In Focus

Jackson Pollock's Cathedral

The following is a 2003 essay by the former Lupe Murchison Associate Curator of Contemporary Art __Charles Wylie, published in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years.

From 1947 to 1950, American artist Jackson Pollock began a revolution in art with paintings such as Cathedral (1947). Forgoing the usual relationship between painter and canvas, Pollock placed his canvases on the ground and, from a vertical position, used his body to fling, drip, and otherwise apply paint to a flat surface in a swirling energetic motion. With this radical technique, Pollock redefined the act of painting and, indeed, the very act of making art. By literally placing himself in the picture and by creating abstract form from a profoundly simple fusion of physics, material, and movement, Pollock opened a range of possibilities for later artists that led to the development of process art, performance art, earthworks, and other types of unconventional genres that put the artist at center stage of the creative act.

By themselves, Pollock's works were seen in their time not as a precursor to anything, but as a brilliantly new and challenging culmination of tendencies that had been gestating in the United States, especially in New York, since the arrival in the 1930s of members of the European avant-garde fleeing Nazi Germany and Europe. Dada and surrealism in particular gripped the imagination of younger artists such as Pollock, dealing as they did with the unconscious, the irrational, and non-Western forms of representation that hinted at the dark, sexual, ecstatic, Dionysian, and often terror-filled world beyond the visible. Artists like Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline scoured their subconscious minds for imagery that would correspond to the invisible forces at work in the universe, forces that were for the most part ineffable yet undeniably present in these artists' psyches.

Cathedral is considered one of the great works by abstract expressionism's greatest artist. Pollock let paint fall into complex webs that intersect, swoop, break, overlap, and conjoin in a teeming field of silver, gray, and black, flecked with hints of orange, yellow, blue, and green. In 1947 one might have discovered a parallel between Cathedral and the energy released by the atomic bomb, the energy inside an atom itself, or the patterns of the universe just then being discerned.

Pollock scholars consider 1947 to 1950 to be breakthrough years for the artist, when he moved from intensely worked canvases depicting mythological and cult-like figures to the "drip paintings" that relied solely on an abstract and energetic vocabulary for their power. Cathedral entered the Museum's collections in 1950, the final year of this "classic" era of Pollock's career, and was one of the first of Pollock's paintings to enter any museum collection in the world. New York-based collector Bernard Reis gave the work to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts at the urging of Board member (and soon to be Board President) Stanley Marcus at a time when the institution decided to concentrate on building a first-rate permanent collection. "Mr. Stanley" suggested that Reis give the Museum an important work by a younger artist. Jackson Pollock's Cathedral was chosen in part because the donor felt it necessary to place an example of the most progressive and important new art in the heart of the United States, outside the traditional eastern corridor of culture.

Cathedral appears now as if it were painted only yesterday, still challenging its viewers to reconcile its aggressive creation with its shimmering beauty, its puzzling abstraction with its undeniable figurative and thematic associations, and its relatively small size with the immensity of its compositional scale. In accepting the gift of Cathedral at such an early year, the Dallas Museum of Art set a standard for all subsequent works entering the contemporary collection. This led to the creation of one of the finest collections of contemporary art in any museum in the Southwest (certainly one that bears comparison to many others throughout the country) and to the subsequent sharpening of the aesthetic minds of countless visitors from near and far.

Excerpt from

Charles Wylie, “Jackson Pollock's Cathedral,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 10.

Web Resources

  • SFMoMA
    Watch archival footage of Jackson Pollock narrating and demonstrating his artistic process.

  • MoMA
    Explore 86 works by Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • Khan Academy
    Watch a short video about Jackson Pollock.

  • SAAM
    See earlier works by Pollock.