God and Jackson Pollock

Is creating an artistic masterpiece and a whole new artistic world view, similar to creating a whole universe only on a vastly smaller scale?

Jackson Pollock’s mammoth 1943 painting “Mural” — nearly 8 feet high, 20 feet wide and covered edge-to-edge with rhythmic, Matisse-like linear arabesques, muscular abstract shapes and piercing voids, was something entirely new for American art.

This great painting represents an early, galvanizing great leap toward the emergence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist art in the aftermath of World War II.

Some have said that the creation of this monumental master piece occurred in one miraculous burst of only 15 hours.

Collector and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim had commissioned the mural in the summer of 1943 for the entry hall of her Manhattan town house.

She was planning a November 1943 Pollock show for her gallery, and the mural would be an epic statement of her faith in Pollock, a barely known talent.

The canvas was four times bigger than anything Pollock had previously attempted.

The usual story is that Pollock fretted over the huge blank canvas for months, unsure of what to do. It sat untouched in his studio, almost as a daily taunt.

Then, in a sudden and dramatic binge of brilliant, all-night action, the roiling masterpiece issued forth.

Just after nightfall on the day before the work was due, Pollock is said to have begun to paint. Before 9 a.m. the next morning, 15 inspired hours later, “Mural” was done.

For the last 21 months, “Mural” has undergone a much-needed conservation; in a project led by the Getty museum and the Getty Conservation Institute.

The result is magnificent according to Christopher Knight, whose review in the L. A. Times (March 10, 2014) I rely on extensively.

But we have now learned that Pollock did not paint the epic canvas in one great, glorious burst of nonstop creative fervor.

Instead, this painting revered as a turning point, both for the artist and the history of Modern American art, evolved over many days and perhaps even several weeks.

Now, thanks to a careful pigment analyses by the GCI we know that Pollock did lay out an initial overall composition, painting wet-on-wet in diluted, high-quality oils.

Since no sketches are known to have been made the first outline of the painting could have been done in one long session.

However, much of the paint was applied later. Many separate layers of paint, each requiring drying time, some drying for several days.

The Getty paint study, coupled with other research, convincingly pushes the whole process back to July-November 1943 although the inspiration could have come in a minute and the outline in a few hours.

For the rigorously constructed painting shows an artist who knew what he was about. Over days (or weeks), he honed his own steadily maturing aesthetic.

He was on an exploratory track that, in a few years would produce the magnificent drip-paintings on which his enduring reputation rests.

In the same way, the universe itself could be the result of one Creative Mind’s will; plus a seven day outline, followed by 13.8 billions years of development and evolution.

Pollock may have done prior outlines that were unsatisfactory; and destroyed them, The Midrash on Psalms (90:13) says the same thing. God created and destroyed 974 worlds before this one.

The verse “These are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created” (Genesis 2:4) suggested to some rabbis the creation of prior worlds; while the verse “You carry them away as with a flood” (Psalms 90:5) was interpreted to refer to the destruction of these prior worlds.

The Zohar (1:262b) suggests that God did not actually build these prior worlds, but only thought about building them. In the same way Pollock may have envisioned designs that he destroyed without actually sketching them.

That this world was not the first that God created was believed to be indicated by Isaiah 65:17: “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth and the former shall not be remembered nor come to mind.”

Sefer haZikronot 1:1 suggests that when it entered God’s mind to create the world, He drew the plan of the world, but it would not stand until God created repentance. Thus, the ability to repent is the key element that made our world possible.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira identifies the creation and destruction of the prior worlds with the Lurianic shattering of the vessels; stating that God made the present universe out of those broken vessels.

Perhaps we should think of God’s creative mind as more artistic than that of a rational dispassionate draftsman.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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