Spotlight Essay: Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock, Sleeping Effort , 1953

Spotlight Essay: Jackson Pollock, Sleeping Effort, 1953
First published March 2012; updated 2016

Angela Miller
Professor, Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Jackson Pollock’s Sleeping Effort of 1953 is a late work by the artist, evidence of his return to figural references following the poured paintings of 1947–51, which brought him considerable fame. The focus of the composition is a central serpentine or odalisque-like form that unfolds on the right side of the canvas into an area suggestive of a landscape, including hills and a deep blue sky. Other forms seem to rise out of the reclining body, metamorphosing into fishlike, birdlike, and flowery petallike forms that hover midway between landscape and woman.1 With gaudy overstatement, Pollock reprised two of the central themes of Western art—body and landscape—now, however, troubling the boundaries between them.2 Sleeping Effort moves unsettlingly back and forth between references to body and nature, never resolving into stable figure-ground relationships. The fluid and open shapes suggest a universe of forms in flux, yet they also convey—in their grating masklike allusions, their awkward paint application, and their garish palette outlined in black—a suggestion of psychic unease, even violence.

Pollock’s return to the figural and the allusive was bound up with a return to older methods of mark-making, substituting the paintbrush and palette knife for trowels, basters, sticks, and knives.3 Though he painted the work mainly in oil, he also evidently placed the canvas on the floor, where the fluid black enamel paint that he used to create rough outlines of the main figures would not run. He also created drips and spatters with this more fluid paint, the physical properties of which were essential to his earlier drip style. Here, though, his primary use of a viscous and clotted oil paint brings with it a sense of material entanglement with a more resistant and difficult medium.4 Pollock alternately squeezed pure pigment onto the canvas and ran a scraper over the surface in places; he also swept his brush across the canvas in decisive strokes or scrubbed the canvas with it, daubing and swabbing color and scratching through the paint surface with the end of his brush. Transitions between color areas are frequently awkward and uncertain, with a muddy gray laid on top of thinly painted orange and globs of pure white squeezed onto a static gray field. Pollock applied saturated blue—along with whites, creamy pinks, coppery oranges, grays, and metallic greens—over a pastel yellow ground, diluted to a thinness that allows the weave of the canvas to show through. This process, while resulting in shapes that oscillate between figural and spatial allusions in a manner that renders the structure of the forms themselves ambiguous, nonetheless contrasts with his poured paintings, in which the relation between figure and ground disappears into a unitary visual field.

Sleeping Effort’s fraught surfaces convey the anxiety associated with Pollock’s return to this older visual language, burdened by his combative relationship with earlier art history. His poured paintings had clearly established his standing as an American originator of extraordinary technical and aesthetic power.5 Retreating from his field paintings back into recognizable subject matter placed him directly in competition with his earlier masters—Pablo Picasso above all but also José Clemente Orozco and Joan Miró.

Pollock’s ambivalent return to figural references was shared by other artists associated with New York School abstraction at midcentury. As the artist Elaine de Kooning (the wife of Willem de Kooning) pointed out, to submit to a representational language grounded in nature was to relinquish any claims to the autonomy of art, claims on which this generation had staked its unique position in history.6 Central to this position was a release from historical precedent, part of a more general purge of all limiting conditions—narrative, inherited style, recognizability, and received iconography—on the potentially limitless freedom to which the American artist, in his newfound position at the forefront of modernism, laid claim. Pollock’s now legendary pronouncement to Hans Hofmann, when asked about whether he painted from nature—“I am nature”—captures a moment of visionary confidence that ultimately proved impossible for the artist to maintain.7

In the breakthrough poured works, Pollock’s immersion in the fluidity of enamel paint—a medium with virtually no history of prior use in the fine arts—offered a temporary escape from this historical haunting, enabling an unburdened lyricism that, at its finest, conveyed a weightless freedom of movement, an immersion in the dance-like rhythms of his body in the act of painting.8 In such moments Pollock seems to have escaped both history and artistic ego in a form of euphoric fusion with, as the artist Paul Brach stated, “the forces of nature.”9 This quality of lyricism is evident not only in the airy, uncongested skeins of paint but also in the dance of figure and ground that characterizes his most fully realized poured works. If occasionally an index of the artist reasserts itself, as in the handprints Pollock left in paintings such as Number One (1948), it is little more than a faint echo of the artist’s voice, emerging out of the paint like the handprints on the walls of Neolithic caves, which held such interest for this generation.10 The movement from the pure dispersed energy of the poured paintings to the abstracted figural forms of Pollock’s late oil paintings represents, I propose, a move from an activated energy field to the coalescence of cultural form, and from embodied sensation to cognition,memory, and identity, bringing with it a tortured awareness of self from which Pollock—for a few years—had fled into the undifferentiated and immersive field of his poured paintings. Figural forms activated a region of his consciousness that troubled his fleeting sense of accommodation to the world.

