My Jackson Pollock experience

Pollock’s “One: November 31, 1950”

 I’ve told this story before and I’m sure it means nothing to anyone but me. It’s about an amazing moment I had in college.

My art class was on a trip to the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in case you’ve somehow never heard of this world landmark. That day I could feel a migraine coming. If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know the signs of one coming on, and you dread it. But I couldn’t get out of this trip, so I popped some aspirin and soldiered on.

While I still could, I enjoyed the museum. I love going to museums of all kinds, and I really enjoy art museums. But, try as I might, I couldn’t avoid the migraine. It came on full force, including pale skin and cold sweats. I told my classmates to go without me and I’d see them later on the bus. I sat down in one gallery room of abstract works. One I remember was a large portrait shape rectangle that was painted a solid blue. That’s it. It had a title card, but I don’t recall what it said. Let’s just say in my current condition I really didn’t care.

The room was pretty empty, so I sat down on a bench and stared into nothingness, focusing neither near nor far. After a few moments I became aware of the large landscape rectangle mounted on the wall across from me. As my eyes began to focus, it filled my distorted field of vision. I knew it was a Jackson Pollock work because no one did what he did. What he did, exactly, I have no idea. I always joked that his works looked like painters’ drop cloths. Splatters and swirls and drips. Really? That’s art? So this painting (which I’ve since learned is titled One: Number 31, 1950) gradually absorbed my consciousness. Or my consciousness absorbed the painting. One of those things, or maybe both of them.

My head was pounding, my vision blurred. I wanted nothing else at that moment but to crawl into a dark hole and sleep. I was focused on this damned painting. How long had I stared at it? No idea. But at some point–FLASH! ZAP!–it happened.

I got it.

That sounds odd doesn’t it? But in that moment, I understood what Pollock was doing. I could see the depth and the movement of the painting. I understood its construction. The colorful overlapping paint drips and swirls gave it dimension. I could see into the painting through its many layers. “FLASH! ZAP!” is no exaggeration. Something literally happened in my head–an intense pain and a brief flash. My head “buzzed” for lack of a better term. It was as much a physical experience as a psychological experience. I “felt it” on multiple levels. Like a light bulb flashed in my head. Without putting too fine a point on it, I can only call it a moment of enlightenment.

Coincidentally–or not–my migraine began to lift. I say “or not” because some part of me believes that the “moment of enlightenment” experience triggered a chemical or electrical reaction in my brain that made the headache subside. I have no proof of this, of course, only my personal experience of what happened in conjunction with my Pollock moment.

I eventually got up and headed off to find my classmates. I don’t remember much more of the day, except getting on the bus and riding home, feeling dazed and foggy after the migraine, but overall much improved. The Pollock experience stayed with me during this time.

But then, after I had some rest and felt back to normal, the feeling of enlightenment left me. I found the painting in an art book at the library (pre-internet, so there was no Google images or anything to rely on). It looked, once again, like a painter’s drop cloth. I couldn’t reconnect to the feeling at all. That bothered me–I had a brief transformative moment that I’ve never had before–that I couldn’t get back.

Some years later, my wife and I were browsing in Borders books one evening and I came across a coffee table book of abstract art. The painting was in there, and I showed it to my wife. I tried to explain, not very well I’m afraid, the experience I had that day. I told her about the migraine and the experience of seeing the painting, and feeling a “connection” to it. It sounded as crazy to me then as I’m sure it did to her.

Nearby was a guy who was also browsing. He came over and said, “I couldn’t help overhearing your story. Do you know anything about Jackson Pollock?”  I told him I didn’t. “If you read about his life, it might help you understand why you had that experience,” he said, knowingly. Then he left.

What was it about Pollock’s life that would give me answers? Was he insane? Did the migraine open up, for a brief moment, a window into my own insanity? Is that why I understood him? I think most of us, especially in times of stress, think we might be “losing our minds” when things go out of control. I know a bunch of migraine sufferers who would likely agree that an attack makes them feel they are not in their right minds.

I don’t have the answers. I have not read up on Pollock, as suggested, other than a few superficial encyclopedia entries that didn’t reveal much of anything. Certainly the man had problems. He was said to have a volatile temper that was compounded by alcoholism–two things that don’t apply to me. So what was it? To this day, I don’t know, and it just might be better left unexplored and unexplained.


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