Jackson Pollock, American, 1912–1956
Duco and aluminum paint on canvas
44 3/16 × 54 in. (112.3 × 137.2 cm)
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
GRADE LEVEL6, 7, 8
Understanding the Relationship between Force, Motion, and Energy
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.
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?
Create your own action painting while exploring how mass affects movement. Rather than using brushes and sticks, like Pollock did, you can measure the effect of mass on paint spillage by using plastic eggs of different mass to distribute paint.
To set up for an egg-and-paint experiment, set up an inclined plane, and place a deep box at the base of the plane (so that something rolled down the plane would land in the box). Place a piece of construction paper in the box.
Fill a series of plastic eggs with different colors of paint. Carefully weigh each egg and record its weight, such that the eggs have varying masses.
After setting up the experiment, hypothesize: which egg will roll down the ramp the fastest? When falling into the box, which eggs will break? Students should use scientific vocabulary and principles to back up their hypotheses, and record them carefully.
After hypothesizing, conduct the experiment! Roll the eggs down the ramp, recording the amount of time it takes for each one to reach the end. Which eggs break, and which ones stay intact? Record observations carefully.
Prompt students to create a graph or chart to show the relationship between the mass of the eggs and the speed with which they traveled. Ask them to infer a relationship between egg mass and egg speed, based on the data they record.
For a fun, artistic end to the lesson, students can place marbles in the box and roll them around by tilting the box. It will create a drip painting that looks just like Pollock’s!
Subject Matter Connection
Students will be creating an authentic product that relates gravity and density to a work of art. They should be able to compare and contrast their product to that of Pollock’s. The product they create is essentially the micro component, while the application and extension of the solar system’s gravity is the macro component.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
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