Easel Versus the Floor—Pollock and Action Painting Within the New York School

During the 1940s, Jackson Pollock had embraced abstraction and the non-objective but he was still searching.  His search for a definitive or signature expression/style would find its resolution when he left the easel and rolled his canvases out on the floor raw and without stretcher bars.  Approaching his blank canvas (the Tabula Rasa) rolled out on the floor enabled Pollock to work all four edges by walking around the canvas.  But probably the epiphany for Pollock would be his ability to now step into the canvas—literally!  Approaching the canvas stretched and placed vertically on an easel or on the wall meant Pollock could only go so far with his personal immersion into his work.  But rolling the canvas out on the floor horizontally provided Pollock with the desired aspect of being “in” the work.  Pollock stated the following about the horizontal approach to the canvas:  “On the floor I am more at ease, I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be ‘in’ the painting.”

A very curious outcome of working with the canvas on the floor is the artist realized he didn’t need to touch the brush to the canvas’ surface.  Pollock felt he could translate his inner feelings more directly by way of a “choreography of movement” a few inches or more above the actual surface and let gravity and the hard, ungiving floor play a role in the mark-making process.  The artist vocalized his discovery of a curious choreography of expressively moving the paint across the canvas in the following 1947 statement:  “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 fears about 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.”

What are your thoughts on Pollock’s decision to leave the vertical aspect of the painter’s easel behind and work with the canvas horizontal on the floor?

Photograph of Jackson Pollock and wife Lee Krasner in his Hampton studio

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

24 Comments

24 thoughts on “Easel Versus the Floor—Pollock and Action Painting Within the New York School”

  1. Pollock’s style was unlike any other. His revolutionary paintings were able to shift the art market’s attention from traditional European work and onto the American art scene. I think he was able to do so because of his inclusion of direct movement into the canvas. His philosophy involved relinquishing control over the content and allowing outside forces to guide him. He was one of the first artists to experiment with painting without a paintbrush literally coming in contact with the canvas. In the history of art movements, the most influential and avant-garde tended to be those that were led by artists who went against past ideals and known techniques. Taking the act of painting on a vertical surface and modifying it so that the gravity heavily affects the way the paint is being applied is simply genius. Even though this application was by no means traditional, it added another layer of meaning to his work. One that pulled in the forces of the outside world into his work. It was no longer about the paint, but about the way in which it was used.

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  2. I think Pollock’s idea to forego the vertical aspect is great because it’s a whole new take on painting. It’s a unique style. Pollock said that he’s literally “in” his artwork is great idea because he’s visually and physically in his art. I think it works for him because his work is amazing. Also, like we discussed in class, it’s pretty much Pollock’s style and can only be replicated. It only works for him. So I don’t know if it will work with other artists.

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  3. I think that is was an important decision for Pollock to leave the vertical aspect of the easel and move the canvas horizontal on the floor. He was able to get unprecedented variety from this technique. This method allowed him to quite literally “be in his work.” On the ground it was less about his paint strokes and more about his physical movement it gave him, he was able to put more emotion in his work. Practically, this way also allowed up better access to all parts of the canvas.

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  4. I think Pollocks decision to move to a horizontal canvas on the floor was revolutionary. As stated in the question this allowed him to be ‘in’ the painting, literally. He was able to be more intimate with the painting. When I am painting, sometimes I find work sitting on the easel intimidating, and I feel a disconnect to it. However, when I remove the canvas off the easel and either hold it, or lean it on my lap, I feel more of a connection to it. Pollock making this decision really influenced his art, as he would not have been able to make such amazing and world renowned pieces if he had not made this decision. I also feel like he opened a door for other artists and really gave them permission to break from tradition. Now, many artists paint horizontally. While not as many literally enter the paintings like Pollock did, many still paint with their canvas laying on the floor or a table. I have seen a video of Jim Carrey painting, and one of the paintings he did, he was laying on a ladder that was positioned over the canvas he had laying horizontally. While he didn’t physically lay on the painting he was positioned above the painting, which gives the artist a new perspective of the piece they are working on. You can also tell that Pollock making this decision really freed him of any constraints when pantings. As he had stated he creates a “curious choreography” of expression. He is able to move around and within his work, allowing him to be on a new level of consciousness while creating. I am sure if anyone had the pleasure of watching him painting this way, he zoned out, forgot anyone was there and just became completely immersed in the piece. I honestly want to try this now with my own piece to see if there is a different level of consciousness that an artist hits when working this way.

