Pollack, O’Hara, Kahlo: Waking to the Plain

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1932.  Carl Van Vechten photograph collection (Library of Congress), reproduction number LC-USZ62-42516 DLC (b&w film copy neg.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1932. Carl Van Vechten photograph collection (Library of Congress), reproduction number LC-USZ62-42516 DLC (b&w film copy neg.
A talk I gave at The National Gallery of Ireland, November 23, 1991. Please click on the relevant links. NB. Obviously, given the date, the videos below were not part of the talk…

I became interested in the painter Jackson Pollock through a poet, Frank O’Hara. They were both Americans, and oddly enough, both died in car crashes.

Like a former director of this gallery, Thomas MacGreevy, O’Hara was a poet who had a deep and professional interest in painting. Amongst other institutions O’Hara worked for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many of his friends were painters, and some, including Larry Rivers, illustrated his books.

He is one of the most amusing poets I know, and I would like to quote a favourite and hopefully apposite poem called Why I am not a Painter

The New Spanish Painting and Sculpture and Jackson Pollock, published in 1959, are just two of his publications on art. Of course I had previously seen many photos of Pollock’s work, but it was the O’Hara Monograph which sparked my interest and which eventually led to the small poem called Prophet, which largely depends on an O’Hara quote from the monograph, which is: ‘In the state of spiritual clarity, there are no secrets.’

When I look into the abyss of The Deep I find it a paradoxically fearful and peaceful experience. But stripped of any symbolism, I think it is in itself a beautiful painting, and achieves what painting is best at doing, that is to say, it achieves beauty on its own terms, those of colour and composition, without necessarily having a subject or theme. In other words, he has achieved a state of spiritual clarity, which can either mean that there are no secrets, basically, or that in this state, all secrets are revealed. This dilemma is constantly present in contemplating The Deep, to my mind.

Image: Number One 1949

A few years back, and maybe it still continues, there was a vogue for comparing the findings of quantum physics with eastern philosophies and religions. Such books as The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters made quantum physics seem not only comprehensible, but spiritual too. The Wu Li book is particularly interesting, if only for its title. Chinese syllables can apparently be pronounced in several different ways, depending on the meaning. To cut a long story short, there are several meanings for Wu Li in this context, which includes Patterns of Energy – the Chinese way of saying ‘Physics’. Other meanings include ‘My Way‘, ‘Nonsense‘, ‘I clutch my Ideas‘ and ‘Enlightenment‘, where, in the latter case, wu means ‘My heart,’ or my mind.’

End of Chinese lesson.

It seems to me that any or all of these meanings could be applied to the masterpieces of Jackson Pollock. Moreover, they seem to me reminiscent of the restless sub-atomic world as I understand it, in which case the artist has envisaged the sub-atomic world before the scientist, and is in this sense a prophet.

Image: White Cockatoo

And whether I’m being totally fanciful or not, it also seems to me that in The White Cockatoo he closed his eyes and travelled inward until he came to a group of nerve cells in his brain in which was entangled the lost memory of a white cockatoo.


When he closed his eyes

he saw The White Cockatoo,

forgotten in the ganglia.

Pressing them further closed,

tension induced a magnified

print of connective tissue,

which he dripped onto canvas,

scattering electrons in fright.

He saw what physicists

would predict and measure.

‘In the state of spiritual

clarity there are no secrets,’

wrote Frank O’Hara of Pollock.

In The Deep, there are no secrets.

Pollack was deeply interested in the great Mexican muralists Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, and in Rivera’s dictum that art should express the ‘new order of things … and that the logical place for this art, … belonging to the populace, was on the walls of public buildings.’ O’Hara suggests that this statement may have somehow pointed the way to the heroic scale of his later masterpieces.

Image: Self Portrait, 1947

Diego Rivera was married, twice, to the much younger Frida Kahlo.

This is The Two Fridas, one of many paintings which document their tempestuous relationship. Although she always claimed that she was born during the Mexican revolution of 1910, she was born in 1907, and christened Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon. Her first two names were given to Frida so that she could be baptized with a Christian name. The third, the one her family used, means ‘peace’ in German – her paternal grandparents were German. One of her maternal grandparents was Indian, a fact which was most important in her life and art.

At the age of six, she contracted polio in her right leg, but the event which transformed her life and gave the world such a rich legacy occurred on September 17, 1925, when Kahlo suffered horrendous injuries in a road accident.

Image: The Broken Column

I’ll spare you the bizarre details, which are given in Hayden Herrera’s biography, FRIDA. Suffice to mention that her spinal column was broken in three places; her collarbone was broken, and her third and fourth ribs. Her right leg had eleven fractures and her right foot was dislocated and crushed. Her left shoulder was out of joint, her pelvis broken in three places.’

Image: El Autobus

Now I knew nothing of all of this when I first became fascinated with Frida Kahlo. As is alluded to in Waking To The Plain, (which was originally called Homage to Kahlo) I first heard of her through an artist friend, who happens to share with me a significant experience of hospital. We were discussing pain, and she recommended that I should look up Kahlo’s paintings.

