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The Painter's Presence

In the Modern Wing, there hangs a large Jackson Pollock painting called Greyed Rainbow (1953). It contains all the characteristics of a Pollock work—movement, layering, color contrast, dynamism—and embodies the primary goal of American Abstract Expressionism.

Coming to prominence post–World War II, Abstract Expressionism dramatically shifted the paradigms of the art world, showing that artwork no longer needed to be representational, but could still be emotional. The point of Abstract Expressionism was the process rather than the product; to capture a moment or a feeling rather than communicate definite, readable forms. Pollock would suspend himself above his large canvases, paint can in hand, and flick the paint across the floor, each stroke purposeful, creating the works we now know so well. There was always a plan in mind, but Pollock’s plans rarely yielded discernible figures or forms, instead the viewer takes on a Rorschach-like test, bringing their own interpretations to the work.

In a gallery not far away, the Japanese artist Kazuo Shiraga’s Golden Wings Brushed the Clouds Incarnated from Earthly Wide Star (Chikatsusei Maunkinshi) (1960) embodies the same ideas. Shiraga worked as a member of Gutai, a Japanese art movement that drew from a long history of visual Japanese expression. After World War II, the country was ravaged, and works from the Gutai movement display the anger, frustration, and confusion at the destruction—as well as the will to express and to move forward. Gutai, like Abstract Expressionism, also comes from the process of creation, with the physical actions of the painters serving as the output of the final work. The forms of Shiraga’s work come from methods similar to Pollock’s, but Shiraga suspended himself over his painting and used his feet to manipulate the paint, almost like a dance, creating a literal connection to the canvas, uninterrupted by tools. Painting, to Shiraga, was gesture.

While the two works were created on opposite sides of the world, there’s a deep similarity between them, far beyond the methods used: the presence of the painter. Whether it’s swipes of his toes or an almost-legible footprint, portions of Shiraga’s work betray his presence. Pollock’s work, after a minute or two of contemplation, comes alive with action, and the viewer can feel the paint being slung across the canvas. This was the point of both Abstract Expressionism and Gutai, to feel the painter rather than see the product. This was a radical form of expression for the time, but with the chaos of nuclear warfare, art responded accordingly with a visceral answer—the physical act of painting is there to be experienced; the presence of the artist there to be felt.

See Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow in Gallery 291B and Shiraga’s Chitkatsusei Maunkinshi in Gallery 294.

Kazuo Shiraga. Golden Wings Brushing the Clouds Incarnated from Earthly Wide Star (Chikatsusei Maunkinshi), 1960. Through prior purchase from the Mary and Leigh Block Fund, restricted gift of Barbara Bluhm-Kaul and Don Kaul; Jackson Pollock. Greyed Rainbow, 1953. Gift of Society for Contemporary Art.