Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 144 pages; 2021.
If there was a prize for the most original conceit for a novel, then Angela O’Keeffe’s debut, Night Blue, would surely win it. That’s because the narrator is an inanimate object: the painting Blue Poles, by American artist Jackson Pollock.
That abstract expressionist painting currently hangs in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. It was purchased by the Australian Government in 1973 and caused a bit of a scandal at the time, not least because, at $AU1.3million, it was the most expensive American painting ever bought by anyone anywhere in the world.
O’Keeffe works that controversy into her novella as well as telling the story of the equally controversial artist who created it.
Story of a painting
This is what the painting, which measures 212.1cm × 488.9cm, looks like:
And this is how the story starts:
I began one night in 1952 in a barn on Long Island, New York. Jackson unrolled a piece of Belgian linen, five metres by three, onto the floor. He liked to work on the floor, to be able to walk around and around a painting: to feel like he was part of it, in it, he said.
From there we follow the painting — originally called Number 11, 1952 — for the duration of its life, from its time hanging in a private Manhattan home, to going into storage, being sold and transported to the other side of the world, and being put on display amid a sea of controversy. (Many Australians, for instance, bemoaned their tax dollars being spent on foreign art and not local art.)
We get glimpses of the painting’s inner-most world, what it feels, thinks, sees and hears, and its growing awareness that it has always been mired in some kind of debate. The rumour that Jackson did not create it alone, that he had outside help, is a constant theme. (Apparently, if you look closely enough, you can see multiple footprints in several places around the edge of the canvas. You can read more about this on the NGA website.)
In part two, the point of view switches to a human one, that of Alyssa, an art restorer and PhD candidate studying the works of two 20th century abstract artists, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler, who were overshadowed — unfairly, it would seem — by Jackson Pollock. Alyssa knows the rumours that Blue Poles was not solely created by Jackson, and she wants to find something that will prove her theory because in doing so she will show that Krasner and Frankenthaler deserved to be recognised in their own right.
The final part of the story then switches back to the painting’s interior monologue, rounding out a narrative that covers all kinds of unexpected topics — including feminism, politics and scandal — as well as ruminating about art, its purpose and its value, and the ways in which those who create it can be revered or condemned.
Bold and original
But for all its freshness and originality, there was something about Blue Poles that didn’t really hold my attention, perhaps because I was constantly aware that I was reading a fictional construct. Knowing that the story was being narrated by a painting meant I couldn’t really lose myself in the book.
And some of the facts surrounding the painting, especially the bits about Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam giving the go-ahead for its purchase, felt rammed in.
But these are minor quibbles because Night Blue is an extraordinary feat of imagination and a great read if you love stories about art and artists or are looking for something written from a wholly original point of view.
This is my 11th book for #AWW2021.