An American Masterpiece: Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

It’s not only his largest painting—Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” also made art history. Now, an exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle sheds light on the painting’s genesis and its influence on American painting.
How can a static medium visualize movement? Marcel Duchamp answered this question in 1912 with his famous Nude Descending a Staircase—a painting that depicts a human figure in successive superimposed phases of motion. Around 30 years later, Jackson Pollock arrived at a very different solution: on an immense canvas nearly 20 feet long and eight feet high, a group of archaic-looking silhouettes charges rhythmically forward against an expressive background. Yet Pollock wasn’t only interested in representing pure dynamism. As he said, his paintings were always about “expressing his feelings” and his “inner world.”

With Mural, Pollock swept aside all traditional notions of painting. The work is a strongly assertive statement whose power is impossible to resist to this day. “It looks pretty big but exciting as all hell” was the laconic statement Pollock chose to describe his painting, which he completed in 1943. Painted on commission for the art patron Peggy Guggenheim, it was the first expression of the freedom that would later come to fore in his drip paintings. Robert Motherwell described Mural as “the catalytic moment” in Pollock’s work. And for Willem de Kooning, the painting broke the ice for Abstract Expressionism, which became the international apotheosis of modern art in the 1950s.

Following an extensive restoration at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, Mural, which Peggy Guggenheim gifted the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1948, has regained its original power. During the museum’s renovation the painting is on tour through a selection of additional European institutions and can now be seen at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The exhibition Jackson Pollock’s ‘Mural’: Energy Made Visible was conceived by David Anfam. The Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on Abstract Expressionism.

Anfam’s show demonstrates the monumental work’s influence on American art history: Promenade, which Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner painted in 1947, is a testimony to her engagement with Mural, as is Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic (1965-75). In his sculpture Tanktotem III (1953), sculptor David Smith seems to convert Pollock’s archaic figures into the third dimension. Andy Warhol’s Yarn Painting (1983) frames a reference to the painter, who died in 1956, as does a 2013 composition by David Reed, one of the most important contemporary artists working in abstraction today.

Pollock’s Mural unites abstraction and figuration in a completely new way, combining references to the pictorial language of the indigenous peoples of North America with Mexican Muralismo, East Asian calligraphy, and Picasso’s Guernica (1937). But the medium of photography also plays a key role in the painting’s creation, as Anfam meticulously delineates in his book accompanying the exhibition. First of all there’s Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs from the portfolio Animal Locomotion, published in 1887; the serial studies of motion in humans and animals had already inspired Duchamp.

Even more significant, however, was the influence of the artist’s contemporaries, for instance the photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter, a good friend of Pollock’s. Like Barbara Morgan and Gjon Mili, Matter was a proponent of so-called “action photography,” which pursued the same goal as the painter—to capture energy and the dynamism of movement in its images. In 1943, the same year Mural was painted, MoMA presented them in a major exhibition. Using long exposure, these photographers transformed the movements of dancers, ice skaters, and spotlights into the abstract patterns of line we encounter on Pollock’s paintings. In the exhibition, the influence of action photography on his work becomes apparent. Conversely, however, Pollock also inspired photography: Aaron Siskind’s photographs of weather-beaten building facades and peeling paint resemble details from the artist’s paintings, bringing the mutual influence full circle.

Achim Drucks

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural”: Energy Made Visible
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
11/25/2015 – 4/10/2016