An Interview with Artist Bruce Pollock

February, 2009

Bruce Pollock has been exhibiting his abstract art for over 30 years. He received a BFA in Painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art in Cleveland, OH in 1976, and an MFA in Painting from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, PA in 1978. Pollock has received numerous grants and awards, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His work has been widely exhibited across the US, including in solo exhibitions in 2008 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, Wilmington, DE, and Gallery OneTwentyEight, New York City. Pollock’s work is represented in numerous public and private collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. He teaches painting in the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University in Philadelphia. He lives and works in Philadelphia.

Julie Karabenick: Your geometric shapes and structures feel organic.

Bruce Pollock: Im a keen observer of nature. Nature’s design intelligence and the rules that direct the growth of form are important sources for my work.

Red Square
Red Square, oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

Painting is an organic process. When working on a painting, it’s as if it were alive. The ideas and materials grow together, making something that didn’t exist before. When Jackson Pollock was asked about his concern for nature he replied, “I am nature.” I view my role in this way—not separate from nature, but in collaboration with it.

Yellow Square
Yellow Square, oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2007

The images of science, for example photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope or from electron microscopy, are fascinating to me. They show how utterly abstract reality is, how the scale of our common vision is but a small part of a much greater whole. This cosmographical perspective influences my work.

Eminence, oil on canvas, 137 x 112 cm (54 x 44 in), 2006

Through observation of nature at all scales I’m aware that there is a geometric reality that unites the micro- and macrocosms. The structure of this reality is expressed through the circles, spirals, hexagons and polyhedrons that form the building blocks of my paintings.

Yellow Drexel
Yellow Drexel, oil on canvas, 122 x 102 in (48 x 40 in), 2002

These building blocks are finite in number, but their possible combinations are infinite—like the way simple strands of genetic code produce limitless variations of species. With these basic archetypes I have formulated the language of my art.

JK: Many of your compositions are filled with tightly clustered, repeating forms.

Regulus, oil on canvas, 142 x 119 cm (56 x 47 in), 2004

BP: Nature’s geometry is fractal. Fractals are forms that retain the same structure when repeated at all levels of scale. They are self-organizing, which means that they can be scaled or nested one inside the other ad infinitum. You can see this in Yellow Dextral where circles fit within circles or in Regulus where hexagons fit within hexagons to form multi-faceted patterns. Most of my paintings from the past ten years have been built on a system of circles and hexagons that employs fractal geometry. The patterns formed by repeating circles or hexagons can be used alone or meshed together.

I’m concerned with the wholeness of the picture—how the whole is made up of smaller whole parts, and how these levels of wholeness go on to infinity.

JK: Are these organizing patterns invariant?

Flame Tree
Flame Tree, oil on canvas, 97 x 76 cm (38 x 30 in), 2000

BP: I’m inspired by nature’s caprice, its endless variations and improvisations. New variants like snowflakes are the rule, not the exception. My way of working has an organic structure; it’s intuitive, allowing the imagination to enter in at any point. To make a painting I must enter into a dialogue with nature, using my imagination to create as nature does.

JK: How would you characterize your decision-making as you paint?

BP: I liken my painting process to that of a mollusk creating its shell from the inside out. It slowly builds this spectacular form out of inner necessity without aesthetic concerns. When I begin a painting, I have only a vague conception of the outcome. The paint is applied in layers following an inner logic rather than imitating an external appearance. An art critic once referred to my process as “agglutination,” as if my painting were made by secreted paint.

Yellow Square
Yellow Square, oil on canvas, 89 x 89 cm (35 x 35 in), 2000

The material aspects of the painting process must complement the conceptual. I respect the natural and manmade materials from which the painting is made, spending years on some canvases.

JK: And your use of color?

BP: I have no set color system; color in my paintings is always evolving. I’m learning from the decisions I’ve made—it’s trial and error. I have to see how the color functions to know if it’s right. In many instances, this means repainting the whole thing over and over. Each painting is different. What works in one may not in another.

I work from the background forward. Once a background color is selected, the color of each new layer or shift in scale is a response to the experience of the preceding whole. I’m concerned with figure and pattern, with the push and pull of colors to enhance the perception of luminosity and spatial depth.

Beacon, oil on canvas, 142 x 119 cm (56 x 47 in), 2006

JK: Your paintings do suggest a deep space.

BP: I want the viewer to have an experience of the infinite. I use fractal patterns, spatial arrangements and color contrasts to excite the eye and to enhance the perception of three-dimensional space.

In many of my compositions, there’s a focal point in the center of the painting. In some instances, there’s a brightening of color or a convergence of the geometric pattern at this point. Moving out from the center, the pattern doesn’t stop at the edges of the canvas. The center is just a point in a spatial field that extends indefinitely—like the Hubble Space Telescope images that capture an exploding star or galaxy in the vast continuum of space. I want my paintings to have that kind of cosmic logic.

Red Line
Red Line, oil on canvas, 157 x 132 cm (62 x 52 in), 1999

In my recent Cluster paintings like Indigo Square, I favor the dynamic arrangement of a multiplicity of centers rather than a solitary focal point.

Indigo Square
Indigo Square, oil on canvas, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2008

JK: How do you begin your paintings?