Indeed Pollock’s shifting psychic state seems to have been strikingly aligned with his changing relationship to figural representation. According to Jeffrey Potter, the painter Alfonso Ossorio recalled that when his friend Pollock wasn’t drinking, his work “tended to be wholly abstract,” but when he was drinking, “figures would appear.” Alcohol, as Potter remarked, seemed to have been linked in Pollock’s painting “to memory”: the discipline required for him to hold to “the products of the unconscious”—the fields of his poured paintings—was lost when he drank, releasing the more ready memories and reflexive habits that drew him back to the figure.11 This was a curious inversion of the Surrealist effort to subvert the censoring mechanisms of the conscious mind through such processes as automatism. In Pollock’s case, accessing the unfettered energies of the unconscious was an act of discipline, involving the repression of the more insistent contents of the conscious mind.

And yet, despite apparently achieving “pure” abstraction in his poured paintings, Pollock struggled with the hold of the figure over his artistic language throughout his career. As Ossorio recalled, “Jackson often started with a figure and veiled it with linear patterns.”12 The artist Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, observed that figural allusions in his work existed on a continuum with his abstractions, with all his work evolving from his powerful figural paintings of the mid-1930s: “I see no more sharp breaks, but rather a continuing development of the same themes and obsessions.” Krasner also observed that Pollock’s monumental drawn paintings in black and white “began with more or less recognizable imagery—heads, parts of the body, fantastic creatures.” Prior to 1951, when such apparitions appeared in Pollock’s art, he chose to veil them, but in his work after his poured paintings, “he chose mostly to expose the imagery.”13 Even in the poured work, according to Mervin Jules, figural elements would appear to Pollock, who, inspired by the story of Leonardo da Vinci finding images in clouds and blots on the wall, used them as stimuli.14

Pollock’s return to the figural brought with it not only a return to the fraught field of art history— with its limiting conditions on the freedom of the artist—but also to his own struggle to surpass the example of such earlier figures as Picasso. It also triggered—via a stream of metaphoric linkages— associations with his own youthful emergence into a beleaguered selfhood, a process in which masculine individuation out of the emotionally adhesive—and in his case viscous—matrix of the family was hard-won. Pollock’s intimates have testified repeatedly to his extreme swings between a quasi-pantheistic embrace of elemental natural energies and his sense of spiritual homelessness and unbelonging. Such pantheism not only reflected his reading and intellectual formation (he was devoted to the teachings of Carl Jung) but also provided a sense of relief from the psychic pressures of ego formation and the normative expectations concerning the coherence and unbreachable strength of the male ego.

Pollock’s peculiar creative process seems to have mimicked the symptoms associated with a cognitive disorder known as aphasia, in which similar concepts, linked through resemblance, become interchangeable (“house” and “hut,” “woman” and “nature”). His aphasia—if such it was—worked to encourage the slippage (both linguistic and, I would suggest, visual) between things already closely proximate within his psyche yet deprived of any defining context or framework that might maintain their distinction. Figural allusions recalled Pollock to an unstable field of intersubjective relations in which the boundaries between self and other became dangerously permeable. Without the emotional or psychological context of self-differentiation, the creative transmutation of forms into other forms— swelling hips into hills and horizon—pointed toward a psychic realm of dangerous fluidity, in which the universal principle of metamorphosis he explored with his Jungian analyst now threatened an already fragile sense of self. Pollock’s deep emotional bonds with family members, in particular with his mother, Stella, were bound up with anxieties of suffocating intimacy. As Cile Downs recalled, Lee Krasner reported that the appearance of figural references troublingly reengaged for Pollock the image of his mother, which “came over him so strongly that he’d see her,” causing him to withdraw from the image.15 It is perhaps no coincidence that this period when Pollock returned to the figural also produced several explicit self-portraits, as if he were exploring the space within which an image of self could emerge from a buzzing universe of sensory immersion.

Part of a broader postwar generation of New York painters in flight from history, Pollock suffered from a crippling self-consciousness. The artists of the New York School found various unstable resolutions: Apollonian withdrawal, negation, reabsorption, and transformation of historical legacies. Pollock found release in the alchemy of matter into energy. But by 1951 his aesthetic fluency would increasingly give way to clotted surfaces and acid colors that suggest—in a savagely parodic way—the impossibility of escaping history. The sheer excess of Sleeping Effort—with its vulgar pinks, automotive greens, and mutating forms—seems to bear out the critic Harold Rosenberg’s observation in 1962 that the present generation, struggling with the feeling that the greatest work had been created in the past, was left with little more to do than merely reprise the modern tradition as “allusion, parody, and quotation.”16 Resisting the fully realized figure in space, Pollock created forms that reside uncertainly between figure and ground: one of the few recognizable forms in the painting is the grotesque cyclopean head with its monstrous single eye. Flesh meets bone; vision is blinded by the black blossom that pierces the eye. Echoing the swooping forms of Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Sleeping Effort, in its stridency, exposes Pollock’s sense of belatedness, thrown back on both history and the confines of his own psyche.


