Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, also called Number 11, 1952 (or Blue Poles: Number 11), is considered one of the most impressive pieces by possibly one of the most influential artists of our time. Its significance is not just restricted to the worlds of art and culture - it is an important landmark in Australia's political and social history, and the controversy surrounding both its genesis in 1952 and its purchase in 1973, by the embryonic Australian National Gallery (now the National Gallery of Australia) at the instigation of the then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, continue to surround the painting even today.

Measuring 212(h) x 489(w) cm (38.5 x 192.5 inches), Blue Poles is slightly larger than most of Pollock's work, although not out of place with his other works of that period. It is a work of gestural expressionism (also known as Action Painting), a sub-category of the much broader abstract expressionism, of which Pollock is universally regarded as the first, and greatest, artist. Gestural expressionism implies that it is the physical movements of the artist when creating the piece that are the greatest creative force behind its final appearance, rather than any traditional idea of a planned result. Blue Poles is made up of a solid base of black paint, thinning to dark greys and dark greens at the edges, with multiple overlapping layers of white, oranges, yellows, and metallic silver, followed by the distinctive blue 'poles', with three final layers of blue, black and white respectively. Apart from the base and the layer with the poles, each layer was formed by dripping and flicking the enamel and metallic automobile paint that was his favourite medium, using dried brushes, sticks, lengths of dowel, syringes, and turkey basters, adding rags to his arsenal for the final three layers. The eight upright solid poles were formed by dipping various lengths of 2x4 in a puddle of blue enamel paint, before pressing them firmly onto the canvas.

A close inspection of Blue Poles reveals broken glass from a shattered turkey baster embedded in the thick paint in the lower right corner of the canvas, and footprints of Pollock's where he stepped onto the wet paint, most noticeably the imprint of his bare foot in the upper right corner. A splash of blue paint close to the exact centre of the painting suspiciously resembles a peace sign, but Pollock denied putting figurative forms of any kind into the work.

From his 1949 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery ('Jackson Pollock, Recent Paintings', January 24, 1949-February 12, 1949) onwards, Pollock eschewed descriptive titles for his works and began simply numbering them. Some, such as Blue Poles, were later given more conventional titles in 1954, such as Number 10, 1952, which became Convergence, after some works which had been assigned the same number were identifiable only by year. Interestingly, Pollock first dated Blue Poles as 53, before painting over with the correct year of 52. This still leads to some confusion over the date of completion of the work, but it debuted in a 1952 exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, and was reproduced for a review of the exhibition in Artnews in the December 1952 edition.

In a 1973 article for the New York Magazine, art journalist Stanley P. Friedman reported Tony Smith, a contemporary and close friend of Pollock's, as having told him that he had painted on the canvas that eventually became Blue Poles, during a visit to his home in upstate New York in early 1952. Pollock had been through a period of deep depression, and had returned to the alcoholism that had dogged him for most of his career, and had been painting exclusively in black and white. Smith felt that returning to a colourful palette would help Pollock rediscover his inspiration, and so, while drinking together late into the night, they had unrolled a large canvas and laid it out on the floor, as was Pollock's style. In an attempt to spark the reluctant Pollock, Smith squirted a tube of orange paint onto the empty canvas. Further confusion over the involvement later that year of another artist friend of theirs, Barnett Newman, led to questions about the legitimacy of Jackson Pollock's sole claim to the piece. Shy, as ever, of the attention being paid him, it fell largely to his wife, artist Lee Krasner Pollock, who re-established without doubt that the final piece was entirely Pollock's work and inspiration. The rumours were at their peak, however, when Blue Poles was purchased for 1.2 million Australian dollars ($US1.3M at the exchange rate of the day).

While not the most contentious event in the short career of Australia's most controversial Prime Minister, the purchase of this highly unconventional work of art for the yet-to-be-built Gallery, and the strikingly high price that was paid for it, was seized upon as yet another example of the excessive spending of the Whitlam Government, which infamously led to the blockage of Supply by the Senate, and in turn to the dismissal and the constitutional crisis of 1975. To the overwhelmingly conservative Australian society of the 1970's, Blue Poles was completely incomprehensible, and worse, was painted by a moral degenerate, a drunkard, and (the manufactured rumours went) an adulterer, if it was even painted by him in the first place. Despite all this, Whitlam went through with the purchase, and in a typical display of Australian humour, used an image of Blue Poles for his Christmas card at the end of 1973. In the highly charged political atmosphere of the time, and the highly polarised political opinions of Australian civil society, one's opinion of the painting was quite likely to coincide with one's opinion of the government. Those who were old enough to have a political opinion at the time of the purchase still allow their lingering feelings from 30 years ago to decide their opinion of Blue Poles.

From a purely artistic point of view, Blue Poles is a work full of spontaneity and immediacy, of 'energy made visible' in the words of the artist, a vivacity and liveliness that 'comes through', ironically, due to Pollock's extreme care and exquisite attention to detail throughout the piece.

Provenance - http://www.nga.gov.au/International/Detail.cfm?ViewID=1&SiteID=&SubViewID=5&IRN=36334

  • with Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952;
  • to Dr and Mrs Fred Olsen, Guilford, Connecticut, in 1955;
  • to Mr and Mrs Ben Heller, New York, in 1957;
  • from whom bought through Max Hutchinson Gallery, New York, by the Acquisitions Committee of the Australian National Gallery, August 1973
See Blue Poles at http://www.nga.gov.au/International/Detail.cfm?IRN=36334&ViewID=3
Other sources:
  • http://www.nga.gov.au/press/blue.htm
  • http://www.nga.gov.au/International/Detail.cfm?ViewID=1&SiteID=&SubViewID=2&IRN=36334
  • http://www.whitlam.org/collection/1999/19990721_nga_bluepolecomeshome/19990721_Nat.GalleryAustralia_BluePoleComesHome.rtf

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