The psychology of abstraction.

Jackson Pollock Blue Poles image courtesy of National Gallery of Australia.

American abstract artist Jackson Pollock doesn’t tell us what to think; he compels us to think. When Blue Poles arrived in Australia in 1974, everybody thought something. It was a seminal acquisition for the Australian people and established a new frontier for the Australian art scene. An animated discussion took place in every lounge room across Australia, and opinions varied widely from it being a complete waste of government money to a sign of a politically progressive modernist viewpoint. But one thing was undisputed; no one truly understood what it meant, this abstract expressionist art. It was the beginning of something for Australians as a collective and, most importantly, as individuals.

The Whitlam government paid $1.3 million in 1973 for Blue Poles by Pollock, an abstract expressionist piece of art. It was a world record for a contemporary American painting, and debate raged over the value of abstract art. Blue Poles was painted in 1952 and measures just over two by five meters, painted in a style termed drip painting on Belgian linen stretched out on the floor.

“On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”

Jackson Pollock 1912 -1956

Pollock used sticks and syringes to flick and drip paint over the dark, undercoated canvas. He would squirt the paint with incredible precision and control. He could quicken the line by thinning it or slow it by flooding it. The creation of this artwork is a purposeful activity for him, externalising his troubled internal state.

Abstract art defies conventional explanations and can be described as a conceptual notion of society. At that time, we witnessed the rise of the individual in society, and abstract art can be seen as a reflection of this. Pollock was trained in conventional painting but chose to do work that was very personal to him. This gives the people of the collective consciousness our right to an opinion. We no longer have to believe what we are told or taught. This piece of art allows each of us to think freely.

Blue Poles did a tour of Australia upon its arrival in 1974. I was a small child when I saw Blue Poles. It was my first trip to an art gallery, and it informed my love of art. My family missed seeing it in Melbourne and decided a road trip to Adelaide would be a good idea.

Mid 70s – a recollection of the road trip.
We were buckled into the powder blue HK Kingswood with the retro fitted seatbelts at some iniquitous hour of the day, my sister and me. Wearing our pyjamas for the first part of the journey; we were expected to be silent and sleep. My Mum was very organised with the map and a thermos. My Dad was the sole driver, he was always the sole driver. It was my Mum’s job to give directions and keep a look out for police wanting to book my Dad for speeding.
On this particular trip we picked up Nana; as she wanted to see Blue Poles too. My memories suspended as I fade in and out of sleep during the journey, feeling really content to see Nana in the middle of the bench seat in the front. She sat much taller than Mum and Dad, she was a statuesque good looking woman.
We stopped for breakfast at the Golden Fleece Petrol station with the yellow sheep sign, this happened on every road trip. Dad would have a big fry up, he seemed to enjoy this cooked breakfast. I couldn’t understand why. I have strong memories of cold toast in a cane basket that looked dirty and felt greasy. I can still recall the dry toast in my mouth. It was horrible.
Back on the road again and we were over half way when the radiator blew. It gave everyone a fright. The bonnet of the car flung open with a big bang and cracked the windscreen. Dad managed to shut the bonnet and we limped to a petrol station. I can remember Mum repeatedly asking Dad about the temperature. “You should have noticed the temperature. You knew the radiator had a leak before we left.” The accusations were running thick and fast. I perceive my Mum as being right but feel sorry for my Dad all the same. She is the careful one, telling him to slow down and when to turn and what to do. She gives the go ahead to pass the trucks. It’s a real team thing, except when it’s not and Dad has done something wrong.
Finally, we made it to Adelaide. We all head to bed a little weary, it had been a long day. I was tired but happy to share a bedroom with my Nana. The next day there was a big fuss about how lucky we are to go on holidays and how privileged we are to be seeing this painting and that we need to behave. I don’t recall feeling lucky. I just remember standing before this huge canvas and my Dad saying, “I could’ve done that”. That is all I remember. I was little, very little.

After Blue Poles toured Australia, it was stored until the National Gallery of Australia building was completed in 1981. It has resided at the NGA in Canberra since then. There was another road trip not long after the opening of the NGA. The year was 1984, and we drove to Canberra to see the ‘Impressionist’ exhibition. While we were there, Dad took us along to revisit Blue Poles; I was fourteen. I reminded Dad of what he had said some years earlier; the vernacular was precisely the same. He was true to his word, and time had not softened his stance on this particular piece of abstract art. And so, we genuinely see the rise of an egalitarian, individual point of view, on this occasion, from a man who didn’t finish school yet speaks six languages—my Dad. Everyone had an opinion, and to each their own. So a new era in art and individuality had begun in Australia, and the masses had been engaged.

Blue Poles by Pollock is permanently displayed in Canberra at the National Gallery. It is now valued at five hundred million.

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