Dancing to Jackson Pollock: Exploring Multi-Modal Responses to Art

Originally posted on ArtMuseumTeaching.com on February 5, 2012 – the site’s inaugural post. 

As schools and museums work to meet the demands of the 21st century, there has been a renewed emphasis on developing an interdisciplinary culture of inquiry where teachers and students integrate insights and modes of thinking. Through my own teaching practice, I have frequently explored ways in which interdisciplinary inquiry can occur in the art museum, considering productive ways that we might bring musical, kinesthetic, and linguistic modes of thinking to the act of interpreting and making meaning of a work of visual art.  Responding to a single work of art through a process that involves multiple modes of thinking from across creative art forms, I continue to consider how each strategy makes meaning and asks questions in a different way–ultimately seeing how these approaches can be woven together to build toward more complex cognition as well as a deeper understanding of not just the artwork, but also of ourselves as learners/thinkers.

In November 2011, I led an in-gallery workshop for teachers at the High Museum of Art as part of the Project Zero/CASIE conference. The experiences centered around an extended engagement with  Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A,” 1948, which was on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a special exhibition.

LOOKING: Bringing the group’s attention to Pollock’s painting before us, we spent some time looking and recording our initial observations and wonderings.  Since part of the goal of this workshop was to connect to Project Zero’s work (via Ron Ritchhart) with “making thinking visible,” participants were encouraged to record their thoughts and responses in a journal throughout the entire engagement with this painting.

SKETCHING WITH LINES & LANGUAGE: I framed the next stage of our experience with this painting around the ideas of Jack Kerouac, an experimenter of spontaneous language as well as a contemporary of Jackson Pollock.  In his “Essential of Spontaneous Prose” (1959), Kerouac writes that “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words.”  This near-manifesto of spontaneous written response inspired me to develop some way for participants to be “swimming in a sea of language,” in Kerouac’s words, with the painting by Pollock. This process began with everyone drawing 2 or 3 significant lines that they find in the painting, then completing their “sketches” using only language and words. Following Kerouac’s method, there was no editing — just writing in a constant flow.

MAKING THE PAINT COME ALIVE THROUGH SOUND: Exploring Pollock’s canvas through sound originated in my own heightened interest in Pollock’s own passion and association with jazz music. Lee Krasner once remarked that Pollock thought that jazz “was the only other really creative thing that was happening in this country.” For the next phase of this workshop, we turned the gallery into a ‘sound lounge,’ breaking into small groups and experimenting with the spectrum of sounds we could create with just our bodies and the stuff in our purses, bags, and pockets. Each group was asked to create a sound composition in response to the painting. This ‘found sound’ exercise became a way of pulling out the basic structures of the painting that have a relationship with our sense of perceiving rhythms, tempos, and more improvisational structures embedded in the paint.

We finished this exercise with a quick reflection — what did people notice about this activity, and about the sounds each group performed?  Participants noticed that the sounds created were very rhythmic and controlled, despite the seemingly chaotic and disorderly nature of the painting. Others noted that this exercise allowed them to respond to the painting in ways not possible through words alone — that this acoustic response tapped into a new, almost unconscious element of the artwork as well as the creative process.

performing the sounds of the painting

MINING THE LAYERS OF PAINT THROUGH MOVEMENT: Examining a Jackson Pollock gesture-field painting without kinesthetic thinking would seem inadequate, especially if we think of the famous Hans Namuth films of Jackson Pollock dancing around his canvases, dripping paint across their surfaces. Dance critic Roger Copeland actually called Namuth’s film of Pollock “one of the world’s most significant dance films,” demonstrating that “the fundamental impulse behind abstract expressionism was the desire to transform painting into dancing.”

For this workshop, I decided to model various types of dynamic movement response, inviting volunteers to come to the front and improvise with the painting — then asking each small group to create a dynamic, three-dimensional moving response to the painting (adding words and sounds as needed).  Becoming the layers of paint allowed us to pull them apart, get inside them, and use our bodies to make meaning.

volunteers creating 3 types of dynamic movement

We let the group performances speak for themselves, not overtalking them or reducing these personal and embodied meanings to a set of art historical associations with Pollock and his process — and I will refrain from overtalking them here, as well.  Yet a key goal for this workshop was for teachers to become expressive participants in an artistic experience, pushing beyond mere “spectating” or “learning at a glance” toward something more aligned with enhanced engagement or participatory arts practice in which the creative mind is activated and the focus shifts from the product to the process of creation.

SO WHAT? ENVISIONING INTERDISCIPLINARY WORK IN THE CLASSROOM: With the few minutes we had remaining, I felt compelled to deal with the “so what?”  Why did we just do this?  In what ways might we bring this experience back to our own spaces of learning (museums, classrooms, etc.)? Much of our discussion centered around what interdisciplinary learning looks like: connected, collaborative, free, lots of parts coming together as a whole, and building toward something more meaningful.  The best culminating moment for me was when one teacher said that he felt the whole experience was about “synergy.”

The last few remarks before the workshop ended inspired us to wonder what Jackson Pollock had actually taught us about learning.  Weren’t the layers and topographies of this painting paralleled in our own landscapes of learning, and in this multidimensional and multi-modal experience with this painting.  I think we all left the workshop feeling that Pollock’s “Number 1A” was an essential part of the conversation about learning, and building to learn.

The workshop ended with the words of choreographer Merce Cunningham — click here for the quote.

6 thoughts on “Dancing to Jackson Pollock: Exploring Multi-Modal Responses to Art”

  1. It is a good way to engage people into the learning of the work. In the process of participating, people bring in new ideas even they themselves did not know before. Maybe some meditation would also serve as a way of understanding and open up discussion.

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