Venice Beinnale

Three Painters from Across the Pond: Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully by Chris Hall

Howard Hodgkin,  Learning About Russian Music , 1999.

Howard Hodgkin, Learning About Russian Music, 1999.

Sir Howard Hodgkin

Sir Howard Hodgkin (1932 - ) is a British painter and printmaker.  Despite often being small in size and deceptively simple,  Hodgkin spends a considerable amount of time with each work, some taking years to complete.  Hodgkin's work are associated with abstraction, in its original understanding, as he abstracts from nature.  His paintings are rich in color, and are often compared with the work of Henri Matisse.  In 1984, Hodgkin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale and in 1985 he won the Turner Prize (a reminder that the Turner Prize was once painter friendly and not so favored toward conceptual art).  In 1992 Hodgkin was knighted.  In 2003 he was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II as a Companion of Honour, as if the title “Sir” wasn't fancy enough.  In September, 2010, Hodgkin and five other British artists including John Walker (who I will discuss next) participated in an exhibition entitled The Independent Eye: Contemporary British Art From the Collection of Samuel and Gabrielle Lurie, at the Yale Center for British Art. 

John Walker

John Walker (1939 - ) is a British painter and printmaker whose earliest works are inspired by Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction.  Rendered in acrylic paint, they often combine three dimensional elements with flatter elements.  Starting in the late 70's Walker moved to using thick impasto oil paints, while making pictorial allusions and quotations from earlier painters, such as Francisco Goya, Edouard Manet, and Henri Matisse.  During this time Walker also started to collage pre-painted canvas cut-outs to his work.  After spending time in Australia, Walker got a position teaching at Victoria College of Art in Melbourne.  It was during this time that he produced his Oceania series, incorporating elements of native Oceanic art.  Walker won the 1976 John Moores Painting Prize in 1976, and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1985, which went Howard Hodgkin instead.  Walker is currently the head of the graduate painting program at Boston University.  

Sean Scully

Sean Scully (1945 - )  is an Irish-born painter and printmaker, raised in South London, but who now lives in the United States.  He was nominated for the Turner Prize twice, in 1989 and in 1993.  Scully's paintings are often made up of a number of panels, which when assembled, form an abstract pattern.  Painted in thick layers of oil paint, his colorful works have heavily textured surfaces which need to be seen in order to be properly appreciated.  In an 2005 interview Sean Scully had this to say of his work:

“I hold to a very Romantic ideal of what's possible in art, and I hold to the idea of the 'personal universal.' This is a complex agenda. My project is complicated in this way, and in that sense I'm out of fashion. I'm going against the current trend towards bizarreness, oddness; as you just called it, the 'esoteric', which of course was around in the 1930s. That's what is being revisited now. In between the two great wars, there was a very strong period, particularly in Europe, of a strange, bizarre, distorted and perverse kind of figuration, with freaks in the paintings. Very disturbing twins, subjects like that. These paintings were mostly coming out of Italy and Germany. Now we have a return to that—again in a strange period, after the end of Modernism."

Scully's statement is interesting to me, and I think it is a fair assessment of art between the World Wars, and also the current state of contemporary art.  Personally, I look upon Hodgkin, Walker, and Scully's works as an ideal.  Somehow they transcend the nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work being produced today.  But every work has a place and purpose, and every age gets the art it deserves.  The nasty, ugly, cold, and soulless work is a reflection of our times.  Ah, but to escape!

Jackson Pollock Part Two by Chris Hall

From Triumph to Tragedy

When the WPA closed in 1943, Pollock was forced to take work as a custodian for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum).  It was here that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who encouraged him to submit work to her gallery Art of This Century.  Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in July 1943.  He received the commission to create Mural (1943), which measures roughly 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, for the entry to her new townhouse. At the suggestion of her friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable.  After seeing Mural, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "I took one look at it and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced."  Mural would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art, and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. 

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”  Jackson Pollock.

In October 1945, Pollock married the American painter Lee Krasner.  In November they escaped from what Pollock called the “wear and tear” of New York City to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island.  With the help of a down-payment loaned by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought a wood-frame house and barn at 830 Springs Fireplace Road.  Pollock converted the barn into a studio.  Life was almost idyllic for Pollock and Krasner at Springs.  Pollock expanded his family to include a dog, Gyp, and a crow, Caw-Caw.  He was also able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive.  For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many.  In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50.  

In the studio at Springs, Pollock perfected his big "drip" technique of working with paint, with which he would become permanently identified.  In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946).  The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards.  Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. 

Drip paintings (1947- 1950)

“New needs need new techniques.  And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements . . . the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”  Jackson Pollock.