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  5. The floor gives Pollock not just a new angle of expression and a liberation of formal painting, but also proposed new forms of hurdles. It is a matter of whether or not he is able to transcend beyond the initial practice of mark making to the conceptual realm of performance and lost experience. With this it would be better to relate this to other art disciplines that depend on this concept of performance, such as music, theater, or dance. There is the message of documentation of movement that is presented in Pollock’s work, but what becomes a harder argument to defend is his experience as he was working. Many critics have stated that Pollock worked under the influence of drugs and alcohol, as evidence predicts from the cigarettes found in the dried paint of his works and the accounts from close relationships with the artist.
    Is what Pollock is trying to document the experience and stimulation of his life choices? As an artist that is what we all want to show the world, that is our first account of how “things went down”. However, because there are so many parallels that could be made to Pollock’s work and process, it is difficult to pin-point fundamental answers of intent and reason. The main thing to take away is the fact that Pollock worked in a way that was different from the formal practice of painting (for whatever reason) and that allowed the road to more forms of innovations in process within the art world to be made.

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  6. Pretty amazing that Polluck would use the floor as a canvas for his paintings. Though I’m not sure what to feel for the man since he became an alcoholic and drunk himself to death via car crash with 2 women with him.

    Still, it just goes to show that art is not just limited to a vertical canvas and that almost anything can be used to put it for display.

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  7. Pollock’s decision to work with the canvas horizontally on the floor allowed him to interact and connect with his paintings in a whole new way. By doing this, he got rid of any restrictions that would have held him back from fully expressing what he wanted to express. He was able to walk around in any which way to reach all parts of his canvas. It may be true that Pollock only became a painter because he copied his older brother, but I think he ended up becoming a true innovator by using this technique.

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  8. Personally, I like the fact that Pollock switched it up and went vertical. It kind of reminds me when Picasso said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them…An idea is a beginning point and no more”. The art is more than just the end result, it’s the process. Pollock treated his paintings like a performance, and abstract, gestural, visual jazz performance. The end result was much more than just a painting, he literally put his all into it.

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  9. I think Pollock’s decision to work on the canvas horizontally on the floor was part of him trying to find himself and his style of painting. He had followed in the footsteps of his brother and was influenced by Thomas Hart Benton and I think he was really just trying to find himself. Painting on the floor horizontally allowed him to be comfortable, immersing him into his paintings, and move freely to orchestrate his drip art. Jackson Pollock really is the epitome of the fearless painter, where he believed mistakes didn’t exist.

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  10. Jackson Pollock struggled so much mentally that I think his only “free” time and “free” space was on the canvas, and before he started “drip painting” it was probably not as freeing for him to paint and make art. The intense manner of expression that is shown in Pollock’s drip paintings would never have been reached if he had been afraid to try something new, like completely leaving the objective parameters of a stretched canvas. After being called the greatest living American artist by TIME, I would think that that seemed like enough validation that he had made the right move from his early work into non-objective abstraction. Although I don’t think he ever really felt free, considering the tragedy of his death and life shortly before that, I think that Jackson probably expressed whatever it was that he needed to release when he was doing his choreographed “drip paintings”.

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  11. I thought Pollock’s decision to paint his canvas on the floor not only allowed more freedom to move around and paint from all angles, but it was also a decision that allowed more intimate painter to painting interaction. I think for me, what makes a Pollock painting so amazing is this definitely, the process that comes along with it. It’s amazing the outcome when painting with so much space since Pollock is with the painting, playing with his own movement, deciding his direction on where to paint on canvas, where the paint ends up going. This particular process became a signature of his as an artist that most of us associate and remember with him today.

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  12. Pollock’s decision was one that gave him a new “angle” to express himself by being in the painting literally. He was able to transcend the limits of the canvas itself and bring about a new way to translate his inner feelings. Painting on the floor gave Pollock the option to choreograph his movements with his whole being rather than just the brushstrokes of an arm. Being able to paint freely makes me more curious as to how it felt and what it means to paint with your whole being. Connecting with one’s work of art is so important because it is who we are and expressing our inner selves.

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  13. Pollock’s take on abstraction is unique with his idea of being “in” the painting. Having the canvas lay horizontally on the floor allows a more intimate interaction with the painting that can’t happen when it’s displayed on an easel. As Pollock walks around and on top of his canvas dripping his paint on it with various movements, a story is being told. If you look up close to Pollock’s paintings you can see other items and textures that fell from his self while he was working like loose change from his pockets, cigarettes or human hair. It’s a natural occurrence and yet it indicates the process of making the painting. It’s something that isn’t achievable with the standard way of hanging a canvas.

