It’s closing-in on half a century since Gough Whitlam approved the purchase of Blue Poles, the painting that divided Australia. Spend an hour people-watching at the foot of Pollock’s canvas, and you’ll hear visitor after visitor come and tell the painting exactly what they think of it. “Do you know how much they paid for that thing?” an old bloke strides across the room to tell me, voice a-thunder. “1.3 million, love. 1.3 million!” You can sense the outrage brewing, the roiling incredulity. He shakes his head as he stares into the expressionist tangle. “What a fucken’ bargain.”
What if the painting were listening? And not just to our bombastic opinions, but to our quiet agonies. What might it think of us?
Night Blue, an ingenious novella by Sydney writer Angela O’Keefe, is narrated by the country’s most infamous and triumphant canvas. We meet at the National Gallery in Canberra, to pay our respects at the paint-speckled shrine of Australian aspiration and eavesdrop for a while.
When Blue Poles scandalised the nation in 1973, O’Keefe was just a teenager, trying-on different versions of herself. Her parents disapproved of the painting but were ardent Whitlam supporters. “My older sister was very anti-Whitlam and I was very influenced by her,” she says over a drink in the gallery cafe. “I didn’t know anything about politics, but I used to love fighting with my parents. The day he was sacked, my father just looked at me and said, ‘I suppose you’re happy’. And I thought, this is actually serious. You’re hurt by what’s happened in Canberra today.”
She still speaks of that moment with regretful tenderness. “Is your book a kind of apology?” I ask her, for Whitlam looms large in its pages, a ghost of a long-vanished hopefulness.“Nah,” she says with a laugh. “Stories come from all sorts of little twists and turns, don’t they?”
But Night Blue does seem to have sprung from an attempt to recreate those old family arguments. “I was writing this other novel where Blue Poles was being discussed at a kitchen table in rural Australia,” O’Keefe says.
But one night she realised that, rather than have her characters speak about the painting, Blue Poles might speak for itself.
She still sounds awed by that discovery, and its literary insistence. After decades of scratching at ideas, Night Blue is O’Keefe’s first published book, written in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It’s been a hard-earned creation and you can feel her struggling to contain the enormity and vulnerability of it. “I feel like someone’s stripped off all my skin,” she says.
Night Blue begins in 1952 in the mid-winter dark, in Jackson Pollock’s frigid studio, a barn on Long Island, New York. There’s an enormous piece of Belgian linen on the floor – pricey stuff – and Pollock is mark making. “His life gathered in his gestures,” the painting tells us. “His gestures gathered in me.” Creation is a tactile, sensual business: a paint-slick collision of memory, intention and wild possibility. But then it is over. A fresh canvas is laid out on the floor. Blue Poles is abandoned. Sold. Sold again.
The analogy is less a jilted lover than a forsaken child: a new, voracious consciousness (unburdened by gender) sent out into the world, yet ever-longing. “I didn’t ever want it to feel like this is Pollock’s life put into a rectangle,” O’Keefe explains. “It’s about life surging ahead”. Australia beckons: the promise of a bright new wall in a bright new gallery, a world away from Pollock and his miserable, reckless end.
Blue Poles has always seemed frenetic to me, a wheeling violence barely contained by its cobalt fence. “No, no, no, I don’t think it’s anger,” O’Keefe is adamant. “Pollock said – and I wish I’d put this in the book somewhere – but he said something like: ‘When I’m painting, I’m happy. It’s the rest of the time that’s the challenge’.” The consciousness she conjures in Night Blue is calm, wise and observant; possessed of an enormous capacity for empathy. After listening to her talk with such reverence about the possibilities of art – of life – it strikes me that the painting she’s conjured is more like a mirror. Perhaps all paintings are.
The question that haunts this book is a dark conundrum of our age: how to engage with the art of awful men. Pollock is mythologised as a prototypical art monster: a big swinging genius. Angela and I talk about his reputation for booze-sodden cruelty; his wrenching instability and volatile ego. We talk of the machinery of legacy-making and Lee Krasner – Pollock’s wildly talented wife – who spent the rest of her career painting in that Long Island barn. We talk about Annie Hall, and the agony of being Harvey Weinstein’s kids, and returning to the art that broke our hearts open as teenagers with adult eyes.
In Night Blue, a young woman struggles to reconcile Pollock the man with Pollock the artist. What O’Keefe’s book shows is just how intimate the relationship between art and viewer can be, how snared in memory and history, not to mention a profound and complicated love. It would be too easy to turn the painting into some kind of grand, definitive statement, she tells me, but Blue Poles is an invitation to engage. As we leave the gallery, another visitor tells the canvas their thoughts. “Look at that,” he exclaims. “All of the complexity of human life, right there.”