The Jackson Pollock Code

April 24, 2010

Like many worthwhile things, it has taken some time to pull together the short film I told you about a few months ago on Jackson Pollock.

You may already know Smithsonian ran an article in December about Henry Adams’ book, Tom & Jack and the accompanying web story got over a million hits on the weekend it appeared! We can only hope this short little film gives the book an additional bounce.

This blog is supposed to be a diary. So what can I tell you about making this film? The big lesson for me is that content and story telling are the core of any decent cinema project. The production elements here are very simple. The charm is in the way the story is revealed.

This is the first video I have embedded into the blog and I hope it plays seamlessly for you. The full screen button is located right next to the word “Vimeo” on the video controls.

The Jackson Pollock Code from Thomas Ball on Vimeo.

Henry Adams has a marvelous way of telling a story with fascinating and amusing side trips. Like the great British travel writers of the 1930s, the destination of his plots seems only the excuse for the hugely entertaining ancillary excursions. Henry’s blithe transitions from topic to topic take you into totally unplanned territory sort of like a wandering day trip on a sunny spring day in Italy. This time you find yourself mesmerized by the work of Abbot Thayer who Henry tells us made important contributions to the development of camouflage. Then Andy Warhol appears, as if out of a dream, and by the time its all over, you are not sure what it all means but you know you had a great time.

This version of the now famous Google logo is an astonishing example of how ideas transmute themselves seemingly with a mind of their own. See the posting at the New York Times T Blog for the details.

Imagine my amazement when Marianne Berardi sent me an email about Google jumping on the Pollock band wagon. This is from The T Magazine Blog of the New York Times from February of this year – a couple of months after the Smithsonian article appeared.

So what do you think? Many in my office felt the letters in the painting could be anything. Some claimed they could find their own names in the Pollock painting. I was charmed by the whole idea and felt that anything which caused you to spend more time looking at a great work of art was a good thing. The interview with the beguiling Marianne Berardi, however, changed my mind. Her point about “reading the painting” with the rhythmic spacing similar to letters is a very compelling argument.

This painting by Jackson Pollock was painted in 1943 and is now worth a staggering amount of money. The painting was given by Peggy Guggenheim to the University of Iowa. University of Iowa Museum of Art, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim 1959.6 / © 2009 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / ARS, NY

There is more collateral evidence. A recent acquisition of a Pollock by the Butler museum shows the letter forms as well. Henry also points out (after having fun with his 10 year old as they tried to paint their own Jackson Pollock) if you just drip and throw paint around it looks repetitive and boring. Making letters in the air gives your drips more personality and variety. All of this we hope to include in another short film as well as (if we can find the money) a full blown one hour documentary of Tom & Jack.

Henry gives a lecture about the book at the University of Iowa next week. I am hoping he will post a comment here on their reaction to his discoveries.

Until next time with much love, I remain your,



  • Thomas Lee Randleman says:

    Regarding watching films at home via Netflicks. I find that it has become much more satisfying than going to a theatre. In the past it embodied a sense of sharing and reacting with an audience that could at times be thrilling and titillating. But recently the bad manners of other patrons one encounters in theatres, not to mention the high cost of a simple candy bar are really less than thrilling and not titillating at all.

    Most of us have large flat screens which when viewed in our relative spaces can be just as exciting as going out to see a film. Actually some theatre screens seem “smaller” than what we have ourselves! And some of us have marvelous sound systems which enhance the at home experience. To be sure there is the added benefit of having a glass of wine and a well prepared snack not generally available in conventional theatres. Beyond this, one can “pause” the film if need be. For more bubbly perhaps?

    Watching at home can also engender us to ask fellow film buffs to be part of the pleasure.

    It is a bit sad that this experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre with others has been sullied. I remember as a student having many happy moments going to “art films” and than going to a pub or cafe afterwards to dissect and critique what we had just seen. And there was indeed a collective heightened sense when being in the theatre with a mass of other theatre goers. But times change and our priorites change also.

