Review: Staging Jackson Pollock @ The Whitechapel Gallery

Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1958.
Photograph obtained from whitechapelgallery.org

Jackson Pollock is an icon of Modern Art. Some adore his work, some mock it – it doesn’t matter, it will always be a lasting symbol of the Modern period. His drip paintings are often found in pride of place in the world’s most expensive collections and it sometimes seems that you have to be part of an elite circle of art snobs to “really get it”. But with Staging Jackson Pollock the Whitechapel Gallery reminds us that is wasn’t always this way.

In 1958, an expansive collection of Pollock’s work was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery itself was one of London’s first publicly-funded galleries, with a focus on local people and education, they call themselves an artist’s gallery for everyone. Staging Jackson Pollock offers an infinitely rich, pin-hole insight into a monumental moment in not only the gallery’s history, but exhibition history. It will end this weekend on the 24th, so if you haven’t been I’d recommend a visit. The Whitechapel Gallery houses contemporary-focused collections, but they often delve into the influence of historic artists – their other exhibition currently running Is This Tomorrow? also reaches into the gallery’s history. This exhibition is tailored with a great creative respect for Pollock, yet it is truly a dedication to the architect Trevor Dannatt who designed the setting for the show in ’58. Whether you love or hate the ‘white cube’ aesthetic seen in galleries today, this exhibition allows an insight into an event that shaped it.

Photograph obtained from whitechapelgallery.org

Staging Jackson Pollock is an exploration of a snapshot in time, specifically, the moment a posthumous tour of Pollock’s work landed at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1958. An interesting tidbit provided by the gallery notes that this exhibition was part of the Museum of Modern Art (in New York)’s International programme which was rumoured to be sponsored by the CIA in order to bring American culture to the world during the Cold War. Abstract Expressionism served as an emblem for freedom of expression that countered the Communist ideology of the Soviet Union. It is an interesting consequence that this exhibition inspired such a dramatic and new method of presenting art.

Entrance to the exhibit room

The 1958 exhibition featured 58 paintings from Pollock’s drip period of 1947-50, the period in which he became internationally famous. This was the first time Pollock’s work had been shown in the UK and it sparked bewilderment and excitement in the public. In contrast to the vast exhibition of 1958 and all its industrial touches, this 2018/19 exhibition takes place in a single, rather small room. The description and original floor-plan is placed outside the room, behind the stained-glass doors is more of a vignette of a moment from the past than an exhibition.

The exhibition description and 1958 sketch that hang outside the gallery room.

The centrepiece is the 5 metre-wide Summertime 9A that stretches across the expanse of the gallery wall. This painting is impossible to take in all at once, the panoramic format of the piece is an invitation to sit down and spend a while gazing through the layers of dripped paint and sink into your thoughts. Pollock, influenced by Carl Jung, claimed that his method came directly from his unconscious mind, allowing his body to move with the paint independent from his conscious thoughts.
In a clear nod to the 1958 exhibition, the ceiling is covered in concertina fabric, diffusing the light softly, adding elements of light and shade with dramatic effects. The wall adjacent holds a corner-to-corner photograph of the original exhibition, adding to the sense that we have stepped back in time.

Summertime 9A (1948) benefits from prolonged engagement, perfect for a moment of quiet contemplation

The rest of the room is glass cases filled with rare archival material such as newspaper clippings and letters regarding the exhibition, Dannatt and Pollock. One letter reveals how the Tate acquired three pieces from the exhibition for £12,000 – which seems like a bargain now!

The exhibition consists of several cases of archival material to ponder over.

An important part of the exhibition is the exclusive audio interview with Dannatt acquired by the Whitechapel Gallery. It provides a fresh perspective on the making of a seminal moment in the history of exhibition-making, and Pollock’s legacy. The constructivist approach from Dannatt included free-standing breeze blocks, black panels and an undulating ceiling of suspended fabric, a concept that has influenced the Whitechapel Gallery and many others ever since in manufacturing dynamic and powerful encounters with artworks. Replacing a space’s traditional features with white walls has established the modern-industrial ‘white cube’ aesthetic that shapes our experiences with modern and contemporary Art today.

If you’re planning a day out to the Whitechapel Gallery then please look out for my next blog post on Saturday with my suggestions for what to do, see and eat.