Pollock and Rothko: The Dichotomy of Simplicity and Chaos

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Randomness is inherent to the universe and to human life, yet deliberately creating chaos proves to be a difficult task. Teachers of statistics are said to illustrate this with a simple task: write down the outcomes of one hundred coin flips, and then generate a “fake” list of one hundred coin flips that appear random. Inevitably, the instructor can tell the real list from the fake one at a glance, almost like magic. Indeed, as the middle of the twentieth century brought greater understanding of the nature of chaos, the works of great artists began to seem quite magical in nature. To replicate randomness via deliberate human actions is no small task, and yet works of art such as Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist (1950) and Mark Rothko's No. 61 (Rust and Blue) (1951) begin to touch on this paradoxical juxtaposition. Indeed, in both works, the iterative process of creating art, again and again, seems to have led the artist to an apotheosis in which act of painting itself mimics the generation of the natural universe. The simultaneous simplicity and randomness of both works embody the zeitgeist of a time when public confidence in science belied the early glimmerings of a more complete chaos theory than had yet been proposed.

Beginning with Lavender Mist, the viewer sees a landscape of interlaced leafy shapes in black, white, and pale rust on a cornflower blue background just barely visible through the morass (see Figure 1). The piece looks almost like a scattering of detritus on the forest floor on a winter day with the sun only just dawning; the painting could almost be a photograph for how realistically it strikes the viewer as something straight out of the natural world. It can be easily seen, though, upon closer examination, that the shapes are formed not out of natural components but of dripped paint, a technique for which Pollock is well-known. Interestingly, though no lavender appears in the work, the overall piece does give an impression of being lavender, perhaps through the interactions of the nearly hidden blue and the muted mauve of the rust color. Lines of black and white ascend on diagonals near-vertical repeatedly throughout the canvas, perhaps artifacts of the way Pollock stood and swung his arm, the paint following the arc of his body time and again. These reinforce the notion that the painting is like a forest floor, for they resemble sticks fallen from a birch tree. In addition, they lend the piece the exact kind of structure seen in nature itself, a sort of composition orderly and yet unpredictable. Still, unpredictability can also be found in even the seemingly most straightforward of painting analyses.

Moving to No. 61 (Rust and Blue), here, the viewer might at first think the work is simplicity itself compared to the rich tangle of paint arcs and splatters in Pollock's work (see Figure 2). The painting, after all, is no more than a cobalt background with three rectangles of color arranged from top to bottom. These rectangles have fuzzy edges defined freely by brushstroke rather than by a straightedge. A large swath of black predominates first, then a relatively thin band of an electric blue that almost glows, then mottled indigo that wanders from navy to deep eggplant and back again with the brush strokes. It is here that the “rust” of Rust and Blue comes in at all, in the deep reddish undertones to the mottled lower segment. Like the Pollock piece, the title could perhaps be considered something of a misnomer, but similarly, though the color rust may not be explicitly present, it peeps through as the wavelengths of the light jumble together in reaching the viewer's eye, sort of an optical illusion of perception. This dance of color provides the piece with just as much movement as Lavender Mist, particularly in the odd sensation that parts of the canvas actually shift toward and away from the viewer over the seconds. The sensation of movement brings forth a sort of life and passion upon looking at the painting, and as is so often the case, passion in art can be tied to certain vigor in the style with which some artists so notoriously lead their lives.

No discussion of Pollock would be complete without touching upon his penchant for behaving in a fashion some found wild, for the very act of shedding the trappings of civilization for him appears to have been integral to creating works of art not constrained by traditional ideas of structure. “For Pollock, who admired the sand painting of the American Indians, summoning webs of color to his canvases and making them balanced, complete, and lyrical, was almost an act of ritual.”1 Indeed, ritual is an apt word for Pollock's self-appointed task of creating balance and completeness, as shall be seen later. Yet Pollock can be connected even more explicitly with ways of being that hearken from time immemorial: “Like an ancient cave painter, he 'signed' Lavender Mist in the upper left corner and at the top of the canvas with his handprints.”2

Pollock's wildness actually led in at least one case to defacing a vast, unbroken lawn—a sort of landscaping version of the very color-field paintings that in some ways share much with his own work. “'It was a formal mansion set on a vast, unbroken expanse of lawn.' . . . ‘Did you ever see such a lawn’ Jackson gasped? ‘. . . It’s a god-damn green canvas. God, I’d like to paint on that.”3 So he did, driving over it and leaving muddy tracks with the tires of his car. Yet from an experiential point of view, monochrome blocks of textured color such as a lawn are quite similar to Pollock's own strew of paint across the page, always selecting a small handful of colors for the palette and layering the work densely.

Rothko's No. 61 demonstrates just how deeply an artist can go in exploring a few colors at once, and indeed the artist's process often seemed quite deep to outside observers, suggesting there is more going on than initially meets the eye. While even some who enjoy Pollock's work may find the premise of Rothko's work's “intellectual content” to be “trivial and boring,”4 this rather misses the point. Far from being trivial, Rothko's work such as No. 61 has also been described thus: “'[T]he weightiness of the color and the hugeness of the surrounding rectangles' in Rothko's pictures 'suggest the ritual symbols of a harsh and primitive religion.'”5 So even the more personally staid Rothko—if only by comparison to Pollock and his antics—still bore a connection to ideas of primitive ritual, to harshness and by extension to wildness. This union of the depth of thought with raw, ancient symbolism could only have come about as a product of who these two artists were, both their ancestry and their American lives.

As Americans of Ashkenazi Jewish descent,6 both Pollock and Rothko came from a culture fond of intellectual and spiritual riddles, and indeed, drip-paintings and color-fields can both be seen as asking the same unanswerable question: “If it's so simplistic and childish, why is it so compelling?” Even now, sixty years in the future, it's not uncommon to hear students of art say derisively of such techniques, “Anyone could do it.” On the contrary, the point is that very few people could so fully immerse themselves in the act of creation that the human tendency to cling to structure becomes subsumed in a more natural state of being, not unlike the meditative trance reached by Orthodox Jews when davening (rocking forward and back while praying). One can almost see the trance of repetitive movements carrying Pollock and Rothko through their work in a way that would elude more representational painters. The “completeness” Pollock sought also happens to be an alternate translation to the Hebrew word shalom, so often simplified to mean “peace,” when rather “wholeness” serves equally well. Rothko more directly is said to “evok[e] emotions and associations that have often been described in mystical, spiritual, or religious themes.”7 Yet both painters were far enough removed from their Jewish roots that what comes out in their artwork is a re-imagining that could only have taken place where and when it did, in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.

Between Pollock's aforementioned drawing on Native American influences and Rothko's involvement in the New York School movement of art, it can be surmised that both were influenced by living in the United States, and yet neither could possibly have escaped the sense that in the middle of the twentieth century, mystery was a thing of the past and little remained to be solved. Perhaps that was the motivation in the fact that both seemed to seek out the esoteric with such apparently deep need. Yet even the language in which the two are now spoken of reflects a certain sense that all has been conquered—a feeling more modern Americans would later outgrow. For example, without any evident hint of irony, it becomes possible for one to speak of “[t]he triumphalism that has surrounded the New York School.”8 Might Rothko's school be referred to in such high-flying terms today? Perhaps, but the vision of triumph has perhaps been diluted over time so that one cannot simply declare even Pollock the greatest modern painter; instead, entire articles have been devoted to proving what would once have been said as a simple statement.9 So it can be said that even while both artists were embodying the hubris of their age, a firm sense that to put forth works in the world was a noble masculine task to be undertaken without apology for behavior or for the form of those works—much in the spirit of the aphorism, “Never apologize for your art,” since coined, but still valid—both men seemed also to crave something from a deeper place of humanity, a core ancient set of belief systems that were primal, harsh, and yet completely natural to how the universe really is as physics was beginning to understand it in the 1950s—random, chaotic, fluctuating, and unpredictable.

Both Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist and Mark Rothko's Rust and Blue demonstrate a curious pull between complexity and simplicity characteristic of the time period and cultural influences upon both artists. In the end, both works embrace both the chaos of natural order but achieve it by means of an almost childish approach, in one case, splattering paint about, in the other, filling the canvas with large blocks of nearly solid color. Through viewing both works, a person can gain a deeper understanding of the opposite forces contained in each human—the drive for order, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, the drive for aesthetically pleasing chaos.

(Notes omitted for preview. Available via download)

Bibliography

Chave, Anna C. Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction. United States: Thomson-Shore, Inc., 1989.

Galenson, David W. “Was Jackson Pollock the Greatest Modern American Painter?: A Quantitative Investigation.” Historical Methods: A Journal of Quantitative and Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 3 (2010): 117-128.

Ghert-Zand, Renee. “The Jewish Sides of Rothko, Mondrian, and Pollock.” Times of Israel, Jul.1, 2013.

Mansfield, Richard. Why I Liked Jackson Pollock. University Park, PA: Penn State University, 2002.

National Gallery of Art. Pollock, Jackson, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist): Explore This Work. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2013. 

(Figures 1 & 2 omitted for preview. Available via download)