The Browser

Splat, Spackle, Plop!

Is Jackson Pollock a genius, or what?

“Jackson Pollock”
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Nov. 1, 1998–Feb. 2, 1999

Click on any image or hot-linked title to see an enlargement.

(posted Saturday, Oct. 31, 1998)

The first powerful experience I remember having while looking at art was in the Jackson Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art. I was 13 or so, and we were on a family visit to New York. Overwhelming everything else in the museum was the 17 foot long One: Number 31, 1950, a painting that amazed and thrilled me with its scale, its spontaneity, and the intensity it radiated. I had the same feeling again when I saw Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 at the National Gallery in Washington soon thereafter.

But Pollock has left me cold as an adult, and often bored. His paintings looked hollow and often sloppy and garish. Did I respond to him as an adolescent because Pollock was a misbehaved, grandiose adolescent himself? Maybe we all just had a teen crush on Pollock the art world delinquent. Or was it entombment in museums, being surrounded by the work of nonaction painters, that muffled his force and left him dead on the wall? I have been awaiting a show that would settle the issue.

The Pollock retrospective that opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this weekend ought to resolve all such ambivalence. With more than 200 works–pretty much every important painting Pollock did–it is a complete and authoritative presentation of his life and work. Occupying the entire third floor of the museum, it includes both a full-scale replica of Pollock’s studio in the Springs, on Long Island, and a continuous showing of the fascinating films that Hans Namuth, a German émigré photographer, made of Pollock painting at the peak of his career. The long catalog essay by the Modern’s chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, is a model of its kind, covering the salient facts of Pollock’s biography, artistic development, and the critical debate about him. As an exhibition, this is one of the best I have ever seen. And it did make up my mind.

In the early rooms, skepticism can’t but prevail. From the time Pollock arrived in New York, in 1930, at the age of 18, until about 1946, he was casting about for a style. He loved the idea of being an artist, but his vast ambition wasn’t coupled with much, or even any, talent. Through the first four rooms, we see him find and mimic mentors, some living, some dead. He first fell under the sway of Thomas Hart Benton, his teacher at the New York Art Students’ League, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, essaying moonlight seascapes and moody swirls of Americana, such as Going West (1934-38). Then Pollock apprenticed himself to the Mexican muralists, Siqueiros and Orozco, as in Untitled (Naked Man With Knife) (1938-41). Next he ate Picasso’s dust, as in Stenographic Figure (1942), then Miró’s, as in Untitled (Blue [Moby Dick]) (1943).

By 1945, when the ungifted Pollock was still struggling with the greats, the critic Clement Greenberg was already heralding him as the baby Jesus of American art, noting that “he is not afraid to look ugly.” Greenberg liked Pollock because of the evidence he provided for Greenberg’s Marxian view of art history as a series of developing stages in which the picture plane was destined to flatten, empty, and disappear. Today Greenberg is much derided for his dogmatic views and imperial pronouncements. But as far as I can tell, he was correct in every respect: right that Pollock was ugly, right about where American Modernism was going, and right that Pollock had genius trapped inside him. What is amazing is that Greenberg could see how good Pollock would become, given how bad he was. Perhaps the most famous picture from that period is (1943). After 13 years of practice, Pollock was void in color sense, draftsmanship, composition, and handling of his materials. The painting is a kind of red herring. With its suggestive title, glyphs, and symbols, it is designed to make you think it contains more than meets the eye.

But in 1946 something suddenly happened: Pollock’s nauseous swirls and lugubrious slatherings stepped into a phone booth and re-emerged as his mature “all-over” style. You see this first in three paintings known as the “Sounds in the Grass” series, the best of which is Shimmering Substance. Pollock has said goodbye to content and seems to have found his self-confidence at last. A year later, he is flicking, dripping, pouring, and splattering, creating medium-scale works of great beauty (though still interspersed with fits of unappealing blotchiness). You don’t have to read the elaborate taxonomy of his technique in the catalog to recognize that what sometimes appears as chaos is in fact the product of great control and finesse. Pollock came at the canvas with a range of tools–sticks, brushes, basters, and paint cans with holes–the effects of which he had mastered. There is chance in his paintings, but it occurs within a well-defined structure.

How did Pollock arrive so suddenly? I think what happened is that he threw off the heavy influence of others and stopped worrying about his lack of conventional technique. Instead, he began to express himself in the way he could, basing his craft on his abilities. The year 1947 yields a bounty of expressive work such as the gorgeous, which has the quality of a musical nocturne, its orange, yellow, black, and white filigrees spun on a thin surface of silver and unprimed canvas. In Full Fathom Five, the murk grows more evocative; the enticing detail is a kind of small crossbow shape, in yellow and orange, glimpsed through the submarine tangle of a surface encrusted with nails, buttons, coins, and cigarette butts. In these paintings the feelings–mirth, ecstasy, confusion, awe, whatever–seem intense and distinct.

It stays that way over the next few years as Pollock’s scale expands toward the vast masterworks of 1950. The three greatest of his monumental canvases, hung together in a single room, have an almost overwhelming presence. Curiously, these paintings don’t repay prolonged viewing–or at least they didn’t for me. One follows the arcs and arabesques across the canvas, but they don’t lead the eye anywhere. When you try not to follow lines, you find you can’t get any purchase on the whole. This is the opposite of the experience you have looking at a Mark Rothko. You soak in a Rothko as in a warm tub. It’s a meditative, spiritual experience. Pollock, by comparison, is a splash of cold water on the face. The power lies in being confronted by his paintings, not in looking for meaning in them.

For some reason, I wasn’t much moved by the old One: Number 31, 1950. But, a 15 foot long monochrome work on loan from Düsseldorf, Germany, took my breath away. This is the distilled essence of Pollock’s genius, a mysterious calligraphy stripped of the distraction of color or the accretion of layers of paint. In the extraordinary photographs and films Namuth made of Pollock working in 1950, you can be mesmerized by his act of creation. The agonized expression on his face looks like a kind of rapture. His dance around the canvas looks like its own hidden language.

What follows the incredible spree of productivity that lasted from 1947-50 is a kind of brownout. In the final two rooms of the exhibition, you see Pollock, who was suffering from depression and had relapsed into alcoholism, struggling to regain a gift that had vanished as swiftly as it had arrived. By 40, he was pretty much washed up. His career took the shape of a palindrome. looks like Untitled (1946). Easter and the Totem (1953) collapses back to Totem Lesson 1 (1944). Here Pollock’s “camouflage palette,” as Varnedoe notes, “gives way to carnival.” The only really arresting work he did after 1950 is. With its electric brightness, this huge painting, which Pollock’s friends started for him, is stunning but sad, a big smile for the camera and perhaps a kind of requiem for his earlier work. In his final painting, Search (1955), Pollock seems to have drifted back even further, to the period before his talent began to emerge. In his final year he binged, painted nothing, and drove his car into a tree.

You can explain this flameout with whatever theory appeals to you. In clinical terms, Pollock had a productive manic phase, and he was overtaken by black dog in the days before anti-depressants. In art historical terms, he flattened the picture plane, emptied it, and then had nowhere to go. You can view him as the classic case of the doomed artist, his genius and self-destruction bound up together. My own admittedly romantic preference is to see his career as a quest for inspiration, and to say Pollock sought it long, found it briefly, and couldn’t live without it.