Jackson Pollock's 'Galaxy': Outer Space and Artist's Space in Abstract Expressionism

Kristen Hoving

Middlebury College

Among the early "breakthrough" paintings in Jackson Pollock's development of Abstract Expressionism is a small canvas entitled 'Galaxy.' Painted in 1947 with oil, aluminum paint, and gravel on canvas, it is an early example of the drip paintings for which the artist would become famous. With its overlapping skeins of paint, the work defies traditional Renaissance perspective systems in order to present an ambiguous sense of space that hovers simultaneously between the real  flat space of the two-dimensional canvas and the illusion of the infinite space of the cosmos. In this paper I will explore the importance of astronomical space and the night sky for the evolution of Pollock's mature style. By examining 'Galaxy,' together with two other canvases from 1947, 'Reflections of the Big Dipper' and 'Come,' I will argue that Pollock's thinking about what his colleague, painter Willem de Kooning, termed "the misery of the scientists' space [with] billions and billions of hunks of matter, hot or cold, floating around in darkness according to a great design of aimlessness," had a profound impact of Pollock's conception of space in painting.
In order to place Pollock's works in context, I will examine earlier uses of the night sky by artists striving toward a vocabulary of abstraction: Georgia O'Keefe's 'Starry Night' and series 'Light Coming on the Plain' (1917), Alfred Stieglitz's 'Equivalents' (1920s), Alexander Calder's 'Universe' (ca. 1934), Joan Miro's series 'Constellations' (1940-43), and David Smith's 'Star Cage' (1950). I will also position Pollock's paintings of astronomical themes against the presentation of astronomy in popular culture of the late 1940s and early 50s, especially in advertising, film, and popular music.
Finally, I will compare Pollock's representations of outer space to the works of his contemporaries, including de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, to demonstrate that Pollock's search for ways to, as he put it "express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio" led to new ways of conceiving artistic space through the metaphor of outer space.

[This paper would not lend itself to presentation in the form of a poster. Please also note that I am submitted two paper proposals, in hopes of having one accepted.]