    So for “now” Netflicks is pretty wonderful. Who knows what is next. Maybe we use our blank wall to screen the films. I am sure it is available already. “sic transit gloria mundi” has new meanings all the time.

    Thomas Lee Randleman

  • Victoria says:

    I’ve been happily directed to your blog by Mr. Adams, whose book on Benton and Pollock I’m in the middle of reading. Your video is wonderful, great editing. I come from the world of broadcast so that’s not an empty compliment.

    I never have ‘taken’ to Pollock, but other abstract expressionists are my painting idols; Mitchell, Kline, Hofmann. I’m not sure why I don’t much like him – it may have something to do with all that fluidity. My eye doesn’t know where to land. What surprised me was discovering Benton’s influence, an artist I’ve always appreciated for his composition and emotionalism.

    I await your next video with anticipation!

  • Thomas Lee Randleman says:

    My first impression responses to the work of Jackson Pollack is related to a comparison to the work of Cy Twombly. Both artists are able to offer what I feel are large emotional elements.

    Byond “painterly” application, there is the impact of the interior feelings of each artist which is captured not only by the handling of the paint and surface of the canvas but the direct “gestures” employed.

    When I was an art student we were sometimes encouraged to begin with preliminary drawing for the finished work. These beginning dashed and sketched mapped areas of the canvas could often have a rich sense of “gesture” and relate to our individual feelings about ourselves and our subject. Later on when more paint was applied and the work progressed, this sense of immediacy was obscured or lost. What began as something exciting and fresh became overly worked and embalmed. One would not describe either artist as having lost their immediateness in the finished product. Looking at their work over time the sense of beauty of line and gesture is a never ending paticipatory experience directly related to the rich and comples tapestry of human emotion

    Now to wander into the world of some controversy, it is my current impression that the digital application to photography never quite captures the realistic immediateness that film can so easily do in the hands of a sensitive and thoughtful artist.

    Yes there is glorious color and sharp focus. There is depth of field until the cows come home and scale that is awesome in format. But a single glance at Alexander Gardner’s image of Lewis Payne can conjure a vast set of “feelings” whether is our thoughts of his sense of guilt, bravado, saddness or resignation.

    In short, we clearly participate with the work. With many contempory photographs we are often simply “told” what is happening or shown. We can love it or like it or hate it but it seems less assessable in some ways. Obviosly this is not true with all works but I do feel something is lost in much the same way that music produced by the digital process loses the “air” and “breath” of the voice or instruments. There are many audiophiles who hold firm to their preference for the LP over the most elaborately produced digital performances. Personally I think it has something to do with how one “heard” music for the first time. I listened to music at a young age in halls or rooms without amplification. With jazz particularly, the richness throbing notes of the bass were as much “felt” as heard but never jarring or headache making as much modern performances can engender. Once at the old Academy of Music in Philadelphia

    I was sitting high up in the top balcony listening to a rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra with Riccardo Muti performing “Il Tabarro” and the lush sensual plucked quality of the bass was overwhelmingly evocative. Their sound rose and ebbed throughout the hall supporting the orchestra but never overpowering it and the sense of the waves of the water and the small boat gliding through was underscored in the extreme. I have never forgotten it.

    And so not to seem too locked into an evaluation of the emotional and painterly qualities of Jackson Pollack and Cy Twombly, I also have a memory of another artist whose work I have never fogotten seeing, ” in the flesh” for the first time.

    It was the portrait of the Princess de Broglie by Ingres.

    The handling of the silks, lace, jewelry and skin tones are so fabulous and startling that this is another kind of immediatenss and emotional impact. There is mood and there is a suggestion of the sitter’s emotional landscape. For all the expertly application of paint which is for me a “tour de force” nothing is lost for me either.

  • Juan bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    Congratulations for your great video, excellent! While watching it, when the camouflage topic was mentioned, I remember the wonderful portraits that Klimpt have done, with the heads of the figures coming out many times of what seemed a camouflage effect.

    Klimpt Detail

    To see the full painting click here.

