American author William H. Gass believed colour stood for consciousness and feeling in a world where our vocabulary for such states was impoverished. He wrote an entire book about the colour blue to expand his point.
Angela O’Keeffe’s novella about Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles – the most controversial painting to hang on the wall of an Australian gallery and a work tautly woven into our recent history – takes Gass at his word. Her extraordinary debut is narrated by the painting itself.
This is no cheap trick. O’Keeffe fully inhabits the aura of the Abstract Expressionist’s artwork. Her book is framed so the gaze millions have directed towards the painting over time is reflected back at them. She tunes her prose to the spatial rhythms and emotional states generated by the controlled wildness of Pollock’s method. The result is a sentience both dynamic and poised. It is narrative in a blue mood.
O’Keeffe’s story starts out from official genesis: the weeks Pollock spent with the painting in his barn studio in upstate New York during 1952. It’s an exuberant struggle between artist and canvas that ends with the drunk painter bringing a plank of wood and a tin of blue paint to bear on the work.
But the painting soon reveals a sense of self that is wholly rogue. As it tells of the shifts in ownership that bring it to Australia and the wall of the National Gallery, readers are privy to the shifts in culture and sensibility that mark its visitors. Blue Poles interrogates its interrogators; it absorbs their attentions. And no one more so than a young woman who comes to sit and write furiously in the painting’s presence.
It’s the shift in perspective – from painting to woman and back again – that grants the novella human depth. The encounter elicits important questions from both characters. It asks to what degree the life of the artist and their work is extricable. It ponders the role of women in the story of art. It wonders about the role of art in pointing the way for a young culture in an old land.
Just how O’Keeffe has managed to fit so much into Night Blue while maintaining such stylistic simplicity and human feeling is a mystery as magnificent and insoluble as Pollock’s genius. What can be said is that this slight book announces a considerable new talent in Australian literature.
Transit Lounge, 144pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 15, 2021 as "Angela O’Keeffe, Night Blue".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.