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Property from a Private American Collection

Beach Figures

Beach Figures
signed 'Jackson Pollock' (lower right); signed again 'Jackson Pollock' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
27 x 20 in. (68.6 x 50.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1944.
Estate of the artist
Lee Krasner Pollock, New York
The Pollock Krasner Foundation, New York, 1985
Jason McCoy Inc., New York
John T. Washburn Gallery, New York
Private collection, Memphis, 2002
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
F. V. O'Connor and E. V. Thaw, eds., Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, New Haven and London, 1978, vol. 1, p. 109, no. 114 (illustrated).
D. Wigal, Pollock, Veiling the Image, New York, 2006, pp. 216-217 (illustrated).
O. A I. Botar and I. Wünsche, Biocentrism and Modernism, Surrey, 2001, p. 237.
P. Crowther and I. Wünsche, Meanings of Abstract Art, Between Nature and Theory, New York, 2012, p. 123, no. 7.4 (illustrated).
New Heaven, Yale University Art Gallery; Washington D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts and University of Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Gallery, Jackson Pollock: New-Found Works, October 1978-May 1979, pp. 50 and 87, no. 51.
Venice, Museo Correr, Jackson Pollock in Venice, March-June 2002, pp. 60 and 63, no. 30 (illustrated).


Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale


The influence of Jackson Pollock and the monumental disruption he made to the long-established precedents of art-making fundamentally reshaped the trajectory of the Western artistic canon. His pioneering drip paintings expanded the field of the canvas into the artist’s unconscious mind, paving his way in the Abstract Expressionist movement and clearing a path for generations of artists to come. As Willem de Kooning famously said, Jackson Pollock “broke the ice.” This revolutionary innovation, however, could not have emerged without the dedicated development of Pollock’s painting in the course of his early career. His circa 1944 work, Beach Figures, functions as a lesson in Pollock’s history, revealing the artist’s roots and inspirations while hinting at his explorative future. Taking notes from the European avant-garde scene, Pollock built upon the work of his predecessors, bringing Surrealist philosophy, cubist forms, and abstraction into a new era of artistic practice. Beach Figures puts these influences on full display, highlighting the ingenuity that would eventually beg the question posited by Life Magazine in 1949, “is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Despite its inviting title, sandy hues, and airy blue back drop, Beach Figures is a cacophony of agitated brushwork, abstracted figures, and the fervent aura that accompanies nearly every Pollock work one might encounter. The leftmost figure stands in tall dominance with a pair of penetrating stacked eyes, a sweeping arched collar, and a bulbous chest that cannot help but recall the work of Joan Miró. Immediately adjacent, a shapely figure in profile stretches down the center of the canvas, the figure’s apparent head a jumbled and angular assemblage reminiscent of analytical cubism. As the eye continues across the canvas, the figures suddenly appear even less grounded in reality, a puzzling array of painterly imagery representing perhaps crashing waves, a rocky shore, a soaring seagull, or a plunging swimmer. Even more significant than the specifics of Pollock’s vaguely figurative representations, however, are the artist’s methods of painting and overall composition. With its painterly application of oil, gestural linework, and dripping spots of black pigment, Beach Figures carries with it the impassioned sensation that lies at the heart of Pollock’s most acclaimed works, demonstrating the creative zeal that would soon launch him to fame on an international stage.
A significant part of Pollock’s early development came about under the influence of Surrealism. Pioneered by French writer André Breton in the 1920s, Surrealism was primarily a philosophical movement, heavily based in literature. The visual work that came out of the group, as a result, was highly focused on the execution of these textual ideas. Surrealist artists frequently created thought experiments and practiced “automatic drawing,” a method in which the artist’s hand was allowed to move across the page without the conscious direction of the artist, in order to allow the unconscious mind to guide the imagery they produced. This theory-driven mentality allowed painting to become more of a vessel for philosophy than an aesthetic practice, the canvas transforming into a space of ideology and intentional reflection. Some of the most iconic pieces of surrealist art - Salvador Dali’s uncanny dreamscapes immediately come to mind - bridge the unconscious and reality, inhabiting a space of surreality between the two.
For these artists, figuration and imagery allowed them to expand their own minds onto the canvas in front of them, but for Joan Miró, the Surrealist cited by Pollock as one of his biggest inspirations, the relationship between the unconscious and painting took on a different connotation. In 1927 Miró was famously quoted saying “I want to assassinate painting.” His works that would follow broke down the traditional norms of painting, art, and beauty as he utilized his now iconic bulging forms and muddled canvases to bring about the depths of his unconscious mind. For Miró, surrealist artwork was not so much about painting serving as a tool to unleash the unconscious, but rather the unconscious being unleashed upon painting, tearing down its conventions as no artist had allowed it to before. If Miró was unable to succeed in his quest to entirely destroy painting, it is perhaps his influence that allowed Pollock the space to break painting just enough.
The epochal action paintings, which Pollock originated in the late 1940s, tap into the unconscious mind not through painted imagery but through the movement of the artist’s body as he created the abstracted work, a clear expansion of both Surrealist notions of unconscious expression and Miró’s ideas on breaking the boundaries of painting. The freedom of expression Pollock conveyed in these works could not have been achieved, however, had it not been for his experimentation with the European avant-garde, which drew the attention of distinguished art patron, Peggy Guggenheim. Pollock began his four year tenure with Guggenheim following a showcase of American artists in 1943 where Piet Mondrian described the early work of Pollock as “the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America.” Spurred by the endorsement of the European artists and writers in her trusted inner circle, Guggenheim began her transformative sponsorship of Pollock’s practice, allowing him the space and resources to reach the potential she could sense in his early work. It was during this period that Pollock created Beach Figures.
A work heavily derived from the contemporary European art scene, but with subtle nuances of painterly technique and a sensation of ferocity that alluded to his work to come, Beach Figures is a prime example of the talent that Peggy Guggenheim’s trained eye was able to pick up on from the beginning. Her recognition of Pollock’s potential was not merely a reflection of his emulation of the avant-garde movements of the time, but a recognition of his ability to take those novel evolutions in painting and bring them into an entirely new field. In 1944, Jackson Pollock and his wife and fellow painter, Lee Krasner, spent part of the summer in Provincetown, which may have inspired the chosen theme of Beach Figures, making the present work a distinctive synthesis of the painter’s European influences with his individuality as a summertime reveler in America.
Jackson Pollock is one of the most iconic and well known painters of the contemporary era because of his fearless evisceration of established painting conventions and his impassioned expression of the unconscious mind. Through his early work with Surrealist ideologies and avant-garde techniques, Pollock was able to build the necessary philosophical and artistic foundations of his practice and garner the attention of key figures in the contemporary scene. Beach Figures is a journey through the origins of Pollock’s career, highlighting his dedicated craft and penchant for experimentation which would eventually catapult him into the international fame he receives today.

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