The famous 'drip paintings' that he began to produce in the late 1940s represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century.  At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man's entrapment - in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.  Sometimes Pollock's work suggests the obliteration of the figure, the shattered and fragmented self as the modern condition.  At other times it suggests a peaceful destruction, as inner bleeds into outer, the self exploding into the universe, where there is unity, harmony, and wholeness.

Pollock first tried the drip technique in 1936, in a New York experimental art workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s.  He later used paint pouring as one of several techniques on canvases of the early 1940s, such as Male and Female, Composition with Pouring I and Composition with Pouring II.  By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. 

Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which, at that time, was a novel medium.  Pollock described this use of household paints, instead of artist’s paints, as "a natural growth out of a need.”  He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators.  Pollock's technique of pouring and dripping paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term “Action Painting.”  The term “Action Painting” was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952.  This style of painting focuses on art as a process rather than just a finished product.  The act of creation itself is the point and not just the painting alone.  By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, Pollock added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.  While painting this way, Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush.  Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint, which was expressed on the large canvases.  In 1956, Time magazine dubbed Pollock "Jack the Dripper," due to his painting style.  

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.  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 fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose 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."
—Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

James Joyce describes his work Finnegans Wake as being a “chaosmos.”  I think this description would be applicable to Jackson Pollock's paintings of 1947 to 1950 as well.  His drip works have no hierarchical organization, no figure ground relationships, no focal point, no perspective.  Everything is obliterated, everything but the All.  Pollock's art making process seems to me like he is channeling the forces of nature while working in a Shaman's ritual trance state.  Flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, he would move energetically around the canvas, almost as if in a dance, and would not stop until he saw what he wanted to see.  Pollock observed American Indian sand painting demonstrations in the early 1940s.  Referring to his style of painting on the floor, Pollock stated, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  This is akin to the methods of the Indian sand painters of the West.”   

While it was a mixture of controllable and uncontrollable factors, Pollock denied reliance on "the accident"; he usually had an idea of how he wanted a particular piece to appear. His technique combined the movement of his body, over which he had control, the viscous flow of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas.  

In the 21st century, the physicists Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas studied Pollock's works and technique. They determined that some works display the properties of mathematical fractals although this could not be replicated by others.  They assert that the works expressed more fractal qualities as Pollock progressed in his career.  The authors speculate that Pollock may have had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion, and tried to express mathematical chaos, more than ten years before "Chaos Theory" was proposed.  Their work was used in trying to evaluate the authenticity of some works that were represented as Pollock's. 

Pollock's most famous paintings were made during the "drip period" between 1947 and 1950.  He rocketed to fame following an August 8, 1949 four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"  In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale.  Pollock also signed the open letter protesting The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition American Painting Today – 1950, for its exclusion of Abstract Expressionist artists.  The 18 signers became known as “The Irascibles” and Life magazine published an article of the affair along with the now famous photograph of the group, which included artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell.

The Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg Film

In 1950, Pollock was at the pinnacle of his career, but by the end of the year he was drinking again.  In July 1950, Hans Namuth approached Pollock and asked to photograph the artist working in his studio.  Encouraged by his wife, Lee Krasner, who was aware of the importance of media coverage, Pollock agreed.  Not satisfied with black and white stills, Namuth wanted to create a color film that managed to focus on Pollock and his painting at the same time, partially because he found more interest in Pollock's image than in his art.  His solution was to have Pollock paint on a large sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from underneath the work.  As Namuth could not afford professional lighting, the film was shot outside Pollock's Long Island home.  This documentary (co-produced with Paul Falkenberg) is considered one of the most influential documentary films on an artist ever made. 


In November 1950, Namuth and Pollock's relationship came to an abrupt conclusion.  Jeffrey Potter, a close friend of Pollock's, described Namuth as commanding, frequently telling Pollock when to start and stop painting.  According to Potter, Pollock "felt what was happening was phony."  Namuth himself describes Pollock as being "very nervous and very self-conscious" of the filming at the time.  After coming in from the cold-weather shoot of the glass painting, Pollock, who had been in treatment since 1938 for alcoholism, poured himself a tumbler of bourbon whiskey after having been sober for two years.  An argument between Namuth and Pollock ensued with each calling the other a "phony,” culminating in Pollock overturning a table of food and dinnerware in front of several guests.  From then on, Pollock reverted to a more figure-oriented style of painting, leading some to say that Namuth's sessions robbed Pollock of his rawness.  Some have argued that Namuth made Pollock feel disingenuous about his drip technique, which he had previously done spontaneously, but in the film seemed coerced. 

During his time with Pollock, Hans Namuth had created two films and captured more than 500 photographs of the artist.  These photos have also allowed art historians to dissect the details of Pollock's method.  For example, art historian Pepe Karmel found that Pollock's painting in Namuth's first black-and-white film began with several careful drippings forming two humanoid figures and a wolf before being covered beneath several layers of paint. 

