“Lavender Mist”: the Painting that Inspired the Play Title

The play Bakersfield Mist  gets its title from a famous painting by Jackson Pollock called Lavender Mist, now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

“It is impossible to make a forgery of Jackson Pollock’s work,” Time magazine critic Robert Hughes claimed in 1982. It is a telling comment that gets to the heart of Pollock’s authenticity as an artist.” Lavender Mist  about sums up his most ravishing, atmospheric painting….Pollock used the patterns caused by the separation and marbling of one enamel wet in another, the tiny black striations in the dusty pink, to produce an infinity of tones.”

“It is what his imitators could never do, and why there are no successful Pollock forgeries: they always end up looking like…spaghetti, whereas Pollock–in his best work–had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous; he would often retouch the drip with a brush.”

Art critic Clement Greenberg, Pollock’s friend and a champion of abstract expressionism, suggested the name Lavender Mist for the painting originally called Number 1, 1950. Greenberg’s more evocative title conveys the painting’s strong atmospheric effect, though there is no lavender on the canvas. The painting is composed primarily of white, blue, yellow, gray, umber, rosy pink, and black paint.

Lavender Mist is nearly 10 feet long, a vast expanse on a heroic scale. It is alive with colored scribble, spattered lines moving this way and that, now thickening, now trailing off to a slender skein. The eye is kept continually eager, not allowed to rest on any particular area. Pollock has put his hands into paint and placed them at the top right — an instinctive gesture eerily reminiscent of cave painters who did the same. The overall tone is a pale lavender, maide airy and active.

detail of Lavender Mist

Lavender Mist is one of Pollock’s most important “drip” paintings. It attests to the artist’s pure virtuosity of paint handling. One can trace his rhythmic movements in the long arcs, staccato dribbles, or coagulated pools of color that accrue into a rich, shimmering interlace. With only a few hues he achieved a soft tonal effect, not by the actual use of lavender but with aluminum and salmon-colored paint. The weave of long black and white strokes implies an inherent linear structure, but the “allover” composition exhibits an even density throughout, with no discernible focal points. Pollock, who spoke of being “in” his paintings, left very literal traces of his presence in the multiple handprints at the upper edges of the canvas.

Pollock’s daring abstract work legitimized the convergence and mastery of chance, intuition, and control. Layered skeins of paint generate beauty and order out of seemingly random gestures.

Pollock preferred the fluidity of commercial enamel house paints to the more viscous texture of traditional oils. This choice allowed him to weave a more intricate pictorial web, flinging swirls of paint onto the canvas.

The composition of Lavender Mist is defined by sweeping lines of dripped and splattered paint; a threadlike net that sweeps across and fills the entire canvas. Pollock’s traceries anchor the painting: their bending, attenuated strokes and vaulting black and white strands establish rhythmic unity.

Total physical involvement of the artist defines this “action painting.” Pollock spread canvas on the floor in his barn studio, or on the ground outside, and then splashed, dripped, and poured color straight from cans of commercial house paint. It was essential, he said, to “walk around it, work from all four sides, and be in the painting, similar to the Indian sand painters of the West.”

Pollock's handprints in Lavender Mist

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of Pollock’s visceral and dynamic involvement in the creation of Lavender Mist is the mark of his hands in the paint. These handprints not only serve as a primitive stamp of ownership and creativity, they also emphasize the flatness of the canvas, thus underscoring the nonillusionistic nature of Pollock’s art.

In the play Bakersfield Mist, the painting Lavender Mist — and Pollock’s handprints on it — is used by Maude Gutman as proof to art expert Lionel Percy that the painting she bought in a thrift store is an authentic priceless masterpiece by Jackson Pollock.

Is she right? Or just crazy? See the play and tell us what you think!

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