It’s been over twenty years since a massive retrospective of Jackson Pollock paintings was staged at MoMA in 1999, their last comprehensive exhibit of his work since 1967. That show, on the eve of the millennium, was the first retrospective in the United States since its predecessor 32 years ago. Pollock’s entire career was very adequately represented, from his earliest work in 1936 to his final canvasses nearly 20 years later. Every aspect of Pollock’s stylistic evolution was illustrated by smaller canvasses to the massive, mural-like works of the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the conclusion of the show, there was a life-size replica of the barn adjacent to Pollock’s house that he used as a make-shift studio filled with black and white photographs of the artist and his wife. A film of Pollock shot from beneath a glass surface documented his controversial, unorthodox painting technique.
No intelligent examination of creative upheavals in painting over the last 60 years can afford to overlook the innovations of Jackson Pollock. Without question, he is one of the authors of abstract space as it was understood in the plastic arts of the mid-20th century. His work clearly and powerfully deals with the notion that the totality of the canvass must be addressed in a very singular way. Within the contemporaneous group of painters with which he is sometimes loosely, sometimes closely identified (de Kooning, Kandinsky, Kline, Gorky, Miro, and Rothko), he is peerless in his invention of an approach to the canvass which pulverized the notion that “emphatic” regions of visual expression may co-exist with the “unemphatic.” In Pollock’s case, as Clement Greenberg was first to disseminate and celebrate, there is nothing in the picture, not a dot or an inch, that asserts itself with greater or lesser articulation than any other. Yet there are contentious issues regarding the application, transformation, and resolution of his techniques, his aesthetics, and his conceptions. If there is a grand finale to Pollock’s forays into the realization, the “act” of the painted abstraction, it is his sacrificial dismantling of what is pictorially orchestrated and tiered. There is no doubt that this achievement was a new equilibrium of forces within the canvass; the issue is, at what price is that achievement purchased?
Like it or not, popular culture has frozen him in a timeless zone, in much the same way that Chaplin’s Tramp, Beat Literature, Modern Jazz, Warhol’s soup cans, The Beatles, Waiting for Godot, and Citizen Kane occupy sacrosanct, inviolate niches of seminal, perpetually reverberating importance, controversy, and debate. This is not to compare Samuel Beckett’s drama with the songwriting artistry of Lennon-McCartney, nor to press the social connotations of the Campbell’s series against the maverick narrator of On the Road. The point is that these artists and works (or many others like them) have been the beneficiaries of critical bearing and audience identification that have merged through the years to create an unalterable attitude, posture, and perspective. In short, the energy of the original idea or style has tended to usurp (for better or worse) the individual merits of its examples. The historically unique symbiosis between Abstract Expressionism, American Free Verse, the Beat Movement, and Modern Jazz can perhaps be illuminated by such an observation, i.e., the 1950s weren’t simply a time, they were a state of mind.
Ask the young student of modern American poetry about the work of E. E. Cummings, and he or she will probably tell you that he was “the” experimenter, “the” renegade, “the” poet who used syntax in totally new, utterly unorthodox ways. That his work has value, there is no argument; that his formal inventions are greatly inferior to poets such as William Carlos Williams or Charles Olsen, and moreover that these poets never enjoyed the same thoroughly validated, popular reputation as “avant-garde” originators in poetry, these factors do not enter into the equation. Perhaps it is the obvious that consistently fuels fervent publicity: Cummings will always be known for his lower case “i”; his strangely introduced parentheses; his mystifying ellipses; his jumbled compressions. His is therefore the technique that emblematizes what is “modern” or radically different about verse in the popular mind: literary critics may or may not take him seriously, but the public license for his identity will never be revoked. Open an art history book in the early part of the 21st century, and you will more than likely discover that the single most celebrated artist “of his time” will be Andy Warhol. Yes, his work introduced new, previously unapplied ideas; but it is equally fair to make the qualification that the number and evolution of the individual works far outweigh the intellectual substance of these ideas. Once we get the message that the transition from “media” imagery (advertisements, news photography, publicity stills, fashion, etc.) to “artistic” imagery is riddled with irony and self-deprecation, pointing to several serious (although short-lived) questions about the high purpose or cultural permanence of art, how many variations on a theme do we need? How many permutations of the silk-screens, the changing shades and hues, the images of Mao, Marilyn, Brando, and Campbell’s soup are necessary to fulfill the dimensions of this single idea? Again, such a qualification rarely assumes its place upon the critical mantle, not to mention the public mind-set (now two generations strong) that views Warhol as the No. 1 icon of modern art.
Next to such a reflex of opinion and into such a category of bonafide self-justification falls the work and reputation of Jackson Pollock. It is forever etched upon the collective subconscious of the international art audience of the last 50 years that it was Pollock (and Pollock alone) who rebuilt the temple of Abstract Expressionism, ushering in the whole future era of “events” and “happenings,” symbolizing in his time the characteristically American elements of jazz and free-form expression. The 1949 Life magazine article which asked, half facetiously, “is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” is just one large example of the mixture of awe and incredulity with which his work was received and publicized during the height of his fame and success. Pollock’s media image (as well as his art history evaluation) persists to this day: he is the paradigmatic avant-garde pioneer in T-shirt and jeans, the painter who supposedly makes even deKooning’s “Woman” series look conservative, the man who broke away from everything that was happening in painting in his day. His image is perhaps not dissimilar to the public perception of Albert Einstein by the late 1940s and early 1950s: the enigmatic, quintessential “egghead,” the eccentric genius with wild hair, pipe, and crumpled sweater who understood things of supreme metaphysical importance that practically no one else on the face of the earth could fathom.