BP: My paintings begin with drawing. I keep notebooks in which I sketch, make notes and collect images. They are for playing around with pencil and ink, not purposefully, but out of these puzzles, patterns and schemes come the ideas for paintings.

Notebook 2004
Pages from a notebook, 2004

The paintings evolve from these drawing ideas and take their own form as the paintings progress.

      Notebook 1994      Topo
Pages from a notebook, 1994Topo, oil on canvas, 91 x 81 cm (36 x 32 in), 1997

JK: And the notebooks also provide ideas for finished drawings?

BP: Around 2000 I began to consider drawings as completed works, not just studies for paintings. These drawings were based, like the paintings, on sketches in the notebooks, but I took them to degrees of greater complexity and finish.

Cubic 2, pencil and ink on paper,
43 x 36 cm (17 x 14 in), 2005
Astar, pencil and ink on paper,
36 x 25 cm (14 x 10 in), 2007

I’m working on flat surfaces so I’m thinking about surface tensions, for example how bubbles form over the surface of a pail of water or boiling water, or how the convoluted surface of a brain coral is formed by thousands of tiny polyps. Any illusions of spatial depth in the drawings are expressed through the scaling of geometric arrangements and figures.

The drawings are made with pencil and technical pens. With them I draw geometric motifs, the circular, hexagonal or polyhedral grids that are the basis of my work. I define a “pattern” as an array of units that are similar, but not identical, repeated, but not necessarily in a regular way, like ripples in sand or cellular organization in a leaf or cracking in a ceramic glaze.

Volute #2pen and ink on paper,
36 x 28 cm (14 x 11 in), 2003
Meristem, pen and ink on paper,
33 x 28 cm (13 x 11 in), 2006

JK: Turning to our childhood, did you grow up in an environment supportive to art and art making?

BP: I was born in rural Ohio. I was an imaginative child, bored with school, but very curious about the nature of the land I was born onto. There were no artists in my family, but throughout school, I was fortunate to have art classes and teachers who recognized my ability and gave me direction.

I began to draw seriously when I was about 14. I wanted to draw like Leonardo da Vinci. Drawing was a way to observe and discover. I became skillful at drawing natural and architectural subjects. Andrew Wyeth was also an influence in these years.

JK: You attended the Cleveland Institue of Art, receiving a BFA in 1976.

BP: As an undergraduate, I learned to paint traditional subjects. Gradually I moved to abstraction, experimenting with different abstract styles and strategies for applying paint and color to the canvas. My advisor was Julian Stanczak, a practitioner of Optical painting and student of Joseph Albers.

In the work of Klee, Kandinsky, Gorky and the Surrealists, I found that a painter could be a visionary, seeing beyond tangible surfaces, exploring unknown spaces. This is still my objective as a painter.

JK: You received an MFA in Painting from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1978.

BP: I spent time on the Tyler School of Art’s campus in Rome, Italy before returning to Philadelphia to finish my degree. In graduate school, I leaned toward sculpture. There were many ideas in the air. Italo Scanga was an influential teacher. I found a small studio off campus and began to construct things and paint them.

The Blocks represent the culmination of the work I began at Tyler. I had little money, so I was using found materials. The Blocks were constructed from crate wood salvaged from outdoor markets and discontinued or discarded enamel paints. The painted surfaces and architectural forms of urban and roadside buildings were my inspiration.

5 Block Group
5 Block Group, wood and enamel polychrome,
each approximately 15 x 15 x 15 cm (6 x 6 x 6 in), 1982

The Blocks were painted with numerous layers of enamels and then sanded down to reveal a prismatic polychrome. The forms were basic like the bare geometric forms of Minimalist sculpture. But where Minimalist work was slick and industrial, I wanted the forms to look naturalized and timeless, like a universe concentrated and scaled down to toy size.

8 Block Group, wood and enamel polychrome,
each approximately 15 x 15 x 15 cm (6 x 6 x 6 in), 1982

The Blocks gradually became more eccentric shapes referring less to architectural norms.

3 Block group
3 Block Group, wood and enamel polychrome,
each approximately 
30 x 30 x 13 cm (12 x 12 x 5 in), 1983

JK: The nature of your forms changed strikingly in your next series of wood scuptures.

BP: The Helixes came about by taking the flat pentagonal faces used to construct the Blocks and arranging them on a center axis. The Blocks were closed-in spaces; I wanted to make a structure that was open and expansive. The expression of movement and time in the Helixes—like stop action photographs—was an exciting discovery.

Helix Bluebird
Helix Bluebirdwood and enamel polychrome,
61 x 41 x 13 cm (24 x 16 x 5 in), 1983

I began the Helixes by making the planar faces of the blocks irregular, repeating and overlapping them to form fan-like structures. The Helixes are painted to emphasize the motion dynamics of the form. The single Helixes were wing-like, so I gave them bird names like Bluebird. I painted them as I did the Blocks with many layers of enamels, naturalizing the surfaces through repeated sanding and distressing to avoid a slick look.

Simple fan-like structures like Bluebird, above, evolved into more complex Double Helixes. With these double forms I’d taken the Helixes to their formal conclusion.

Double HelixDouble Helix Heart
Double Helix, wood and enamel polychrome,
64 x 61 x 20 cm (25 x 24 x 8 in), 1985
Double Helix Heart, wood and enamel polychrome,
61 x 46 x 20 cm (24 x 18 x 8 in), 1984
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