Enamel paint on hand-made paper
Inv. No. 16341 (Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V.)
78.5 × 57.5 cm
In 1947, with his so-called »drippings« – the works that led to »action painting« – the American Jackson Pollock decisively turned his back on every recognized painting technique and every traditional notion of what constituted a picture. He adopted the unconventional method of applying the paint in rhythmic movements, which – aside from blurring the distinction between painting and drawing – placed the emphasis on the immediate existential creative process, based partly on chance but also on reflection.
Figure is one of the earliest works in which Pollock introduced this new artistic method into the sphere of drawing, making the paint flow and drip from above onto the paper laid out flat below. It was a perilous balancing act between abstract art and figurative representation. In order to exercise maximum control over the viscous enamel paint as he poured it, Pollock had to work quickly. As he drew his black line, which thickened whenever he slowed down but which can also appear thin and threadlike, the artist used sweeping loops, changes of direction marked by blobs, and twists suggesting volume to produce a form of organic appearance. Possessing a strong presence despite its quality of near weightlessness, the animated figure on the otherwise blank surface of the white paper conquers the boundless space around it.
Pollock is known to have had a wire sculpture by Alexander Calder (1898–1976) in his studio. That figure, and the impression it gave of appropriating space, may have been of some inspiration to Pollock, but the drawing points above all to the continuing prominence of the human form in his artistic ideas. In many of his drip paintings he allowed the human figure – a central theme in his early work – to vanish under innumerable layers of paint; in other cases he rendered it in barely recognizable form. In 1948 he began to cut silhouettes of figures out of drip paintings he had made. In one case, a blank surface was created by cutting out an area corresponding in shape to the rough outline of this Figure (Untitled, Cut-Out, 1948–1950, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki). He then collaged the resulting figure, with its lively »dripped« colouration, into a contrasting drawing (Untitled, Cut-Out Figure, 1948, private collection).
The fact that he now once again visibly incorporated an archetypal figure into his compositions may have been linked to impulses from contemporary art, especially the paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse, but also the figures projected frontally onto the picture plane by Jean Dubuffet. The work of both Frenchmen was well known in New York in the late 1940s, and exercised a particularly strong and enduring influence on the development of American art.