After fifteen years of producing abstract compositions the likes of which the public had never seen before, Pollock’s early, tragic death at 44 ended a turbulent, self-destructive life that included womanizing, a failed marriage, alcoholism, depression, and a notorious affair with his long-time supporter, Peggy Guggenheim. Through the 1930s and into the early 1940s, we find Pollock struggling to develop a personal style, often revealing a tendency to over-assimilate or emulate those painters whom he admired. In Untitled (Sea Landscape) and Harbor & Lighthouse, 1936, there is the unmistakable influence of Cezanne; Untitled, 1939-42, is a stab in Miro’s direction; Red & Blue, 1943-46, is chiefly characterized by references to Guernica; and Untitled (Naked Man w/Knife), 1938-40, is a synthesis of Kirchner and Leger. When Pollock arrives at a set of transitional works in which the figurative and the abstract are combined, there are some successes (Guardians of the Secret, 1943), but for the most part his efforts are a pale version of deKooning’s methods at this time (The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle, 1943, and The Moon Woman, 1942). Clearly, there is a storehouse of unharnassed visual dynamism in these works, an explosive drive in need of some balanced vehicle of expression. That these formative canvasses are troubled by inexperience and imitation is not necessarily to Pollock’s detriment. In a way, Pollock’s entire career can be summed up as that of a painter who used trial and error to make various elements of the modern styles of his generation and prior generations (1890-1940), his own; who failed at this process of essentially vapid assimilation; and who arrived at a unique style by displacing and disposing of not only everything that influenced him, but everything being practiced by his peers. That this aesthetic purgation must necessarily be viewed as “heroic,” “maverick,” and “visionary,” is debatable; that Pollock executed it for his own stylistic purposes, is not. His frustration over finding something to do inevitably led to that which became his and his alone. In the 1940s, he threw down a book of Picasso reproductions, uttering an expletive to the effect that Picasso had “done everything.” It does not require a monumental leap of thought to find in Pollock’s mature work a positive corollary for this frustration: his very style is itself a way of doing away with “style” by expressing “nothing” while including “everything.”
The classical, trademark, “allover” canvasses for which Pollock is best known comprise the work that forever sustains the import of this “negative-style” or “anti-style.” These works are judiciously represented in the exhibit, ranging from Even in the Heat (Sounds in the Grass Series), 1946; to Number 13A, 1948: Arabesque, 1948; to Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950; to the black paintings of 1951; to Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952. These definitive, harmonious works dramatically confirm that for Pollock the role of the canvass is not to house pictorial action, but to be pictorial action. Again and again Pollock challenges the notion that the canvass must be a framing device. In his work, the canvass edges and surface become a pivotal concern because he was indeed first to recognize that the canvass could be used and viewed as a radiating force rather than a mental snapshot carried into a room and hung on a wall.
Pollock’s shortcomings are perhaps due to the enormity of his challenge. Certainly there is an evolution and creative reiteration of some of his methods and techniques as evinced by the mature works, but inevitably a kind of intellectual atrophy sets in and the idea of the canvasses, their conceptual posture, becomes more volatile than the work itself. Had Pollock lived another 30 years, and had he continued to paint only these kinds of works, would his career not appear almost ridiculous? Perhaps this is an unfair question, but part of the job of this article is to play devil’s advocate. We don’t know what kind of transformations might have occurred in Pollock’s work had he lived, but given the aesthetic cul de sac he was in when he died, one wonders where a new avenue of approach would have come from. How much of his canvass to canvass and series to series variations are substantive enlargements of new ideas, and how much of it is simply the repetition of this conceptual posture? Unfortunately the strain of Pollock’s aesthetic weights the answer towards the second conclusion.
His lifelong admiration for Piet Mondrian is illuminative in one regard especially: as Mondrian strictly and religiously fastened his imagination to a purity of forms and worked with variations on those forms throughout his life, so too did Pollock. For Mondrian it was geometric form; for Pollock, the biomorphic or, more accurately, a kind of deliberate formlessness. Although it can also be claimed that Mondrian may have run out of things to do long before he stopped painting, the difference in his chosen vocabulary at least enabled the particulars of arrangement and complication to remain a source of intrigue: like a chess game, you can refresh space with geometry an infinite number of times. The baroque concentration of Pollock’s drip figures left little room for conceptual reshuffling, whether it was an issue of form, color, position, or interaction. In other words, once it was done, it was done and that was that. Like Warhol’s media paintings or Cummings’ diminutive pronoun, the radical gesture is exalted while the limitations of the idea are forgiven. It is to Pollock’s credit that his stylistic innovations occupy, in anthropological terms, a specific place within the cultural time line continuum of modern art. It is to the discredit of that very rich and very homogeneous time line continuum to maintain that his place occupies eons of aesthetic space, rather than a simple generation of aesthetic space. Finally, it is revealing rather than insulting that we consider, with a mixture of wisdom and humor, the intuitive merit of the comment one little viewer made during the film showing Pollock at work: with total candor and perfect innocence this eight year old asked “Why is he painting on the rug?”