Yellow Islands is a large oil painting on a rectangular, horizontally oriented canvas. The abstract patterns within the composition were achieved by pouring the paint in layers onto an unprimed beige canvas, the surface of which remains partially visible in places. The first, thinner layer in this predominantly black and white painting has seeped into the weave of the raw canvas, creating hazy lines. The subsequent layers of black paint have a comparatively glossy, impasto finish that creates a sense of texture, depth and movement. Highlights of crimson and yellow were added with a brush across the canvas in small patches.
This painting was created in 1952 by the American abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. He is best known for pioneering action painting, a vigorous method of dripping paint onto canvas laid out on the floor. Pollock worked with commercially available materials, watering down black industrial enamel to a consistency he could apply deftly. The paint was poured by hand onto a roll of commercial cotton canvas, or applied using a syringe, an implement Pollock handled ‘like a giant fountain pen’, as Pollock’s partner, the artist Lee Krasner, described it in 1969 (quoted in Pepe Karmel (ed.), Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles and Reviews, New York 1999, p.38).
From 1947 Pollock employed this drip technique to produce colourful and rhythmic abstract paintings, such as Summertime: Number 9A 1948 (Tate T03977). However, after four years of working in this manner, Pollock began to employ a more deliberate and starkly monochromatic method. Pollock restrained his technique of applying the paint to the surface by pouring it rather than dripping. Due to the restricted palette and the method of paint application this series of canvases, created between 1951 and 1954 and including Yellow Islands, became known as Pollock’s ‘black pourings’. To make them Pollock applied the paint from above, circling around the canvas, which he dubbed ‘the arena’. When the paint met the unprimed surface it bled into the weave of the cotton, creating a blurry-edged paint trail. Pollock then applied further layers of paint, and in a departure from his previous method, he lifted the canvas upright while the paint was still wet, allowing it to run. This technique created added texture and emphasised the sense of movement in the paintings, as observed by art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1969:
The top layer of black is hard and shiny compared to the soft, matt lower layer. Spatially the painting works in layers which pinch together at some points and diverge at other points. The destruction of a known kind of painting, produced by a learned means, characterises Pollock at all periods of his life. He had a desire to move from the known, even when it is a form or a technique of his own creation. The interplay of paint applied to a horizontal and paint applied to an upright surface is a remarkable development out of the drip paintings poured onto a wholly horizontal surface. (Lawrence Alloway, ‘Pollock’s Black Paintings’, Arts Magazine, vol.43, May 1969, p.41.)
Art historian Michael Fried described Yellow Islands as ‘one of the last if not the very last’ in the series of black pourings, ‘in which white skeins of paint have been laid down over black underpainting, along with seven or eight small patches of yellow and a few touches of red.’ (Fried in Delahunty 2015, p.87.)
Pollock exhibited many of the paintings in the black pourings series in 1952, including Number 14 (Tate T03978), his other work in the Tate collection from this period. While they were not met with the universal acclaim afforded the earlier drip paintings, many critics welcomed Pollock’s continued innovation. The slower rhythm and ambiguity of the black pourings was described by influential art critic Clement Greenberg as ‘a turn but not a sharp change of direction; there is a kind of relaxation, but the outcome is a newer and loftier triumph’ (Clement Greenberg, ‘Art Chronicle: Feeling is All’, Partisan Review, January–February 1952, p.102).