[1] Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, in their biography of Pollock, relate the work to “core memories” and to a return to the “biomorphic, semifigurative forms that had characterized his work of the early 1940s.” See Naifeh and Smith, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (Aiken, SC: Woodard/White, 1989), 725.

[2] In 1951 Pollock made a black-and-white work that strikingly anticipated Sleeping Effort. This piece, titled Number 14, also used enamel paint. In Number 14 the outline of hills on the right is more clearly traced, and some of the shapes found in Sleeping Effort, such as faces, are recognizable as well. If Number 14 is indeed related to the thought process that gave rise to Sleeping Effort, it also suggests the process of formal transmutation whereby outlines generate associations with unrelated objects through visual resemblance. For instance, the petal form on the left side of Sleeping Effort relates visually to the flowerlike face on the right in the earlier work.

[3] For more on his turn to these implements, see Pollock’s own statement in Possibilities (1947–48), cited in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, ed. Pepe Karmel (New York: Abrams and Museum of Modern Art, 2000), 17–18.

[4] Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene V. Thaw date this shift in method to 1953. See O’Connor and Thaw, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 199.

[5] On a good day Pollock ranked himself as one of the “only three painters,” along with Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. See Jeffrey Potter, To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography on Jackson Pollock (New York: Putnam, 1985), 234. Other commentators saw references to Wassily Kandinsky. See, for instance, Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 239. For more on Pollock’s influences, see B. H. Friedman on Pollock’s admiration for Picasso’s Guernica. Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” in Jackson Pollock: Black and White (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1969), 7. See also Patsy Southgate’s memory of Pollock’s hatred of French painting, a hatred based on his sense of intense competition with the School of Paris. Potter, To a Violent Grave, 188.

[6] See Elaine de Kooning, “Subject: What, How, or Who?,” in The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings, ed. Marjorie Luyckx (New York: Braziller, 1994), 143. Elsewhere de Kooning said that the concept that “something totally new, not subject to any influence, can be created” was “ridiculous.” See Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (New York: Devin-Adair, 1957), 77.

[7] Pollock himself elsewhere acknowledged the importance of history to the evolution of modernism, saying in a 1950 interview that modern art “didn’t drop out of the blue; it’s a part of a long tradition back with Cézanne, up through the cubists, the post-cubists, to the painting being done today.” A transcription of the interview is published in O’Connor and Thaw, Catalogue Raisonné, 79–81.

[8] Pollock’s contemporaries commented frequently on the lightness conveyed by the artist’s poured paintings. See, for instance, Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock (New York: Braziller, 1959), 21, 24, and passim. In the experimental workshop of David Siqueiros, which Pollock attended in the mid-1930s, students also experimented with new materials, such as nitrocellulous pigments used in the automotive industry, though they did not use enamel paints. Siqueiros used Duco enamels in his own work. See Laurence P. Hurlburt, “The Siqueiros Experimental Workshop: New York, 1936,” Art Journal 35 (Spring 1976): 237–46.

[9] Paul Brach, “Laocoon in the Water Lilies,” Art in America 87 (May 1999): 115.

[10] For more on this fascination with prehistoric painting, see Philip Pavia, The Club without Walls: Selections from the Journals of Philip Pavia, ed. Natalie Edgar (New York: Midmarch Arts, 2007), 51.

[11] See Potter, To a Violent Grave, 134.

[12] Alfonso Ossorio, in Potter, To a Violent Grave, 148.

[13] Krasner, in “Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” 7. Alfonso Ossorio also dismissed distinctions between figurative and nonrepresentational art in Pollock’s work. See Potter, To a Violent Grave, 147. Fritz Bultman recalled that “the image was central to Jackson and everything that grew from it” (ibid., 148). See also O’Connor and Thaw, Catalogue Raisonné, viii.

Jules misidentified the artist as Michelangelo rather than Leonardo; see Potter, To a Violent Grave, 99. For more on figuration as the origin of Pollock’s abstractions, see Peter Wollen, “The Triumph of American Painting: ‘A Rotten Rebel from Russia,’” in Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 98. According to Wollen, Pollock’s mural for Peggy Guggenheim originated in a very specific memory of landscape and of the West—wild horses stampeding across the plains—which he then disguised or suppressed, in Wollen’s words, through “‘automatic’ scrawlings-through and overpainting.”

[15] Cile Downs in conversation with Lee Krasner, in Potter, To a Violent Grave, 204. For a similar suggestion that the poured paintings concealed figural references to mother or father, see T. J. Clark, “The Unhappy Consciousness,” in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 300.

[16] Harold Rosenberg, Arshile Gorky: The Man, the Time, the Idea (New York: Sheepmeadow, 1962), 61.

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Image Credit

Jackson Pollock, Sleeping Effort, 1953. Oil and duco enamel on canvas, 49 7/8 x 76". University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1954. WU 3842. Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS).