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JACKSON POLLOCK'S VISUAL MUSIC

Jackson Pollock's dynamic painting style has inspired musicians in diverse genres. From minimalist composer Morton Feldman, free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and soprano sax virtuoso Jane Ira Bloom to British rockers The Stone Roses, Japanese singer-songwriter Tatsuya Ishii and American rapper Lil Wayne, they identify with Pollock's audacious, action-packed creativity. His process was like a performance, and his art has often been compared to music. In fact, although he didn't play a musical instrument, he saw the connection. When a radio interviewer asked his advice on how to look at a Pollock painting, he said, "I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed."

Pollock advocated a subjective, emotional response rather than an intellectual or analytical approach to appreciating his art. This is hardly surprising, given the intuitive character of his mature working method. After he had absorbed numerous influences—including the figurative "American Scene" style of his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, the intense expressionism of Mexican mural painting, Picasso's formal innovations, Jungian symbolism, the spiritual and plastic qualities of Native American art, and Surrealism's emphasis on the unconscious as the source of true creativity—Pollock's singular aesthetic emerged in the mid 1940s. Earlier experiments with liquid paint, exploiting its chromatic intensity and fluid viscosity, taught him how to control it, as well as the range of effects it could produce. By 1946 he had mastered the medium and was embarking on the allover poured canvases that made him famous.

The analogy between Pollock's painting technique and improvisational jazz is obvious. Both produce spontaneous compositions built on complex rhythmic structures, and they were coming along at the same time. Bebop innovators like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk emerged in the years immediately after World War II, when Pollock made his breakthrough. But in spite of their evident affinity, and notwithstanding his love of jazz, Pollock was not a fan of the avant-garde variety. His large and wide-ranging 78 rpm record collection includes plenty of jazz from the 1920s and 1930s by such notables as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. The Chicago sounds of Jack Teagarden, George Wettling and Art Hodes, big band music by Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, vocals by Billie Holliday, and piano standards by Eddy Duchin are also in the collection.

According to those who knew him, Pollock was not receptive to bebop or progressive jazz. When he and his friend B.H. Friedman went clubbing in the mid 1950s, they frequented Eddie Condon's in Greenwich Village, where the fare was a mix of Dixieland and Chicago style. "He loved Fats Waller," Friedman recalled. "He used to talk about him a lot." During Pollock's brief 1956 affair with aspiring artist Ruth Kligman, she gave him a Charlie Parker record, "New Sounds in Modern Music," featuring selections from the now-classic Savoy sessions, thinking he would relate to it, but he didn't like it. Pollock's record rack also contains the folder for an album of bebop tunes featuring Gillespie, Clarke, Coleman Hawkins and others, but the original records are missing; they were discarded and replaced with standards like "Tea for Two" by Bob Crosby and his orchestra.

Pollock's enthusiasm for jazz, even thought it wasn't the vanguard kind, leads people to assume that he listened to music while he painted. That is not the case. There was no radio or record player, not even a wind-up Victrola, in the studio. The building had no electricity until 1953, by which time Pollock had already painted virtually all the works that have been likened to modern jazz compositions. Photographs of the studio taken soon after his death show an amplifier and speaker on the floor, but there's no turntable. Evidently the sound system was never installed. The image of Pollock flinging paint while dancing to the syncopated rhythms of Bird or Dizzy or Monk—like the equally misguided notion that he painted while drunk—is false. While he believed that alcohol was "a way of making contact [with the unconscious], at least in the early stages," drinking actually prevented him from working. "Later," as he ruefully admitted to his friend Jeffrey Potter, "it's doing things the hard way.” After 1951, as his alcoholism worsened, he became less and less productive, and painted almost nothing in the eighteen months before he died in an automobile accident in August 1956.

Pollock's studio was a converted barn, where he spread the canvas on the wood floor and circled around it, using recurring gestures to apply fluid pigments that created effects ranging from deep pools to gossamer strands, looping lines and dramatic splashes of color. Sometimes he added foreign matter like sand, string, nails, broken glass and found objects—whatever gave him the results he was after. Far from haphazard, his tactics were calculated to evoke the same type of impulsive inspiration that jazz improvisers cultivate. He called his method "direct painting," and described it as "a natural growth out of a need." As he explained the rationale behind his unplanned, seemingly random approach, "it doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement."

That technique relied on the use of colorful liquid house paint that often spilled beyond the canvas edges onto the floor. Over time the paint built up to form a document of Pollock's most productive and innovative years, from 1946 through 1952, when he created such masterpieces as Free Form, Lucifer, Arabesque, Out of the Web, Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm, Echo, Convergence and Blue Poles. When the studio was renovated in 1953 the wood floor was covered with Masonite, sealing in the remnants of those paintings and the many others created during his prime. He was especially prolific when he was on the wagon, from late 1948 through 1950, with more than 125 paintings dating from those two years.

After the death of Pollock's widow Lee Krasner-a major abstract painter in her own right-their East Hampton, New York, home became a museum where their lives and artistic achievements are interpreted. When the property was prepared for its public opening in June 1988, the Masonite was removed from the studio floor to reveal the harmonious colors and cadenced gestures that had been inadvertently preserved underneath. You can see an overview at pkhouse.org. Among the many visitors from around the world who have marveled at this dazzling testament to Pollock's rule-breaking creativity, Waterstone Musical Instruments president Robert Singer immediately recognized the artifact's potential. It was his idea to use a detail of the paint-spattered floor to decorate the face of a special line of limited-edition guitars.

The Jackson Pollock Studio Guitar and Jackson Pollock Studio Bass, fashioned with Waterstone's renowned craftsmanship and inventive styling, are unique instruments that graphically embody the spirit of Pollock's visual music.

Helen A. Harrison
Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Director
Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center
January 2013