    The background and the figure blend themselves and if it were not for the faces, some of them would read like abstract paintings. It also brought to my attention a class I had in commercial art years ago, where I was told that advertisement depicting, let’s say whiskey, has the appealing glass with ice cubes as the focus point. The teacher explained that quite often, in order for the viewer to pay more attention to the ad, semi-abstract shapes of nude women were placed cleverly in the ice cubes, so the eye will focus on the fleshy abstract shapes, enticing the picture to the reader. The curiosity of human beings to make sense of shapes, associating them to familiar objects could start when one is a child, observing the shapes of clouds! “Surrounding Dorothy” would be imprinted forever when I imagine letters in the sky…

  • Peter Weller says:

    As E.H. Gombrich, the grandaddy of 20th cent. art history said, “you don’t know what you like, you like what you know.” Thus, if one opens a book, looks long enough, or receives some instruction, one may begin to appreciate any art. Great Pollock stuff. Pollack’s color repetitive color scheme within one painting is the secret to accessing the fun and profundity of his action work. for instance, stand away from the thing and notice all the blue, then brown, then red, etc. Only coaching is, when displaying art, this blog should give the appropriate info: ARTIST, NAME OF WORK (in italics) DATE, MEDIUM, SIZE, PRESENT LOCATION. E.g. Jackson Pollack, Mural, 1943, 97 1/4 x 238 in (or 247 x 605 cm), University of Iowa Museum of Art.


    Peter Weller

  • dhb says:


    Pollack’s relationship to Surrealism has always been fascinating, and the proposition that he hid his name in the mural he painted in 1943 for Peggy Guggenheim is intriguing on several levels. If it is correct, Pollack is playing with us a game of “Hide and Seek”(“Cache-Cache in French) a game several 19th century French artists also liked to play, among them Corot in the 1850’s and in 1873 Berthe Morisot. In the case of these two artists, and others even earlier , the paintings are not camouflaged images, but show scenes of people playing the “children’s “game. Foe adults, it has great erotic potential.

    However , the Surrealists , probing the unconscious as a source for their imagery, manipulated the idea and played the game differently. In 1940-42, a then celebrated, if not notorious painting titled “Cache-Cache” by Pavel Tchelitchew the Russian born surrealist artist living in New York was acquired by the Musum of Modern Art. The style of the painting has some elective affinities with the ideas Pollack was experimenting with (playing with?? , but is of course a very different brand of Surrealism. The Peggy Guggenheim mural and the MOMA painting works may be something like first cousins once or twice removed. But that’s what Surrealism is all about. The Telitchew acquisition n by MOMA resulted in the usual sensation edgy art created in what are now referred to as “a more innocent era”. Consequently, reproductions of “Cache-Cache” appeared in many wide -circulation magazines and it is inconceivable that Pollack would not have know about it. So, s’il vous plait , Marianne’s visual subconscious, if not seeking, has uncovered Pollack’s conscious or unconscious hidden ego gesture. Like Tchelitchew , he is playing Cache-Cache: she has found him out.

    [I am not very good with copying images, but if you scroll down you may be able to play Cache-Cache with Tchelitchew.]

    Harvey Buchanan

    Tchelitchew / Hide & Seek

  • Michelle Moehler says:

    A-ha! I guess I will never look at this painting the same way again. Nice technique you used to reveal the letters too.

    I like the comment you made “anything which caused you to spend more time looking at a great work of art was a good thing.” I completely agree. I just wish I had seen this film a few weeks ago. It would have been a nice bit of inspiration for one of my lectures. The students were recently asked to create a piece of visual communication that solves the problem, “How Can You Slow Someone Down?” The format was completely open. They came up with the most innovative ideas, from environmental graphic solutions for subways stations… to a dyslexic version of “The Cat in the Hat” meant to spread awareness and understanding of the learning disability… to a new packaging for the Big Mac designed to make a person chew more slowly.

    It’s a great goal for artists and designers to set for themselves, especially in today’s fast-paced world.

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