Action and Abstraction
Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” and Photography

In his painting, Jackson Pollock wanted to make energy visible. Just how he does this is illustrated by his masterpiece “Mural,” which is currently on exhibit at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. One of his most important sources of inspiration was “action photography.” Achim Drucks on a group of photographers who influenced Pollock’s painting and many other works in the Deutsche Bank Collection.
The modern age was the epoch of rapid technological progress and acceleration. This phenomenon posed challenges to avant-garde artists. In the Manifesto of Futurism from 1909, it says: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car ... is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.“ The aim was to create a kind of art that was just as topical as the latest technological advancements. It is also thanks to the Futurists that the ideal medium was created to capture the energy and spirit of renewal of this era – film. But what about photography? How can a static medium depict motion?

In 1943, the Museum of Modern Art in New York provided answers to this question with an exhibition titled Action Photography. Science and technology, dance and sports, as well as the wars being waged in Europe and Asia at the time provided dynamic motifs that were captured by means of high-speed photography or snapshots. Action photographers recorded the fraction of a second when a bullet was shot out of a revolver barrel. Or they photographed the movement of a beam of light in a darkened room. Due to long exposure times, it appears as an abstract web of lines.

In addition to long exposure times, the stroboscope technique was extremely popular in action photography. It enables the photographer to document different phases of a sequence of motion in one photo. Thus, in Alfred Hitchcock During the Filming of Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gjon Mili had the corpulent star director march through the picture gesticulating wildly fives times in succession. This photograph from the MoMA show is now on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle as part of the Mural exhibition. The show around Pollock’s largest painting illustrates that this masterpiece was influenced not only by Mexican Muralismo and the fragmented shapes in Picasso’s Cubist paintings, but also by “Action Photography.” Hence Gjon Milis’ Hitchcock, striding out of the picture to the left, looks like a preliminary study for Mural. Pollock’s totem-like figures also march toward the left in the painting, and their bodies aching to the front suddenly seem like an echo of the director’s fat stomach.

Naturally, Pollock was not only interested in representing purely physical movement. While Hitchcock brought fears and obsessions to the screen in his films, Pollock transported the unconscious to his canvas. Thus, it is no accident that he dealt in depth with the ideas of the psychoanalyst C. G. Jung. “The modern artist,” said Pollock, “is expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces.” Indeed, the subtitle of the exhibition at the KunstHalle is Energy Made Visible. Pollock’s painting shares this objective with action photography. Tellingly, the MoMA show in 1943 was on view during the very weeks in which Pollock worked on Mural. In his catalog accompanying the exhibition in Berlin, curator David Anfam meticulously shows how much the painter was influenced by these photographs. He devotes a significant part of the show to photography, presenting not only the pictures shown in New York back in the forties, but also works by predecessors and photographers who investigated movement and abstraction in the years following World War II.

Eadweard Muybridge is regarded as the most important pioneer of motion photography. The show at the KunstHalle includes his series of photographs of a man jumping from his 1887 portfolio Animal Locomotion. The influence of this illustrated book should not be underestimated. Thanks to Muybridge’s photographic sequences, movement processes could be studied in detail for the first time. He proved that a galloping horse really lifts all four legs off the ground at the same time, thus ending a long quarrel among scientists. The camera sees more than the human eye. This visual repertoire not only influenced Degas’ ballet studies and Duchamp’s legendary painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), which shows a human figure in different, overlapping phases of movement. A minimal artist such as Sol LeWitt was also a fan. He was particularly enthusiastic about the “logic of the serial image.” Jürgen Klauke’s conceptual photography is also in the tradition of these series of pictures. In works like Formalisierung der Langeweile (Formalized Boredom, 1980) from Deutsche Bank Collection, Klauke captures absurd rituals in sequences similar to the ones in which Muybridge captured people and animals in motion.

In addition to scientific photography, the European avant-garde also provided important impetus for action photography. An example at the KunstHalle are Cami Stone’s photographs of Berlin at night from 1929. The lights of the big city transform into glistening lines and hatches. These pictures express a progressive, urban aesthetics. Stone was also represented in Here comes the new photographer! in 1929. This photo book propagates the New Vision, a type of photography influenced by Constructivism and the Bauhaus that works with hard contrasts between light and shadow, distortions and reductions. Everyday motifs become abstract compositions; machines and big cities, science and technology are celebrated. A mechanical device seems to be the perfect tool for capturing the modern world.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s artistic work was also buoyed by this enthusiasm for progress and technology. With his Light-Space Modulator from 1930, he literally sets sculpture in movement. He also continually took new paths in photography. In works from the Deutsche Bank Collection made in the 1920s, he uses extreme perspectives to distort impressions of streets and landscapes. He began experimenting with color film back in the 1930s. One of these photographs is on view at the KunstHalle. The frenzied red and white lines of the neon signs and headlights in this night scene, probably captured in New York, seem to anticipate Pollock’s Action Paintings.

It is such correspondences that make the photographic works at the KunstHalle so exciting. Their themes and visual language can be pursued further up to contemporary art, and can also be found in numerous photographs from the Deutsche Bank Collection – above all with artists who engage with the legacy of modernism. Hence although Günter Förg employs the aesthetics of the “New Vision” in his photographs of Bauhaus or Russian avant-garde architecture, he also focuses on their deteriorating facades. Markus Amm’s luminograms from 2005 are a response to Moholy-Nagy’s famous photograms. Both techniques are possible without using a camera. But Amm takes the reduction of means even further, doing without the objects, which in the production of a photogram are placed directly on the light-sensitive film. He works exclusively with light and photo paper, producing pictures whose Constructivist shapes seem to dissolve like the myth of modernism.
Back in the 1940ties, Jackson Pollock had a personal link to the progressive tendencies in Europe: the Swiss photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter, who worked in New York for magazines such as Vogue and Arts & Architecture. The wives of the two artists, the painters Lee Krasner and Mercedes Carles, met in 1936, in jail of all places, where they had ended up after a demonstration. Pollock and Matter became close friends thereafter. Matter is also prominently represented in the MoMA show, another indication that Pollock saw “Action Photography.”

Matters contribution, Mobile in Motion, was inspired by Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures. But the fragile “mobile,” made of wire and metal plates, helped the photograph achieve a completely new effect using the stroboscope technique. In this photograph, Calder’s turning objects look like a spiral nebula hovering in space. Peter Keetman’s Plastic Vibrations have a similar cosmic effect. They were created with the simplest of means – a rotating flashlight and a camera mounted on a turning record player. Yet the result is extremely precise: The white spirals look like the photographer visualized a mathematical formula. Keetman’s abstract light drawings appear to move like virtual diagrams in a black infinity. The Futurists would have loved the technoid aesthetics. Long before computer art and the digital revolution, these photographs seem to anticipate the future.

Jackson Pollock’s “Mural”: Energy Made Visible
11/25/2015 – 4/10/2016
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle