Gavin Delahunty, senior curator of contemporary art, Dallas Museum of Art. Photo: Jerome Weeks
It’s been said there was painting before Jackson Pollock and there’s painting after Jackson Pollock. His radical “action” paintings in the late ’40s, early ’50s have been that influential — even helping to shift the center of avant-garde art from Paris to New York. The Dallas Museum of Art opens a retrospective on him today. Such exhibitions have been rare since Pollock’s death in 1956 – even as his splattered canvases have sold for millions. Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to explain how and why this path-breaking show came about.
Earlier this week, we aired your story on ‘Blind Spots,’ the new Jackson Pollock exhibition opening today at the DMA. But you’ve told me how the show developed also intrigued you.
JWYes, I was struck by the fact the DMA opens this major exhibition on perhaps the most significant American painter, ever, and the curator is the DMA’s new guy – from Ireland. Gavin Delahunty is still relatively new here, he hasn’t even gotten a driver’s license. I mean, yes, his expertise is in contemporary art. But Pollock’s big breakthrough happened when Harry Truman was in the White House. So how’d this young Irishman end up creating this show about an iconic American artist?
And what did you find out?
Well, Delahunty told me about working at Tate Liverpool
, that’s the ‘experimental’ outpost of Britain’s famous Tate museum. That’s where this show originated – only the Tate and the DMA are showing it. But Delahunty’s biggest influence was probably the art historian and critic Michael Wilson. He wrote the book ‘How to Read Contemporary Art,
‘ which I actually own.
‘Echo (Number 25, 1951), 1951, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.
Have you gotten around to reading it?
No. But Wilson brought Delahunty into this graduate program in Dublin, a program in visual arts practices. Part of it had the students going to events like Art Basel, the giant art fair in Switzerland. And Delahunty says, through all this, the artists he met kept bringing up Pollock.
“And so it haunted me all this time. All curators have fantasy projects and they have little folders in little files and Pollock was always there. But how could I tell the world something new about the most famous American artist?”
Good question. So what did he do?
JWWell, when you think about it, it actually makes sense someone from outside conventional American ‘art thinking’ would see Pollock in a new way. Delahunty realized, as he puts it, painters have been running from Pollock for years.
Why? I could see with Pollock’s reputation – you know, the macho drinking and brawling and dying young in a car wreck – that some serious artists would want to avoid all that. But that’s not what he’s talking about, is it?
Delahunty in front of Pollock’s ‘Number 7, 1951.’ Photo: courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art.
No, it’s that Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists – the people who were dripping paint or soaking canvases in pure color – they stripped painting down
. They jettisoned perspective, landscape, human figures, abstract shapes. They dumped all the tools painting had developed. Pollock reduced painting to just the painter, improvising this layered texture of splatters all over a canvas. Pollock didn’t even use paint brushes anymore. He used sticks like a whip. Or he simply poured the paint out.
After that, what was left for painters to do? What could they do that was new? That’s why they’ve been running away from him. With Pop Art, conceptual art, performance art, they let imagery and irony and everything else flood back in. So Delahunty had to do the reverse, excavating through all that history to get to Pollock.
“All the way back to your first question, how does a country boy from the west coast of Ireland arrive at curating only the third, ever, major Pollock exhibition in America — it’s because I needed that time, myself. I needed to go through all the different modes of painting that have taken place to say to myself, ‘He was definitely on to something.’”
What Delahunty found were the black paintings, these are late Pollocks that were seen as disappointments at the time. In them, Pollock reduced painting to the extreme – it’s just naked black paint on raw canvas. But he also began re-introducing figures, symbols. Delahunty’s show earned some great reviews in England, and one put it best, I think. It’s like Pollock gave up jazz improvisations and re-discovered the blues.