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  14. I think Pollock’a method is phenomenal and iconic in a sense that he wasnt afraid to epress himself the way he sought fit. I feel as if some artist stick to the traditional and taught methods of approaching a canvas or any other surface of choice and dont think “outside of the box”. Much of Pollock’s invites you to look closer and observe the different strokes made within his work and that is something to appreciate. I’m sure if any one was to try imitating this style, it would take having the same purpose and meaning as Pollock’s did.

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  15. One of my favorite artist and one of the most recognizable painters of our time. Jackson Pollock was a master of his craft. I think that by going from vertical to horizontal on his canvas let him express himself more freely. During the lectures you mentioned that his work could never be duplicated and that’s very true. He was unique and one of a kind. You can literally stare at his work and just get lost in his paintings. There’s so much intensity in the way he expresses himself through his art. He was able to move around his canvas and be more fluid with his work when his canvas was horizontal.

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  16. I think moving to the floor was the only logical place to move to. When working on a canvas, you’re fighting gravity which gives you a very limited range of expression as additional force is needed. However, when painting with or along gravity, you are free to express with more variability. Strokes can be soft or smooth, slow and easy, while still having the option to paint aggressively.

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  17. I think Pollock’s decision to paint on the floor rather than verrtically was a smart move. It gives his paintings a sense of live and motion that you can’t quite replicate while painting vertically. I’m sure this allowed him to be more expressive in his “strokes” and become fully immersed with his paintings. He was able to step into his paintings and put parts of himself into them.

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  18. I think Pollock’s decision to leave the canvas horizontal on the floor because it gives more various angle to approach to canvas. Many artists put their work area to horizontal on the floor or on table, so it is not really limited. Also put the canvas on the floor give less stress to wrist. Many artists having wrist problem nowadays because it gives more tension to the wrist, also i like the way he expressed his art piece with strokes. It is really interesting and show there is no definition of good art or real standard of art.

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  19. Pollock achieved through a simple decision and action what so many artists wish they could accomplish. By laying his canvas horizontally and being able to step into the space of the painting he was able to enter the world of his artwork. So many of us paint and draw conceptual worlds and creatures that we idealize and desperately wish to be real. This is often an escape into worlds which we often dream of being real and Pollock was able to physically manifest the world he saw and journey into that space.

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  20. With the consideration of the medium in mind, Pollock discovered for himself the attributes of chance and harnessed it to its full potential. Paint drips, yet trails as soldiers following a commander without question. As he attacks the canvas, he finds precision and method while his army of paint roam and expand his territorial perspective. The index of the artist, his footprints and remnants act as evidence of his conquest.

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  21. I think if it worked for him and it did, then it was a good decision. He was able to express himself in a new and unique way. Sometimes the best art is created by taking the elements of the norm and rearranging them to fit the creators needs. Pollack knew he wanted to be different and he figured out a way to make a real statement. That is what makes his work so brilliant, along with his ability to make change and not care what anyone may think.

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  22. From a design standpoint, the first thing I consider when I think about the creation of an artwork is practicality. Because Pollock chose to work with such large canvases, I think it only made sense that he sought out an alternative to painting on an easel. I doubt that an easel would support the large canvas size and if it did, I don’t think it would allow him to reach the entire canvas and create large movements the way he wanted. The point is that he was involved in an explorative process and therefore approached the canvas, gestures, materials, and everything about the painting method in an unconventional manner. It was this rule-breaking mentality and the intimate relationship Pollock had with his canvas that set him apart from other artists of his time and allowed his legacy to be the remarkable thing that it is today.

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  23. I find it innovative that Pollock moved from a vertical to horizontal canvas. He transformed the boundaries of the process of composure of an art piece. Art and how it is created is constantly changing, I’m sure a traditional painter would frown upon Pollock’s Method. With this change, an artist can feel more involved or connected with his/her work. It also can change how the paint reaches or reacts with the canvas because of this new change.

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  24. Pollock’s decision to leave the easel was definitely a good one! When people think of paintings, they think of confined spaces that usually stand up on an easel. No one at the time thought about just laying raw canvas on the floor. His paintings are huge. Its only common sense to lay them out on the floor! Even if the canvas had stretcher bars. He can literally walk in and around his work. When I paint a certain subject, I get more acquainted with it the longer I work. His approach is more interactive, while I just look and study with my eyes. His expressiveness in his paintings show his interactions, such as footprints, cigarette buds, and more. He really left remnants of himself in his work and mistakes didn’t make or break him.

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