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the fate of a gesture:
jackson pollock and postwar american art

by Carter Ratcliff
reviewed by Michael Brennan

Jacket of The Fate of a Gesture

Carter Ratcliff

   Most Pollock biographies never leave the barn. They lock the reader in there with a drunken and belligerent man, spellbound, swirling around canvas and floor among open cans of drying Duco on a summer after- noon. The biographers, and there have been many, attempt to recreate the intensity and drama of the studio as depicted in those famous and spectacular Rudy Burckhardt and Hans Namuth photographs of Pollock in his prime. Forget about Cecil Beaton and that Vogue fashion shoot in front of those major drip paintings, it's time to smoke cigarettes with Tony Smith and lay a wet plank down on top of Blue Poles. Forget Basquiat, that was an ABC After-School Special compared to this tale. Hollywood has been casting the part of Pollock for a while now-- who's it going to be, Ed Harris or Fred Ward? Fortunately, Carter Ratcliff's new book moves beyond all of this. Past the psycho- piss scenario of the well researched but misguided (not to mention Pulitzer Prize winning) Naifeh-Smith biography. Way past the infamous secondary-source scrapings of Wall Street Journal critic Deborah Solomon. Past the trite, lovelorn tales of Ruth Kligman, the woman who wasn't killed in that fatal car crash near Fireplace Road. It's an end of the century--the American Century, a reassessment of our greatest painter, complete with a coming MoMA retrospective, and even art historian T.J. Clark is having another look. We have finally reached the point where the myth is meaningless, like the Cedar Tavern: still here but long gone. We can now really look at the paintings, examine their legacy and draw new conclusions. Which is exactly what Ratcliff has done in his new and insightful survey, The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Painting. Ratcliff, who has written so thoughtfully on art, particularly on abstract painting, demonstrates that Pollock was no accidental genius. Art biographers have typically characterized painters as surly misfits with crackpot pretensions, undisciplined buffoons who stumble their way into history. Ratcliff carefully examines the full impact of Pollock's art, separating his character from his contribution. Did Pollock effect the way people behave? Did Pollock effect the way people paint? As Ratcliff demonstrates, Pollock did influence the way art is made, and in ways much deeper than any kind of imitative drip technique associated with his personal style of painting. Pollock influenced the way artists thought about art, beginning with his own infamous retort, "I am nature," and extending through to the critical writing of someone like Donald Judd, whose radical interpretation of Pollock's painting in his 1967 Arts Magazine article on Pollock reflected his generation's spin on both material and metaphor. Ratcliff's argument, which is consistent with many of the themes propagated by MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe and other contemporary scholars, is that Pollock has had singular and widespread influence among artists as varied as Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis and Richard Serra. Ratcliff's thesis seems to be that most of the familiar postwar American art figures are reacting to a specifically broad and searching gesture and an imaginary approximation of scale--in the cultural sense, and either adopting that attitude outright and applying to their own set of issues (Morris Louis, Walter De Maria) or transforming it in a paradigm shift (Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol) or merely aping or appropriating its perceived glamour for cinematic/celebrity value (Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel). The title of the book might imply that this chain of bastardization is a process of depletement. But everyone has their own Pollock to wrestle with, and we all inhabit a separate America. Ratcliff outlines a path in postwar American art that begins with a sense of the heroic sublime, which then becomes saddled with an idea of the entropic sublime, and ultimately is fixed with endlessly inventive and recurring commercial sublime. Ratcliff is most lucid on this point when articulating exactly what took place with "the gesture" in the time span between Jackson Pollock's Scent of 1955 and Jasper Johns' Scent of 1973-74. How quickly did we go from "I am Nature" to "I am Culture?" Ratcliff succinctly leads us from a `50s clique of artists, misunderstood Melvillian "isolatoes," snubbed by Cahiers d'Art, to the professional artist of today, who can seem overshadowed by a celebrity-consumer culture valorized in the pages of Artforum as well as in the mass media. Most of the biographical material in Ratcliff's book recalls fairly well known information, but his larger idea regarding Pollock's gesture and its seemingly endless reincarnation raises timely and important questions with respect to the character of postwar American art. Like Smithson's Spiral Jetty, these issues continually submerge only to resurface. Ratcliff's well written and sweeping survey adroitly illuminates an era--one that now may be ending. The Fate of a Gesture is approachable art history at its best, in the manner of Calvin Tomkins' Off the Wall, and it should be required reading along with Jeffrey Potter's To A Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock for anyone interested in the subject.

MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.