The Late Works (1951 - 1956)

“I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”  Jackson Pollock.

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.  After a brief period of producing dark, monochromatic works, he returned to using color and reintroduced figurative elements.  The new paintings were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.  During this period, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice and Pollock's gallery, Art of This Century had closed.  Gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over his contract.  There was great demand for his work from collectors, but critics were giving him bad reviews for returning to more figurative art.  In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened.   

His personal troubles only increased in his later years.  He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, as his reputation preceded him, he struggled to find another gallery.  He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say.  In 1955, Pollock painted Scent and Search, his last two paintings.  He did not paint at all in 1956, but was making sculptures at Tony Smith’s home: constructions of wire, gauze, and plaster.  Shaped by sand-casting, they have heavily textured surfaces similar to what Pollock often created in his paintings.  In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old art-star groupie Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar.  On August 11, 1956, at 10:15 pm, Pollock, age 44, died in a single-car crash in his green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.  Pollock lost control of the car on a curve and he plunged into the woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour.  One of the passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed in the accident, which occurred less than a mile from Pollock's home.  The other passenger, Ruth Kligman, miraculously survived. 

For the rest of her life, Pollock's widow Lee Krasner managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art world trends.  Lee Krasner died in 1984.  They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers. 

Native American Ledger Art by Chris Hall

The term Ledger Art comes from the accounting ledger books that were a common source of paper for the Plains Indians during the late 19th century.  Ledger Art evolved from hide painting techniques.  Plains Indians would record historic events on a calendar called the Winter Count.  Plains Indian Art emphasizes narrative action, eliminating unnecessary details and backgrounds.  The figures tend to be made with hard outlines and are filled with solid fields of colors.   With the U.S, Army hunting the buffalo to near extinction (to starve the Native American population), hide was gradually replaced by paper.  Traders, government agents, missionaries, and military officers introduced new media to the Native Americans, namely pencils, ink, crayons, and watercolors.  

Native American Ledger Art can trace its roots to the mid 1870's, when a band of Southern Plains Indians (Kiowa, Cheyenne, Southern Arapaho) were held at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.  In an effort to improve morale, Captain Richard Henry Pratt began passing out drawing materials and encouraged the prisoners to document their lives.  Pratt was progressive in that he believed that Native Americans deserved support and respect, and that they could be assimilated into Anglo-American society, if they would only abandon their old ways.  Pratt gave his prisoners English and literacy classes, taught them practical skills, introduced them to Christianity, and gave them an basic education.  Today forced assimilation is considered a form of cultural genocide, but Pratt's program was at least a step up from the generally held notion of his time, that all Indians were the enemy, that they were all thieves and murderers in the way of progress, and that they should all be eradicated.  Pratt's superior, General Philip Sheridan, dismissed Pratt's beliefs as “Indian twaddle,” but gave him a chance under the pretense that if the program did not work, Pratt would resign his command.  Pratt's education program worked, particularly the Art Project.  Visitors to the fort would purchase the drawings, and the proceeds would go directly to the artists.  Eventually the prisoners at Fort Marion were released back into society.  Historically, Ledger Art was exclusively by men.  In Plains Indians culture, the men would create all the narrative, representational art, recording historical events and such, while the women would make the abstract and geometrical designs.  Ledger Art often depicts warfare, stealing horses, and hunting, occasionally showing courtship scenes, mythology, and religious practices.  Ledger artists also depicted their rapidly changing environment, portraying encroaching European Americans and new technologies such as trains and cameras.

Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull

Amos Bad Heart Bull (Oglala Lakota) – Born c 1868, Amos Bad Hear Bull was a witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn, known to the Native American participants as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, where Colonel George Armstrong Custer's 7th Calvary was massacred.  At the conclusion of the Great Sioux War in 1877, the Bad Heart Bull clan surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency, where he witnessed the death of Crazy Horse.  Amos Bad Heart Bull documented both of these events in his art.  In 1890, Amos Bad Heart Bull enlisted in the U.S. Army as a scout and learned English while stationed at Fort Robinson.  He purchased his first ledger book in nearby Crawford, Nebraska, and began filling it with drawings.  After his service, Amos Bad Heart Bull became the Oglala's historian, continuing the tradition of the Winter Count.  He buried his wife and his young daughter before dying himself in 1913, at the age of 45.

Howling Wolf

Howling Wolf

Howling Wolf (Cheyenne) – Howling Wolf was a witness to the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29th, 1864, where 700 Colorado Militiamen attacked a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho, killing and then mutilating the bodies of some 160 people, most of whom were women and children.  Colonel John Milton Chivington, commander of the militia, would say of the event, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! ... I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians.” Later, while imprisoned at Fort Marion in 1875, Howling Wolf would record the Sand Creek Massacre on paper.  Released from Fort Marion in 1878, he tried to assimilate into Eastern life, but quickly became disillusioned and returned to the Cheyenne reservation in Oklahoma.  In 1881 Howling Wolf returned to the traditional Cheyenne ways and became a prominent member of the new Native American Church. Howling Wolf died in 1927 in a car accident while on his way home to Oklahoma after performing in a Wild West show in Houston, Texas.  

