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Blue Poles : A Drunken Treasure

Created by Jackson Pollock in the year 1952, Blue Poles, otherwise known as Number 11, stands solid at 2m*4m. It is an abstract expressionist painting, created with enamel and aluminum paint with glass, glazed uniquely over a canvas of an oddly larger size than normal. It was purchased amid controversy by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973 and today remains one of the gallery's major paintings but the journey that Blue Poles has taken is quite unique to the painting.

Blue Poles in The National Gallery of Australia

When Pollock first started the painting, it was commissioned to be a part of his exhibition and hence needed to be completed with the time frame of six months but as he got to it, Pollock initially did not like his own work and abandoned it for quite some time, only to find his way back to it in the later bit of 1952.

On noting a little further, Blue poles has quite a story behind it. According to Stanley Friedman, writing in New York magazine in 1973, Pollock’s friend Tony Smith had arrived at Pollock’s studio and found him severely depressed, so Smith started the painting to distract the artist from his thoughts at the time.

Both Pollock and Smith got extremely drunk during the painting session, and by the end of the evening they were smashing glass on the canvas and treading it in with their bare feet.

That’s where the footprint comes from. You can see shards of broken glass on the canvas if you see the actual painting. And no doubt there’s blood in there somewhere. It’s worth noting that Smith takes no credit for Blue poles; he only claims to have started the painting process and later, gave it the name, Blue Poles.

It was a year after Pollock's death, that the painting resurfaced and was purchased by Renowned art collector and supporter Ben Heller for a reported $32,000. Heller was friends with Pollock and patronized him and many other American artists during his lifetime. According to Heller's daughter, "He was very involved with this art movement from its early years, and there was a struggle among these American artists to gain recognition. Even in America, the European painters were getting all the attention and prestige. So, he worked very hard with the dealers and the painters and the museums to try to establish Abstract Expressionism as an important movement. It was very, very important to him that these major works land in major museums." This desire to have the work shared was one of the contributing factors to the sale of Blue Poles to the National Gallery of Australia in 1973.

Jackson Pollock working on Blue Poles,1952

The National Gallery of Australia purchased Blue Poles in 1973 for a $1.3 million. The gallery's director at the time, James Mollison, was not able to authorize purchases over $1 million, so the acquisition was approved by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

The painting has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, for both its value as a major work of 1950s abstract expressionism as well as its significance in Australian politics and history. For Australians, the purchase of Blue Poles is still frequently cited by the Labor Party faithful as proof of the wisdom of Gough Whitlam. Estimates of the painting's value vary widely, from $20 million to $100 million, but its increased value has still shown it to have been a worthwhile purchase by financial standards.

The purchase elicited a great deal of public discussion; according to art historian Patrick McCaughey, "never had such a picture moved and disturbed the Australian public". The debate centered on the painting's record selling price, at the time a world record for a contemporary American painting, as well as the perceived financial ineptitude of Whitlam's Labor Party government and debate over the relative value of abstract art. In the conservative climate of the time, the purchase created a political and media scandal, moreover created an uproar amongst it's Australian audience. Blue Poles still remains to be the country's one of the most prized possessions, which is safe to say, was birthed over a drunken adventure.


1. The Conversation (2015, December 9) | Here’s looking at: Blue poles by Jackson Pollock

2. The Prestige (2020, June 29) | On Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles

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