Image: Tree of Hope

Image: Without Hope

Of course I was very interested in her account of Kahlo, and I fully intended to investigate further, but the truth is I forgot all about it. Until a few months later that is, when I received a very excited letter from a close friend in Berlin. Enclosed were black and white copies of several Kahlo self-portraits and my friend knew me well when she predicted my interest in them.

Image: Self Portrait 1926

Shortly after this, I met a Mexican, and – you’ve guessed it – she loved Frida’s work and knew a great deal about her. She also spoke about the difference of colours in Mexico and Europe.

Image: The Love Embrace of the Universe

So now, three women, within a very short space of time, had come to me with the gift of Frida Kahlo. It was as if I hadn’t taken the hint on the first or second occasion, and now the gods were sending me a third messenger to make sure I got the message. I had already begun the first of many, many drafts of a poem which I hoped would lead me to the core of what was for me an enigma. (return to slide of ‘The Tree of Hope’) Even without their emotionally-charged colour, I was fascinated, particularly by The Tree of Hope. Now, I know there is a powerful feminine presence in this painting which transcends the self-portrait, and that is part of its attraction for me, even though, insofar as I am a man, it excludes me in a sense; but it also vividly states a personal and universal experience of which up to then I had only been vaguely aware.

Image: Tree of Hope. Now, I know there is a powerful feminine presence in this painting which transcends the self-portrait, and that is part of its attraction for me, even though, insofar as I am a man, it excludes me in a sense; but it also vividly states a personal and universal experience of which up to then I had only been vaguely aware.

As I thought about this talk, it seemed that there was a link between several of the paintings I wanted to explore, both those of Pollock and Kahlo. I’m thinking of the tension created by the presence of opposing ideas or states, and nowhere is this more graphically illustrated than in The Tree of Hope, where defeat and triumph are simultaneously present. It is, I suppose, a very Christian idea; in any event, I find it a haunting image.

A year earlier, in 1945, she had painted the heart-rending Without Hope. Perhaps more than any work of art I know, this goes to the core of the despair which is the inevitable visitor to those who suffer chronic illness and pain. However, on closer observation, there is a glimmer of hope. Her specially-constructed easel is on her sick bed, and it was on this, with the aid of a mirror, she painted many of her of her self-portraits, and this is a partial explanation of why she was herself her principal subject.

As I mentioned earlier, Kahlo developed a system whereby an emotion or state corresponded to a particular colour. If I could quote her biographer Hayden Herrera:

“The self-portraits from 1940 also show clearly the degree to which Frida had by this time grasped the power of colour to communicate emotion. To eyes accustomed to the French tradition in the visual arts, Frida’s colour choices – olive, orange, purple, many earthy tones, and a hallucinatory yellow – are jarring. Although her bizarre palette reflects her love of the untutored colour combinations in Mexican popular art, Frida cunningly makes colour set off psychological drama. Pink is often used in ironic contrast to violence or death; in several self-portraits (slide The Little Deer) a yellow olive accentuates the feeling of claustrophobic oppression; (slide Henry Ford Hospital) the grey-blue of Frida’s skies and the lavender or burnt sienna of her earth give an edge to the expression of alienation and despair. Since not much black is used to model forms, her paintings often have a visionary brilliance.’

And here is an extract from her diary in the mid-nineteen forties:

Green: warm and good light.

Yellow: madness, sickness, fear. Part of the sun and joy.

Cobalt blue: electricity and purity. Love.

Black: nothing is black, really nothing.

Leaf Green: Leaves, sadness, science. The whole of Germany is this colour.

Greenish Yellow: more madness and mystery. All the phantoms wear suits of this colour… or at least underclothes.

Dark Green: colour of bad news and good business.

Navy blue: distance. Also tenderness can be of this blue.

Well, to quote from Waking to the Plain, there is bad news and good business in The Henry Ford Hospital. The bad news is that, because of the damage done to her pelvis in her accident, Frida is enduring yet another miscarriage, and the profound grief that, naturally, caused her. In the background one can see industrial Detroit, which was then dominated by Henry Ford’s factories which were producing babies of a kind – the Baby Ford car, illustrating yet again her black humour.

This, Self Portrait with Monkey, 1940, is Frida some eight years later, which she painted in a hotel room in New York for a wealthy collector, Conger Goodyear, and which graces the cover of the U.S. edition of her biography by Hayden Herrera, sent to me by an Irish friend who at the time lived in New York. Along with a gift of boxed cards of Kahlo’s paintings, this biography revealed to me why I was so obsessed with Kahlo, and finally allowed me to write about my obsession with a degree of honesty, and thereby lay it to rest.

I’m very fond of this particular painting, partly because of its attention to fine detail; also its suggestiveness, where the ribbon which binds her tightly combed hair is also the link to her pet monkey, and in turn, the monkey’s hand seems to grow out of her hair; and finally for its unrelenting honesty. It was one of several in which she is accompanied by pet animals and which were painted during the years of her divorce from Rivera – the monkey here was actually a gift from Rivera. Her eyes reveal her loneliness, but her batwing eyebrows and her light moustache are forceful presences, and dressed in her finery, she is sensual and proud.