Kicking Bear

Kicking Bear

Kicking Bear (Oglala Lakota) – Kicking Bear fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn (Battle of the Greasy Grass) alongside his first cousin Crazy Horse.  Kicking Bear was also a holy man active in the Ghost Dance religious movement of 1890, which was suppressed at the Wounded Knee Massacre.   Following the murder of Sitting Bull, Kicking Bear was imprisoned at Fort Sheridan in Illinois.  Upon his release in 1891, he joined Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and toured Europe for a year.  He found the experience humiliating and left, returning to the Pine Ridge Reservation to care for his family.  At the request of artist Frederic Remington, Kicking Bear recorded his account of the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1898.

Squint Eyes

Squint Eyes

Squint Eyes (Cheyenne) – Squint Eyes began drawing while a prisoner at Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida.  He is one of the few Fort Marion prisoners who continued to make art after his release.  Upon his release from Fort Marion in 1878, Squint Eyes trained as a Naturalist at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, before finding employment at the Smithsonian.  One of the drawings below, made by a Fort Marion prisoner, possibly Squint Eyes, shows a woman teaching.  The Natives were at first uncomfortable with women teachers, but quickly accepted the situation.  Off to the right, a ghost figure observes.  

Unfortunately, no photo of Black Hawk exists.

Unfortunately, no photo of Black Hawk exists.

Black Hawk (Sans Arc Lakota) – Black Hawk was the chief medicine man of the Sans Arc Lakota.  He is best known as the artist who, in 1880–1881, produced a set of 76 ledger drawings for William Edward Caton, the federal Indian trader at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.  The drawings depict Lakota life, wildlife, and spiritual beings in Lakota mythology.  One drawing shows the horned Thunder Being on a horse-like creature with eagle talons and buffalo horns.  The creature's tail becomes a rainbow, which represents the entrance to the Spirit World, and the dots on the horse represents hail.  Black Hawk entitled the drawing “Dream or Vision of Himself Changed to a Destroyer and Riding a Buffalo Eagle.”  Black Hawk had difficulty feeding his family during the winter of 1880-1881, and gave Caton the drawings at 50 cents apiece in exchange for store credit.  Black Hawk is thought to have been killed at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

Silver Horn in 1930

Silver Horn in 1930

Silver Horn (Kiowa) – Born in 1860 in Southwestern Oklahoma, Silver Horn came from a long line of Kiowa Calender Keepers, who recorded the tribe's history in art.  Between 1870 and 1920, Silver Horn produced over a thousand drawings depicting Kiowa culture, including warfare, coup counting, the Sun Dance, and early representations of Peyote religion.  Silver Horn began making Ledger Art while a prisoner at Fort Marion and met with some success in the art world after his release in 1878.   Like his fellow artist-prisoner, Squint Eyes, Silver Horn would go on to work for the Smithsonian.  Silver Horn  was influential on the Kiowa Six group, who showed at the Venice Beinnale in 1932.

Red Horse

Red Horse

Red Horse (Miniconjou Sioux) – Red Horse was a Lakota Sioux sub-chief and a witness to the Battle of Little Bighorn.  He recorded his account of it at the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1881 in a series of 41 drawings.  Following the battle, reporters were eager to interview Red Horse, whose account of the battle is considered important as there were no U.S. Army survivors from the battle, Custer's command being annihilated.  Red Horse's drawings depict the dismemberment and mutilation of the 7th Calvary soldiers.  The Plains Indians believed that in the afterlife, the soldiers would also be dismembered and mutilated.  To be fair, the Indian Wars was a savage affair, and atrocities occurred on both sides.  The U.S. Army was also guilty of desecrating the dead, such as at the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864.  

Aside for their historical significance, I also appreciate the work for their aesthetic qualities.  I find the informal, democratic (everyone draws), and personal nature of the work refreshing and inviting.  Often, the line and color quality is also interesting as well.  Ledger Art also anticipates Modern Art's interest in collage, albeit out of necessity, since the artists used what ever paper they could find to draw on.  A good source for researching Plains Indian Ledger Art can be found at

Starting in the 1960's, there was a revival of the Ledger Art tradition among Native American artists, notably Terrance Guardipee, Michael Horse, John Pepion, Dolores Purdy Corcoran, and Eddie Encinas.  In some cases, the artists purchase dated paper and documents to draw on, often using the medium to comment on contemporary Native American issues.