Watch “Jackson Pollock 51,” a Historic Short Film That Captures Pollock Creating Abstract Expressionist Art on a Sheet of Glass

Jack­son Pol­lock was described as an “action painter,” a label that sure­ly would­n’t have stuck if the pub­lic nev­er had the chance to see him in action. In that sense, only the era of pho­tog­ra­phy could have pro­duced an artist like him: not just because that tech­nol­o­gy pushed paint­ing toward abstrac­tion, but because it could dis­sem­i­nate images of the artist him­self far and wide. One pho­tog­ra­ph­er did more for this cause than any oth­er: the Ger­man-born Hans Namuth, who despite a lack of ini­tial inter­est in Pol­lock­’s work nev­er­the­less took up the chal­lenge of cap­tur­ing his cre­ative process — and there­by doing much to craft the artist’s image of raw, intu­itive and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic phys­i­cal­i­ty. Namuth accom­plished this even more mem­o­rably with a motion pic­ture: the short “Jack­son Pol­lock 51,” which you can watch above.

After attempt­ing some shoot­ing at the artist’s East Hamp­ton, Long Island home,“Namuth was unhap­py about hav­ing to choose between focus­ing on the paint­ing or on Pol­lock,” as the New York Times’ Sarah Box­er puts it. “He want­ed to catch painter and paint at once.” Namuth even­tu­al­ly hit upon a solu­tion: “The paint­ing would have to be on glass, and I would film from under­neath.”

The film first shows Pol­lock paint­ing more or less as usu­al (albeit out­doors, to obvi­ate the need for light­ing), and in lacon­ic voiceover the artist describes his devel­op­ment and process. “I can con­trol the flow of the paint,” he says. “There is no acci­dent, just as there is no begin­ning and no end. Some­times, I lose a paint­ing.” Indeed, he admits, “I lost con­tact with my first paint­ing on glass, and I start­ed anoth­er one.”

This hints at the rig­or­ous stan­dards — and stan­dards entire­ly his own — to which Pol­lock held his work. But he also left his sec­ond glass paint­ing to ruin, hav­ing by some accounts entered per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al freefall imme­di­ate­ly after he and Namuth wrapped this shoot. The two got into a shout­ing match that night, accus­ing one anoth­er of phoni­ness; at its height, Pol­lock action-paint­ed the din­ing-room floor by over­turn­ing the laden din­ner table in anger. “Accord­ing to Pol­lock lore, his rela­tion­ship with the cam­era was a Faus­t­ian bar­gain,” writes Box­er. “After that night [with Namuth], Pol­lock nev­er stopped drink­ing.… Six years lat­er, bloat­ed, depressed and drunk, he drove his car into a tree, killing him­self and a friend.” “The impli­ca­tion is that Namuth killed Pol­lock, that the pho­tographs stole the artist’s ‘sav­age’ spir­it. In doing things for the cam­era that he once did more spon­ta­neous­ly, Pol­lock came to feel he was indeed a pho­ny.” But it’s also thanks to Namuth, too-active a direc­tor of the action though he may have been, that we can look at a Pol­lock can­vas today and so vivid­ly imag­ine its cre­ation.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Por­trait of an Artist: Jack­son Pol­lock, the 1987 Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed by Melvyn Bragg

Was Jack­son Pol­lock Over­rat­ed? Behind Every Artist There’s an Art Crit­ic, and Behind Pol­lock There Was Clement Green­berg

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Dripped: An Ani­mat­ed Trib­ute to Jack­son Pollock’s Sig­na­ture Paint­ing Tech­nique

Vin­tage Footage of Picas­so and Jack­son Pol­lock Paint­ing… Through Glass

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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