This is The Dream, painted in the same year, 1940. According to Herrera, she was preoccupied with death during the period after her divorce, and that she actually did keep a skeleton on top of her bed’s canopy as – to her – an amusing reminder of her own mortality, as she explained to visitors. This is a Judas skeleton, part of the Day of the Dead folklore of Mexico.

But if Frida Kahlo was often preoccupied with death, and she had good reason to be for much of her life, she took a great sensual pleasure from her life and art. She was admired and loved by many of the great figures of her time, including Trotsky, Kandinsky, Juan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe and even that arch-egotist Picasso, who if my memory serves me right, wrote to Rivera that she was a greater portraitist than either of them. She once told a friend that her view of life was: Make love, take a bath, make love again. She was still painting up to her death in 1954, and on her last painting she wrote VIVA LA VIDA – Long Live Life.

Self Portrait 1947


Here I painted myself, Frida Kahlo, from a mirror-image. I am thirty-seven years old, and it is the month of July, nineteen forty-seven. In Coyoacan, Mexico, the place where I was born. – Frida Kahlo

I tried to understand you through the self–portraits you began when the collision of a bus and tram changed your life as time slowed down.

They chronicle the trials of your body’s broken column; your love affair through two marriages with Rivera; the miscarriages; your passion compressed into a high tension and expression.

I must have known it was impossible, but blinded by what I thought was love – and it was, by some measure – I made draft after draft, losing my way through your subtle world of guise and fantasy, through what is at once concealed and revealed. The Tree of Hope was my prime enigma:

Dressed in her red Tehuana costume,

she is Kahlo the desert queen,

reigning over her butchered flesh and bone

that lies defeated on a surgical trolley –

where the moon is mistress beyond the orange sun.

The moon, Frida, and that old orange the sun, that your childhood teacher held in one hand – a candle in the other – to explain the solar system. Darkness and Light.

And the fissured desert that stretches to the distant, eternal mountains is the desert that encroaches when hope is ruined to often. Isn’t that so?

The images return to haunt, and I repeat the attempt to write them out:

Bound in plastercast, she paints in

the hair on her lip from a mirror-image,

rapt in search of the meaning of what

she is doing again, and again, and again.

After dinner one night, an artist told me about you. The house we were staying in was old and later I sensed a ghost in my room. I think it was a part of myself, long forgotten. A few months later a letter arrived from a friend:

A bulging letter, postmarked Berlin.

I read the excited hand, unfold

the black and white copies: Kahlo.

So began the obsession. Spring passed into summer, and one evening I ambled down Kilmainham Lane, admiring the elderflowers, the peace of this rus-in-urbe broken only by guard-dogs and the rhythmic clack of my crutches. Then an odd thing happened:

A red car stops, a puff of dust

rising before the tyres,

and a Mexican asks for directions.

Later, in a bar, I ask about Kahlo,

who, she insists, painted with colours

which don’t exist in Europe.

The burnt siennas of your Mexican earth, Frida; your yellows at once pouring out sickness and fear, sun and joy; your dark blues occupying both distance and tenderness. Dark green, you said, was the colour of bad news and good business. There is bad news and good business in your Henry Ford Hospital, 1932:

In the Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit,

Frida has lain in her own blood

since 1932,

her miscarried foetus spirited above her

like an African fetish – her pelvis, her tear,

the hopes of her famished love, so much debris.

Its foreground is green, and the spiritual drama of your miscarriage is played out against a backdrop of Henry Ford’s factories delivering Baby Fords. It took me a while to see humour where previously I could recognize only suffering. Now I’m glad to know it was typical,like your parrot who drank beer and tequila and croaked:I’ll never get over this hangover!

This is a quote from the story of your work and life by Hayden Herrera, who wrote it with the ring of respect and truth. A friend sent it from New York, while another gave me reproductions I had never seen. It was then I realised that all my drafts were false. I was writing about myself.

Something as formerly innocent as a cloud or landscape or as utilised as a polluting bus, can recall you as if you were seated in them, a mirror before you, your brush in hand.

So many correspondences where nothing is strictly itself might unbalance a mind. How many women limp through a crowd? Might they have light moustaches or eyebrows joined like batwings?

They, the correspondences, are sane because you are unique, like a giant river from whom tributaries flow away through the thoughts and emotions of those who need you.

She floats, asleep

in canopied rest, rooted

high over the earth –

her vigilant companion

a Day of the Dead skeleton

decked in dynamite and flowers.

She has journeyed a long way,

and no one can follow

into the shell

of all she has yearned for.

The Real Frida Kahlo Con musica de Cafe Tacuba (Esa Noche)
Fragmento extraido de un documental dedicado a esta gran artista, (The History Channel Español)
Ojessy Youtube channel

Jackson Pollock 51, 1951 (excerpt)
Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg (directors) Morton Feldman (composer)
Facs100b Youtube channel