to paint in the blue poles, it can be seen how the blue paint rides over the thick ridges of the earlier paint layers without any blurring of these, indicating that they were quite dry by that time. Nor are the ridges flattened by the '2 x 4' length of timber that Pollock apparently used as a straight edge for painting in the poles.15The poles are an unusually definite form in the 'all-over' configuration of Pollock's poured paintings and various figurative connotations have been attributed to them — from totems to the swaying masts of tall ships.16 However, it has also been pointed out that these dynamic vertical elements are a recurring formal device in Pollock's work, even if not previously used on this scale, and can be traced back to lessons on composition given by Thomas Hart Benton, Pollock's teacher.17
Pollock integrated the poles by blurring their edges and introducing swathes of black paint that tug at the poles as if caught in a tide. The poles are laced into the composition with fine dripped skeins of white, black and blue paint., In this final operation Pollock used brushes and rags as well as poured paint. Careful adjustments are made. A thin white dripped line that might have faded at the left edge of the canvas is fastidiously painted over at the edge in black. Sections of other dripped lines are tuned with the brush. A fluid orange line traversing a black area at the top right edge is edited, narrowed with delicate black brush marks.18 No flagging is permitted in this spectacular surge of energy. Clearly, the sensation of immediacy, of 'energy made visible', took time and care to 'come through' in Blue poles.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.236.