New Needs Need New Techniques: On Jackson Pollock

The following is a brief paper I wrote in 2008 on Jackson Pollock. This has become the inspiration of what is becoming a much larger project (possibly book length). The focus of this paper is the concept of research-creation, however the larger project is going to also investigate notions of technique and technicity from Erin Manning’s forthcoming book Always More Than One; the concepts of aim, lure, and creation from Alfred North Whitehead; and central to the project will be the idea that creative activity is always in conjunction with nonhuman entities.

Enjoy!

Jackson Pollock, “Eyes in Heat”, 1946

Between the fall of 1946 and the spring of 1947, Jackson Pollock’s paintings changed dramatically in size, style, and in the painting materials used.  He even changed how he applied paint on to the surface of his canvases, by moving from the use of an easel and brushes, to working on the floor and applying paint by dripping or throwing it with a stick.  He felt that modern painters could not express the era of “the airplane, the atom bomb, [or] the radio, in the old forms the Renaissance or of any other past cultures,” and that therefore, “new needs need new techniques” (Pollock 1999a: 20).  In other words, in order to engage with an ever-changing world, Pollock felt that an artist must constantly explore new methods of practice.  If every new situation artists participate in call for new techniques of expression, then they must conduct some form of research in their practice.  This form of research is referred to research-creation.

According to Andrew Murphie, “All research is research-creation” because the world continual re-constructs itself in a process of change (Murphie 2008: 1-2).  In order to conduct research in this world of flux, one must invent techniques that can adapt to these constant changes. In order to adapt and understand these changes the research process must create new techniques.  All research is in relation to creation through the invention of techniques and thus, is research-creation.

Returning to Pollock, if “new needs need new techniques,” then artists are always engaged in a practice of research-creation.  As Pollock suggests above, it is not just every culture or historical time period that invents and needs new techniques, but rather every relation artists make with the world has the potential to create new needs and therefore new techniques.  Every relation artist have can potentially start the research-creation process.  If this is the case, then how do artists begin this process?  According to Pollock, the only relation a modern artist can engage in is a relation from within (Pollock 1999a: 20). Thus, for Pollock, the only relation is one between the painter and the painting because this relation is only engages with themselves and their painting process.  An artist’s painting process is their research-creation process. Pollock articulates his research-creation process during the his stylistic transition between 1946 and 1947 stating:

When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let I come through. Only when I loose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well (Pollock 1999b: 18; emphasis added).

Jackson Pollock, “Full Fathom Five”, 1947

To clarify Pollock’s explanation of his research-creation process, the first key term he uses and emphasizes is in.  Although his method of painting on the floor necessitates that he step on to and into his painting, this is not what he mean by being “in his painting.”  Instead, he is articulating that he is in relation with his painting.  This painter-painting relation begins the research-creation process and opens the potential for moving towards a completed work because “[p]otential is unprescripted. It only feeds forward, unfolding towards the registering of an event” (Massumi 2002: 9).  In other words, potential is not premeditated and has the capacity to advance a process forward towards a goal, or what William James calls a terminus.  For Pollock, to be in his painting creates a painter-painting relation, which opens the potential for the movement towards the terminus of a finished work.

This unpremeditated potential opens the research-creation process towards experimentation.  Pollock contends that he is unaware of what he is doing when he begins painting because he is engaged in a relation with his painting, in which techniques are invented.  Pollock’s lack of awareness can be understood, according to Brian Massumi, as “the felt reality of relation” (Massumi 2002: 16).  This feeling of relation is a microperception that “may be ‘too small’ to enter perception,” which is “nonconscious”[1] and virtual (Massumi 2002: 16).  This relational and virtual feeling is connected to potential because the virtual is where potential lies (Massumi 2002: 30).  Pollock’s unawareness is the emerging virtual feeling of the painter-painting relation. These virtual-relational feelings correspond to the potential for action in the form of experimentation. The unawareness of Pollock’s actions makes the virtual felt and moves the potential of experimentation found in the painter-painting relation towards techniques that will, in turn, direct this virtual feeling and potential to a terminus.

At some point Pollock stopped experimenting and feeling the virtual and took a step back.  This was his “get acquainted” period, in which he moved from the realm of potential to possibility.  “Possibility is back-formed from potential’s unfolding. But once it is formed, it also effectively feeds in” (Massumi 2002: 9).  Pollock evaluated his experiments in order to establish if there were possible techniques that would focus the potential of the emerging work and point to a clearer terminus.  He was looking to see if any possible paths towards a terminus had been invented.  In other words, this “get acquainted” period was to assess if a becoming-painting was emerging toward a terminus.

After the “get acquainted” period, Pollock saw the possibilities of the becoming-painting.  He could then begin making potential changes by working with either the now established techniques built during the initial experimentation or he could continue investigating the painter-painting relation and uncover more potential techniques.  He was aware that there was a potential risk of losing the relation and destroying the potential painting by continuing the process.  This risk is also the joy of the research-creation process because this is where the unexpected emerges.  Anyone engaged in a research-creation process must be prepared for and accept failure (Massumi 2002: 18 and Murphie 2008: 30).  This is not a failure of the artist or the becoming-artwork but rather, it is a failure of the relation. According to Murphie, a relation either “is working or not – and know immediately which” (Murphie 2008: 6).  When Pollock loses contact with his painting it results in “a mess.” In other words, when the relation between the artist and the painting disappears, the becoming-artwork fails to reach the intended terminus.  When the research-creation process goes well, Pollock contends that it “is pure harmony.” A becoming-artwork or becoming-painting emerges from the relation through the experimentation and the development of techniques and reaches the terminus, or what Alfred North Whitehead calls satisfaction.[2]

Once the artwork is completed, the research-creation techniques that have been created can be repeated.  The key is not to allow these techniques to transform into standardized methods of practice.  This is when creative stagnation begins. The techniques that Pollock developed in the late 1940s became his standard method of painting, and therefore by the early 1950s this systematic work ceased to be “new.”  Pollock stopped taking risks and began to take comfort in the success of his established techniques.  Artists must constantly remember that “new needs need new techniques” and in order to discover these new techniques, they must take experimental risks through a process of research-creation.

Bibliography

James, William. (2003) [1912] Essays in Radical Empericism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Massumi, Brian. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murphie, Andrew. (2008) “Clone Your Technics: Research Creations, Radical Empiricism and the Constraints of Models.” Inflexions 1.1. pp. 1-34.

Pollock, Jackson. (1999a) “Interview with William Wright.” in “Artist’s Statements and Interviews.” Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews. Ed. Pepe Karmel. New York: Museum of Modern Art. p 20-23. Originally broadcast on radio station WREI, Westerly, RI, 1951.

_____. (1999b) “My Painting.” in “Artist’s Statements and Interviews.” Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews. Ed. Pepe Karmel. New York: Museum of Modern Art. pp. 17-18. Originally published in Possibilities. 1 (Winter 1947-48), pp. 78-83.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1967) Adventures in Ideas. New York: The Free Press.


[1] Massumi distinguishes between nonconscious and unconscious perception stating, “repression does not apply to nonconscious perception and that nonconscious perception may, with a certain amount of ingenuity, be argued to apply to nonorganic matter” (Massumi 2002: 16).

[2] Satisfaction is “the exhaustion of the creative urge” (Whitehead 1967: 192).

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