Pollock: Blake’s 1949 Museum Design


Helen A. Harrison

The young architect Peter Blake (1920-2006) met the painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) in 1947 and was immediately drawn to the spatial expansiveness of Pollock’s compositions. The men became friends, and two years later Pollock asked Blake to help him install his annual solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City. Blake took the opportunity to include a proposal for what he characterized as an “ideal museum” to display Pollock’s work. With $100 contributed by their mutual friend, the artist and collector Alfonso Ossorio, Blake constructed a ½ inch = 1 foot scale model that was the centerpiece of Pollock’s 1949 exhibition.

Blake’s concept for the building was based on Mies van der Rohe’s 1942 project, Museum for a Small City—a horizontal, glass-walled design derived from Mies’ 1929 German Pavilion for the International Exposition in Barcelona. With Mies’ precedents in mind, Blake envisioned a 50 by 100-foot building in which Pollock’s paintings would be “suspended between the earth and the sky, and set between mirrored walls so as to extend into infinity.”[1]  Blake believed that, because Pollock’s sense of space was strongly influenced by his natural surroundings, his work should be seen in that setting. The museum was therefore designed to sit on the grounds of the artist’s home, so that, as Blake later wrote, “beyond these floating canvases would be the marshes and the inlets of The Springs,”[2] a rural hamlet in the Town of East Hampton, Long Island where Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner (1908-1984) had settled in 1945.

The original 1949 model was made by Blake himself, using glass, peg board, mirrors, perforated metal, and wood. It featured reproductions of Pollock’s paintings, including several of his innovative poured canvases as well as his more conventionally painted works. Color photographs were made, but without regard to the proportions of the original paintings. The smallest of the eight paintings reproduced, Number 24, 1949, a vertical painting only a foot tall, has been turned on its side and appears to be a mural-size canvas, while Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, in reality more than 18 feet long, is roughly the same width as Number 24, 1949 in the model. Only about half of Number 10, 1949, a narrow horizontal canvas nearly 9 feet long, was reproduced. Fidelity to the specific paintings was sacrificed in favor of effectively illustrating the design concept’s potential.

Blake had hoped that Pollock would take an active role in developing the museum proposal, but the artist contributed only passively, approving Blake’s suggestions but seemingly indifferent to the project. As the design took shape, Blake felt that it needed sculptural forms to punctuate the space. Pollock—who had studied sculpture early in his art training and created three-dimensional work intermittently throughout his career—agreed to make some small sculptures, although Blake recalled that he showed no real enthusiasm. A week or so later, however, much to Blake’s delight, Pollock presented him with three exquisite wire sculptures, dipped in plaster and spattered with color, that perfectly complemented the paintings and effectively animated the undecorated minimal architecture.[3]

In Blake’s project, some of Pollock’s paintings function as walls in their own right, supporting the plate glass roof and defining interior configurations. Pollock was in fact eager to work as a muralist. It had been six years since he completed his only mural (now owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art), commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim, and he aspired to work on a monumental scale in architectural settings. Both he and Blake hoped the “ideal museum” would establish his viability as a muralist, and when Blake took Marcel Breuer to see the model at the Betty Parsons Gallery, a mural commission for Breuer’s Bertram Geller House (1945) in Lawrence, Long Island was the result. (Installed as a room divider in 1950, the 6 by 8 foot painting was later sold separately from the house and is now in the collection of the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran.)

The model’s extensive use of glass walls and the notion of floating Pollock’s imagery also prompted the photographer Hans Namuth to have Pollock execute a painting directly on a sheet of plate glass for his 1950 film of the artist at work. As Blake wrote in his 1993 memoir, No Place Like Utopia, “Jackson and I discussed the possibility of painting on tempered glass so as to make the paint seem suspended in space, with views of the landscape through the painting’s surface and beyond.”[4]  In fact, when Pollock completed the painting for Namuth’s film, he held the glass vertically so the camera could record just such a combination of imagery, although that shot did not make the final cut.

In the January 1950 issue of Interiors magazine, Arthur Drexler’s article “Unframed space; a museum for Jackson Pollock’s paintings” discussed the concepts behind Blake’s design. Noting that Pollock’s painting often seem to end only “because there was no canvas left for more,” Drexler congratulated Blake for capitalizing on their open-ended character:

The paintings seem as though they might very well be extended indefinitely, and it is precisely this quality that has been emphasized in the central unit of the plan. Here a painting 17’ long [sic] constitutes an entire wall. It is terminated on both ends not by a frame or a solid partition, but by mirrors. The painting is thus extended into miles of reflected space, and leaves no doubt in the observer’s mind as to this particular aspect of Pollock’s work.

Drexler also commented favorably on the absence of conventional vertical partitions. “In its treatment of paintings as walls the design recalls an entirely different kind of pictorial art; that of the Renaissance fresco,” he wrote. He saw the project as a “reintegration of painting and architecture wherein painting is the architecture, but this time without message or content. Its sole purpose is to heighten our experience of space.” Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm for the concept’s plastic and spatial innovations, Drexler failed to recognize that Pollock’s imagery is rich with metaphysical meaning. In a 1950 handwritten statement, Pollock summarized the content of his work as “states of order —- organic intensity —- energy and motion made visible —- memories arrested in space, human needs and motives.”[5]

After the Betty Parsons exhibition, the model was taken to Pollock’s studio, where it can be seen in several of Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock painting One: Number 31, 1950 and Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950. It sat on a table under the north window until eventually it fell apart. The only surviving piece of the original model is one of the plaster-dipped wire sculptures, which Lee Krasner displayed for many years on the étagère in the parlor of the Springs home she had shared with Pollock. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

In 1994 Peter Blake authorized a replica, which was constructed under his supervision by architectural model maker Patrick Bodden. The three wire sculptures were reproduced by the artist Susan Tamulevich. The new model—made possible by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts—boasts upgraded materials, including an acrylic floor and Plexiglas walls, which were not available to Blake in 1949, but the original proportions and configuration have been retained. Also unchanged is the spirit of Blake’s design, which aimed to capture what he believed to be the essence of Pollock’s art—in his words, “a dream of endless, infinite space in motion.”[6]


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[1] Peter Blake, No Place Like Utopia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1993), 111.

[2] Ibid, 112.

[3] Peter Blake, typewritten statement, November 1993. Project files, Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York; conversation with the author, June 1994.

[4] Blake, No Place Like Utopia, 118.

[5] The original is pasted to the back of a Hans Namuth photograph of Pollock, in the Jackson Pollock papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Portraits-of-Jackson-Pollock-by-Hans-Namuth–286107

[6] Blake, No Place Like Utopia, 114.

Find more like this: Issue 1 Retrospective

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