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The Secret Language: Using text and symbols to express complex personal, spiritual and artistic systems.
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Guardians of the Secret, 1943. Oil on canvas. 48 3/8 in. x 75 3/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, Albert M. Bender Bequest Fund purchase. © 2013 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ben Blackwell.
Breaking the Code
Guardians of the Secret is one of Jackson Pollock’s most noteworthy early works. Full of symbols, the work alludes to questions about codes, access, and mystery. To whom is this secret accessible? To whom is art, also replete with systems of symbols, accessible? To what extent is art reliant on “guardians,” authorities to explain and interpret?

The title Guardians of the Secret implies that there is a mystery to be unlocked. Looking at this painting, which element appears to be the most secretive to you?
Below are four components of this painting. Drag the phrases up or down to rank them by difficulty of interpretation (hardest at the top)”
  • The rectangular shape in the middle
  • The animal at the bottom
  • The hieroglyphic-like shapes rendered throughout
  • The figures on either side
Here is how most people ordered them:
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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Guardians of the Secret, 1943. Oil on canvas. 48 3/8 in. x 75 3/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, Albert M. Bender Collection, Albert M. Bender Bequest Fund purchase. © 2013 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ben Blackwell.
Breaking the Code
Guardians of the Secret is one of Jackson Pollock’s most noteworthy early works. Full of symbols, the work alludes to questions about codes, access, and mystery. To whom is this secret accessible? To whom is art, also replete with systems of symbols, accessible? To what extent is art reliant on “guardians,” authorities to explain and interpret?

Which elements in this painting—many of them hidden—might reveal themselves to be secret symbols?
What do you see in this painting?

Choose as many words as you like.

flames
hieroglyphics
rectangles
figures
people
mouths
green
white
fish
outer space
violence
masks
ceremony
blue
red
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Wallace Berman
Wallace Berman
Untitled (400.300.50), 1974. Stone, metal, and acrylic. 5 3/4 in. x 7 5/8 in. x 7 5/8 in. Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift from Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Crocker. © Wallace Berman Estate.
Letter of the Law
Wallace Berman’s sculpture, Untitled (400.300.50), demonstrates the artist’s fascination with Hebrew letters. Part of a group of Beat artists and writers engaged in what poet Allen Ginsberg called “Bop Kabbalah,” Berman incorporated Hebrew throughout his work although, as in this piece, often the letters are not arranged to form logical words.

Berman’s work offers three different approaches to deciphering Hebrew text.

The Torah, or five books of Moses, is painstakingly hand-copied by master scribes, even in contemporary times. Tradition teaches that each of the 304,805 letters appears today exactly as it did when Moses received the text on Mount Sinai. The assumption that each Hebrew letter is figuratively set in stone, its shape and meaning inviolable, is evoked in Berman’s use of a rock instead of a canvas as a surface for the letters.

The Torah forms the bedrock of Jewish tradition. But thousands of years of biblical commentary have created another reality: interpretation, even radical interpretation, is valued as a holy endeavor in its own right. Berman takes this idea to an extreme, suggesting in this sculpture that the rearrangement of Hebrew letters—even if they appear to spell out gibberish—is an act of interpretation deserving of attention.

In Jewish tradition, each Hebrew letter is associated with a number; for instance, the first letter, Aleph, stands for the number one. Jewish mysticism takes this a step further, suggesting that there is a meaning to each letter beyond its literal significance. Berman’s decision to create a sequence of Hebrew letters that doesn’t form actual words suggests that these ancient symbols—like aspects of art and spirituality—have meaning beyond the literal.

The Limitations of
Legibility
For Shahzia Sikander, who grew up listening to the Koran but unable to read it in Arabic, the presence of letters was both an invocation of the holy and a reminder of the limitations of language. In her rendering of verses from the Laotian epic Sang Sinxay, a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poem based on classical Buddhist literature, the legibility of the letters becomes less important than the dynamic presence they invoke.

Hover on the artwork to get a closer view. zoom
Shahzia Sikander
Shahzia Sikander
Shahzia Sikander
Sinxay: Narrative as Dissolution #2, 2008. Ink and gouache on prepared paper. 89 1/2 in. x 59 1/4 in. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase. © Shahzia Sikander. Photo: Ben Blackwell.