The Importance and Unexpected Legacy of Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles

Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, on how the purchase of one painting in the 70s is still having a ripple effect on art curation trends today.

Article by Nick Mitzevich

National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich with, from left, Donald Judd’s Untitled, Jackson Pollock's Blue poles, Lee Krasner's Cool white and Tony Tuckson’s Red on blue and white.

I was an 18-year-old university student clutching my well-worn copy of Robert Hughes’ “The Shock of the New” when I first visited the National Gallery of Australia and saw “Blue poles”. While I had learnt all about Jackson Pollock, it wasn’t until I saw the power of the painting, the magnetism of the surface and the scale of the work that I truly appreciated it. And there were others, too, like Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair” and Willem de Kooning’s “Woman V” – standing in front of these works helped me understand something more, and really grounded my knowledge of the power of art.

When the National Gallery of Australia first acquired “Blue poles” in 1973 there was an outcry – at US$2 million (then A$1.3 million), it was the highest price paid for an American work of art at the time – yet it firmly cemented our Trans-Pacific cultural relations. Then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam helped fuel the debate when he declared: “Buy it and disclose the price”, and Ben Heller – the New York collector who originally owned the painting – later claimed the acquisition was “a mark of Australia joining Western culture”.

Jackson Pollock, Blue poles, 1952, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1973 © Pollock- Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency

It was an era when Australia and America enjoyed a strong political and geographical alliance and when the Gallery’s founding Director James Mollison began curating the national collection, which now houses the strongest body of mid-20th Century American Abstract Expressionist art outside of the United States and the largest collection of Australian First Nations art in the world. Four decades on, curating the Towards Abstraction display of our collection highlights and considering where we would move Blue poles, I was taken back to these foundations. The result is a display of international works that includes Australian artists. After all, we are part of the global cultural community.

In our collection you can see Australian artists such as Emily Kngwarreye (Anmatyerre people), Fred Williams, Rosalie Gasgoigne and Tony Tuckson in the context of Americans, including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko. Pollock and Kngwarreye were in fact born only two years apart but were from opposite worlds – literally and figuratively. Pollock, the poster boy for American Abstract Expressionism and Kngwarreye, the key figure of First Nations Western Desert Art. Yet today their works hang metres from each other, opening up a fascinating cultural conversation within the gallery walls.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Anmatyerre people), Seeds of abundance, 1990, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1991. © Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Copyright Agency.

It is interesting to think that back in the 1970s when the National Gallery acquired “Blue poles”, in Central Australia Kngwarreye was immersed in the Utopia Women’s Batik Group, in the process of transitioning her practice from batik to acrylic paint. She was on the road to becoming one of the country’s most prolific, and acclaimed, artists.

In 1988 – the same year Kngwarreye painted her first canvas – an exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art at the Asia Society in New York broke attendance records, fuelling America’s ongoing embrace of Australian First Nations artists. The following year the New York Times printed a feature detailing the explosion in popularity in the United States of First Nations art and delved into the foundation of the Papunya Tula Art Movement – a style compared to Western Modernism – labelling the women artists from those communities the “Lee Krasners and Elaine de Koonings” of the Central Desert.

An installation view of Know My Name: Australia Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition featuring the Tjanpi Desert Weaver’s Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) sculptural work.

Art transcends borders. And we are a Gallery without borders in Australia. Now, more than ever, as our physical international borders remain closed, we need to maintain a global dialogue, both on our exhibition walls and beyond.

This year, we have enjoyed a strong partnership with the National Gallery of London for our “Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery of London” exhibition, which runs until June 14 alongside our “Know My Name: Australian women artists 1900 to now” exhibition. That’s 500 years of European art history adjacent to over 120 years of Australian women artists. The Know My Name gender equity initiative and exhibition are part of a global movement to increase the representation of women artists and build on the work of groups supporting gender equity across the arts including the #5WomenArtists campaign by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles being lowered from the apartment of Ben Heller in New York City in 1974 ahead of it’s long journey to Canberra.

I last travelled overseas in 2019 for a showcase of the “Blue poles” documentary at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Our event was held just blocks from where the Pollock canvas had stopped traffic in 1974 when it was lowered from Ben Heller’s apartment via ropes and pulleys out of a window high above Central Park West to begin its long journey to Canberra. Around the same time Blue poles was crossing the Pacific on an Australian Navy aircraft carrier bound for the National Gallery of Australia, new cultural ties between America and Australia were being formed in New York through our non-profit foundation, the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia (AFNGA). The AFNGA has a mission of cultural enrichment, a bridge between New York’s financial and philanthropic society to not only help build our national collection but continue to strengthen cultural bonds between Australia and the United States.

It is these global connections that help the National Gallery of Australia maintain our very clear mandate to be an important reference point for art across the world and, most importantly, to elevate Australian art and artists.