Number 6, 1949
Jackson Pollock, American, 1912–1956
Duco and aluminum paint on canvas
44 3/16 × 54 in. (112.3 × 137.2 cm)
Museum purchase funded by D. and J. de Menil
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Understanding the Relationship Between Art and Music
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Explore the ways that art and music can work together
- Create original works of art
- Analyze elements of art and principles of design
Connecting to the Work of Art
Number 6 is an early example of Jackson Pollock’s famous “drip” paintings. Made by dripping and pouring painting onto a canvas, the artist makes the act of painting the subject of the work of art.
Here, a dense network of black and aluminum paint is streaked, dripped, and poured onto the canvas, with drips and splashes of green, yellow, red, and orange. There is no single focus in this brilliantly composed canvas, creating a dynamic sense of movement, form, and space. Pollock set out to develop a new means of expression. This new style of painting was constructed of layered webs of line and color, created by laying the canvas on the ground and dripping paint onto it with old brushes and sticks, or pouring paint directly from the can. For this painting, Pollock used Duco and aluminum paints—fast-drying, liquid, industrial paints commonly used on automobiles and appliances.
Placing his canvases on the floor of his studio so that he could work from all four sides, Pollock dribbled the paint with remarkable control. He once described his work of this period as "energy and motion made visible," comparing his method of painting to the act of choreography. While these drip paintings seem chaotic, there is still an underlying sense of order. Everyone who saw him work remarked on his amazing ability to control the paint and anticipate how it would fall. Some viewers see the rhythms of nature in his dense webs, while others connect it to the nervous tension of city life. The way the lines fill the composition suggests speed and energy through the quick, forceful application of the paint. However, the intricate details, such as how the lines rhythmically connect, provide viewers with a lyrical, delicate view inside the dense, lush web of colors and lines.
Pollock belonged to a group of artists known as the Abstract Expressionists who strove to uncover their most personal feelings directly through making art. The movement exploded onto the art scene after WWII, with its characteristic energetic application of paint (dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging). Another aspect of Abstract Expressionism is control versus chance. Although at first glance it seems that a kindergartner could have painted this work, Pollock and his peers cultivated the interplay of skill and unplanned occurrences to determine the painting’s final outcome. Pollock and his fellow artists sought a way to overturn conventional ways of thinking in the wake of a chaotic war. Through their works of art, they attempted to set new creative parameters using new abstract styles. Pollock stated, “The modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.”
- Look closely at Number 6, and try to determine the order in which Pollock may have laid down the colors. How can you tell?
- In looking at the complex web of lines, colors, and splatters in Number 6, does any one shape or color stand out to you the most? Is your eye naturally drawn to any place on the canvas? Do you think there is a pattern?
- What colors did Pollock choose for this painting? What mood do you think the colors create when juxtaposed like this?
- If you were describing this painting to someone who had never seen it before, what adjectives would you use? What comparisons would you draw?
- In what ways do the lines and shapes reveal Pollock’s method? In other words, can you tell by looking at the many-colored slashes and tangles of paint how he created them? Would someone who did not know Pollock’s process be able to guess it simply by looking at Number 6?
- Though his compositions may seem chaotic and disorderly to some, Pollock replicated his “action painting” method in almost all of his later works; he was a firm believer in his method, and followed it to a T. When you look at Number 6, do you see chaos or order? Use visual evidence from the painting to inform your answer.
- Unlike earlier artists, who worked in tempera and oils, Pollock used fast-drying, liquid industrial paints that were most commonly used on automobiles and appliances. Why might he have used these types of pigments?
- Consider the composition of this piece, the way Pollock chose to arrange each shape and color on the canvas. How would you describe it? Do you think that there was intentionality behind the composition, or does it feel more random?
- Pollock was well-known for being an expert manipulator and controller of paint, predicting exactly how paint would fall on his canvas and what effect it would have on surrounding strokes. What choices did Pollock make in creating this composition? How are his choices, in making an action painting like Number 6, different than the choices an artist makes when creating a more traditional painting?
- Imagine Pollock working in his studio to create this piece. What advantages do you think his “action painting” technique provided him? Why not use a brush to apply paint in the traditional technique?
- Rather than give his action paintings a descriptive title, Pollock often titled them like this painting, with a number. Why do you think he may have done so? Would your interpretation of the painting change if it had a more descriptive title?
- Pollock and his contemporaries in the Abstract Expressionist movement were best known for overturning the norms and tastes of the art world following World War II. Compare Number 6 to Pollock’s pre-WWII work, such as Man with Hand Plow (1938). Why do you think Abstract Expressionist artwork was so revolutionary?
- Pollock has said, “The modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms…each age finds its own technique.” How might this painting reflect Pollock’s statement?
Start by closely looking at and discussing Number 6 with your class. Analyze the lines and colors, and imagine the way Pollock must have felt while creating the painting.
After contemplating the painting, introduce the music of John Cage. A contemporary of Pollock's, Cage created music that was as innovative and new as Pollock's paintings. Play one of Cage's songs, like The Perilous Night, VI, while looking at Number 6 with your students.
Then, discuss the relationship between the painting and the song. While they were not created in direct response to one another, they were made with similar intentions and expressed many of the same ideas. What parts of the music reflect the painting? You might ask your students to pretend that their bodies are paintbrushes, full of paint. While listening to the song, ask them to imagine how their paintbrush body might move over the painting, and what kinds of lines they would produce.
After discussing the art and music, prompt students to make their own paintings inspired by Pollock and Cage. A simple action painting can be made by placing construction paper inside a flat box, and dripping paint onto the paper. Students can place marbles inside the box and tilt it, letting the marbles move through the paint and mix the colors. Play Cage's music while painting to inspire the work and solidify previous discussions.
After painting, ask students to consider what it was like to make an action painting. Did the music affect their moods? Was it more or less challenging than they expected to create the painting? How is their work similar and different than Pollock's?
Subject Matter Connection
Number 6 is one of Jackson Pollock´s "action" paintings. By focusing on the act of dripping paint upon the canvas, Pollock created energetic webs of color that emphasize the action of painting itself. This lesson instructs students to create an action painting and consider the relationship between visual art and music.
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The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider