"Jackson Pollock," Nov. 1, 1998-Feb. 2, 1999, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
"I always draw big crowds when I talk about Pollock," a Museum of Modern Art lecturer said to me a few months ago. MoMA obviously hopes the same for its new and nearly complete retrospective of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), which features more than 150 works and occupies the entire third floor of the museum.
MoMA seems to be banking on the crowds, since it has created a kind of "gift corral" at the terminus of the show (common enough at the Metropolitan, but unseen until now at MoMA). Among the available wares is a specially produced Jackson Pollock CD, containing an inspiring collection of the artist's favorite Dixieland hits.
Besides the chance to sell a few things, perhaps the show will bring even greater public acceptance for America's most notorious and important painter. And to our most notorious and important museum.
Clearly the exhibition is important to curator Kirk Varnedoe, head of MoMA's department of painting and sculpture. In a sense, he has been preparing for it since the beginning of his tenure at MoMA, having lectured continuously on Pollock as well as giving the painter's work special emphasis when he re-hung the museum's permanent collection some years ago. And the Oct. 28 press preview was teeming with critics, also no doubt intent on reassessing Pollock's status as a figure in American pop culture.
For me, the show presents, first of all, a special opportunity to look at great paintings, several of which left this country for good as long as 40 years ago. And, indeed, the exhibition is full of wonderful surprises that certainly no book, film or article has fully captured before.
So, prepare to abandon once and for all the "Man from Cody, Wyoming," cowboy horseshit, and take a look at what the bohemian dandy, who once called himself "Hugo," actually accomplished.
The show is arranged in strict chronological order, and begins quietly enough with Pollock's works from the 1930s. Under the influence of the Mexican Muralists (David Alfaro Siqueiros in particular), Pollock's imagery is riddled with flames, teardrop eyeballs and a bird-headed man reminiscent of the Egyptian god Osiris. Untitled [Overall Composition] (ca. 1934-38), a non-hierarchical, all-over painterly composition painted in dry, smoldering red, black and white, is the earliest hint of the large, dripped murals that mark the artist's "classic" period of the late '40s. The show's very first work is a tender, coal crusty, baby-faced self-portrait from 1933.
The next gallery has some of Pollock's most hot and heavy mytho-poetic paintings, including such Neanderthal wonders as Stenographic Figure, The She-Wolf, and Guardians of the Secret, all from 1943. Stenographic Figure is dominated by Surrealist Joan Miró-type ovoids inscribed with actual stenographic shorthand, while the other two pictures are marked with crusty hieroglyphics, symbolic of their wild animal energy.
Primordial magic imagery aside, these paintings all present Pollock's first liberating release of full spattered spectrum color. Although his gestures seem brushy, restrained, and wristy when compared with later work, these mystery paintings remain powerful, slowly popping and smoking in their own swell of sulfuric inarticulation. This is the work that gained helpful attention from noted painters like Piet Mondrian and John Graham, and won the early patronage of Peggy Guggenheim, who had briefly employed Pollock as a janitor at her avant-garde Art of This Century gallery.
The next room at the museum is filled with upright totemic works from the following year, and a smaller gallery is filled with Bentonesque drawings and sketchbook pages, some of which were included in a different Pollock show at the Metropolitan Museum last year. Although Pollock's drawing technique may appear awkward at first by academic standards, he was obviously capable. Albert Pinkham Ryder and Vincent van Gogh, among other artists, had already proven that drawing like Ingres wasn't of first importance to art.
Robert Motherwell's much-quoted public lament that Pollock couldn't draw, whether stemming from ignorance or self-interest, is in any case simply wrong. If this show reveals anything, it's that Pollock was an inventive and spectacularly coordinated draftsman. His abilities are clear, particularly in the drawings on Japan paper from 1951, not to mention the obvious high-wire performance all of his best paintings represent and require.
Pollock's first great leap forward is the gigantic Mural from 1943, commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her apartment. Pollock painted this 20-foot-long monster in his own tiny East Village apartment while exempt from the wartime draft, having been deferred on psychological grounds as a 4F. Guggenheim gave the mural to the University of Iowa before packing her art operation off to Venice for good. Legend has it that the work was stored in a barn while their museum building was being completed, and it became covered with bird droppings from the rafters above, much to the delight of local skeptics.
The Guggenheim Mural is outstanding in all of its goose-necked glory and loopy whirled gesture. Here we find Pollock's knotted and bundled energy -- tightly marching broadside along a great expanse of canvas, but not yet fully unleashed. On the other hand, this painting has a muscular ripple not found in the more lyrical later paintings.
Around the corner we find the Ryderesque -- dead bird included -- Night Mist (ca. 1944-45) from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., and a greasy-looking pack of peeping eyeballs titled Eyes in the Heat (1946). Shimmering Substance and the scratchy looking Croaking Movement (both from 1946) from Pollock's "Sound in the Grass Series" are included here too. These paintings are mostly made with lines of paint squeezed out and smeared directly from the paint tube onto the surface of the painting. Shimmering Substance slowly reveals a bright yellow underlying halo loosely connected along its agitated and coagulated surface made from semi-circular "C"s of pushed paint.
Pollock revisits this manner of smaller, clotted painting in his very late work White Light (1954). At this point in Pollock's career his talent was becoming more and more recognized by the elite art establishment. The critic Clement Greenberg wrote several passages displaying his excitement about Pollock's work: "the strongest painter of his generation" (1945), "the most original contemporary easel-painter under 40" (1946) and "one of the major painters of our time" (1949).
After marrying the painter Lee Krasner, the couple moved to the Springs, in East Hampton, and Pollock painted indoors in the cramped quarters of their house, before eventually setting up his studio in the barn. The Key (1946), from the "Accabonac Creek Series," is from this period, and seems uncharacteristic, with large patches of bright color that have been scraped down to the thinnest possible layer with a palette knife.
Several works on paper from 1946 depict crushing heaps and burning-funeral-pyre nests of lines stuffed with all manner of orgiastic animalia. They owe much to Pablo Picasso, but are much louder in their din than anything Picasso ever created. On this point Pollock beat Picasso at his own game. These works also represent, thankfully, the last gasp of Pollock's overt use of symbolism and themes of destruction in the wake of World War II.
At this point in the exhibition we enter the "magic kingdom," the realm of Pollock's first truly mature paintings. The strikingly installed trio of works -- Comet, Full Fathom Five and Phosphorescence (all 1947) -- are made with the fast-flying, fine-lined Duco enamel and aluminum paint that defines the painter's high style. This technique allowed the artist to create the intricate and accomplished webs of interlaced lines for which he is most famous.
More significantly, these paintings display a forceful unity that comes directly from their physical integrity, a quality that has hitherto remained unseen in Pollock's work and most of American painting up until that time. The inescapable beauty of the paintings' physical integrity is akin to the simplified structural beauty one finds in nature (flowers, snowflakes, flying insects), models of nature (the Watson-Crick DNA double-helix model, solar system mobiles) or in harmonious feats of human engineering (the Brooklyn Bridge, Wankel engines, superhighway cloverleaf exit ramps).
If Pollock is, as many have claimed, the Walt Whitman of American art, then it's definitely these works that support that laurel with all their febrile electricity, body fluid semblance and ejaculatory discharge, and sweeping overtures toward the ecstasy of nature. In addition, works from 1947 like Enchanted Forest, Cathedral and Sea Change, with its granulated surface of shriveled up enamel, all sustain Greenberg's claim that part of Pollock's success comes from a peculiar American "Gothic" quality in his painting, which I suppose is a residual effect from our nation's previous period of isolated provincialism.
Though difficult to define, a twisted Gothic presence is definitely at work in Pollock's more vertical and more narrow paintings. The Gothic inhabits Pollock's painting in the same way that a certain nervous excitability inhabits the writing of Edgar Allen Poe. My favorite is the privately owned and rarely exhibited Lucifer (1947). The most strikingly outdoorsy painting of the show, Lucifer has clear suggestions of the sky in its backing color, and small splashes of picnic table green lilting from West to East above the furious mesh of a broad, eight-foot horizontal web. The painting has all the confidence of Pollock's best work, and perhaps the cocky American spirit of that immediate post-War era.
The paintings from 1948-49 witness an immediate inflation of gesture, and a general loosening of technique, as well as experimentation with fuzzy and more cosmic looking lines of paint. Works like Black, White and Gray appear monochrome at first, only to later betray a subtle sprinkling of tiny, dark red dots. The smaller attendant drawing Number 14 reveals a remarkable, and apparently repeatable, consistency of style. The rest of the room and hallway are littered with a number of varied, and defiantly individual works, all executed in variations of Pollock's drip style, including a little gem of a terra-cotta sculpture that may be the sole survivor of Pollock's few and sporadic attempts at the medium.
Other anomalies include Cut Out and Cut Out Figure, both highlighting gingerbread-man silhouettes, and the one shot deal Out of the Web, where Pollock cut large, arbitrary scimitar-shaped swaths of canvas, creating a major movement overlay atop the minor movement dissonance of a fully finished web. These are Pollock's "roads less traveled," and perhaps he left some unfinished business here before going full throttle towards his giant "classic" paintings.
The show culminates in a magnificent array of works from 1950. Number 27, 1950 from the Whitney Museum, One: Number 3,1950 from MoMA's own collection, the boxy cropped Lavender Mist: Number One, 1950 from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the bottom-heavy Autumn Rhythm from the Met, the Vulcan molten Number 3, and the sea urchin sharp, black and white only Number 32 -- all the way from Düsseldorf -- are all here, and never looked so good.
They should stay 2gether 4ever in blissful institutional eternity. What can I say about these world-famous dripped masterpieces that the paintings themselves don't easily reveal, or hasn't already been immortalized in the splashdown photographs of Hans Namuth or Rudy Burckhardt? It's astonishing that all of these paintings were generated so quickly in a summer spurt of sober activity, and then recognized immediately as explosively successful works of art -- even though they remained difficult to sell.
Two of the essays in the catalogue deal at length with the influence of the Namuth photographs. Varnedoe compellingly argues that they had long-lasting impact (along with the actual paintings) on widely different kinds of New York artists, including Allan Kaprow, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse and Linda Benglis, among others.
Varnedoe firmly establishes Pollock as the central figure in American Art. He sums up the shifting approaches to the artist with the following historical sketch: "psychological interpretation in the 1950s, to a structural reading around 1960, to an emphasis on material and process around 1970."
In a technological tour de force, adjunct MoMA curator Pepe Karmel has digitally deciphered the Namuth photographs and film to reconstruct Pollock's painting process, layer by layer, fling by fling. His attempt to prove that Pollock began his allover compositions by drawing figures and real-life images with his splattery line is an academic exercise of the highest level, only rivaled by a recent decoding of Arshile Gorky's abstract paintings as actual depictions of barnyard animals.
Even if Pollock was secretly painting stickmen with ray guns or two dogs humping, ultimately the viewer is left with only what the artist has presented as the finished painting. Who cares whether it's called figurative or abstract? Ultimately you're facing a very real thing of another kind -- a painting. One hopes that future exhibitions, in addition to the unnecessary "reading" rooms and x-ray displays, won't suffer as well from video reenactment rooms.
Sadly, this show is spoiled by the worst room of all -- the mock artist's studio. MoMA has inexplicably gone to great lengths to recreate Pollock's studio shed out on Long Island, supposedly to demonstrate the intimate setting which birthed all of these large masterworks. The actual studio, where the edges of familiar paintings are still visible on the floor, can be visited at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton. It's well worth a visit, and there's no stagecraft involved; for info call (516) 324-4029. I have been inside a fake Brancusi studio, a fake Mondrian studio, a really fake Richard Pousette-Dart studio, and now this. Please, curators, stop. I don't need to sleep in Rauschenberg's bed or climb into Picasso's beach diaper to understand their artistic development.
Again, the adjacent room with the ink soaked drawings on Japan paper from 1951 is not to be missed. Every drawing in this room, like the rubbed out Untitled Red 1-7, explores viable possibilities Pollock could've used to escape the endgame trappings of the "classic" drip paintings had he managed (impossibly) to stay alive and sober. The next room contains the spare Jungian "Black Enamel" paintings; all very strong, especially Echo (1951), but still something of a letdown after the 1950 group. Not because of their supposed abandonment of abstraction, or the apparent "return to figuration" that marked Willem de Kooning's paintings from the same year. I think these paintings still suffer in contrast because they seem so much more limited in reach. None of them displays the level of fierceness as seen in One (Number 31), 1950.
The remainder of the show is dedicated to the sporadic late work created during the artist's last four years of life before dying in a car crash. All of this work is more individuated, and interesting -- full of unrealized directions and possibilities. Blue Poles, Number 11, 1952, hailing from the National Gallery of Australia, is Pollock's last true attempt at a mural-sized painting. Blue Poles is a total China Syndrome kind of painting, with the background melting in slow vertical drips, while red lacing unstably pulsates from the mid-ground in every imaginable direction, against the final cold clampdown of the blue poles themselves that weave uncertainly in axial agony.
This painting truly looks labored and suffering, but it remains quite powerful in a way distinctly different from Pollock's other large works. In spite of the reportedly drunken collaboration with Tony Smith and Barnett Newman, Blue Poles has its antecedents in Comet (1947) and an earlier drawing, not included in the show, that is composed of long, thin rectangular bars strewn against and throughout a web-field.
Another late beauty from 1953 is Easter and the Totem, which used to hang with the other Pollocks in MoMA's regular rotation, but I think it was removed because it didn't fit so comfortably into Varnedoe's Pollock paradigm. This strangely Matissean easel painting is said to have had a great influence on Lee Krasner, who worked through many of its issues in her own painting after Pollock's death. It bears a superficial similarity to the vertically aligned cock and balls imagery of Motherwell, but it still retains all of Pollock's personal agitation in its brushy and attenuated lines. Like so much of Pollock's work, it's ultimately more than just a beautiful painting.
Some of the paintings seem to predict imminent disaster for their author. Search (1955), for instance, contains all of the familiar Pollock elements, but it's completely tentative and haltingly unrealized. It literally looks like his nerves were shot when he painted this picture. I still love it, but it reads like the complete dissipation of Pollock's formerly great talent. Search is the sad over-the-hill punch-drunk heavyweight of this exhibition. Bear in mind that at this point in Pollock's decline, his neighbors once removed the distributor cap from his car's engine, in order to prevent him from driving drunk.
Sadder still, one of the best paintings in the show, may have been his last, Scent (1955). This painting presented Pollock with an entirely unrealized new mode of Abstract Expression, where squirrelly little dabs of color converge allover in glorious melted gore. This painting has tremendous presence, in a manner completely unlike all of Pollock's other work. This painting is mystic Western art at its best. Nothing comparable, from New York anyway, comes easily to mind when looking at Scent.
A long time has passed since these paintings were made, and America is obviously a different place. Pollock's era -- defined by memories of World War II and big Hollywood movies like Gone With the Wind -- continues to be recycled in the mass culture. MoMA's new survey of Pollock's paintings follows hard on the heels of Steven Spielberg's survey of Omaha Beach, Saving Private Ryan, as well as the re-release of Gone With the Wind (coincidentally first re-released around 1967, about the same time as MoMA's last Pollock retrospective). To return to these great paintings, and temporarily shelve our prejudices about this kind of work and what it represents, is really not such a difficult thing to do. Painting this untouchably good is its own unqualified pleasure and reward.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.