"Recovering Pollock: Method, Meaning and Impact," a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, Jan. 23-24, 1999.
The preeminence of postwar American art begins with Jackson Pollock. As part of the current Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Nov. 1, 1998-Feb. 2, 1999, the museum convened a two-day symposium called "Recovering Pollock: Method, Meaning and Impact."
Although the event was basically a lecture series, several distinguished art historians made themselves heard from the audience through often fractious exchanges. It was only when William Rubin, the museum's illustrious former director of painting and sculpture, hobbled to the microphone that the spectacle of his advanced age made me realize this symposium included almost no period voices. The Pollock to be constructed here is no longer a lived contemporary experience. He is for history.
Berkeley art historian T.J. Clark, renowned for his studies on art and society in 19th-century France, opened the proceedings with a ruminative brief for what I'd call the transcendental Pollock. In "Pollock's Smallness," Clark held that the painter abjured the middle range of sizes in his landmark 1950 exhibition of drip paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Only the large mural-scale and small square panels were shown, side by side.
"Bigness was relational" in that show, Clark maintained. Big needed small to confirm it. Pollock sought to exclude all conceivable figural and landscape referents, and instead to present painterly events of infinitesimal smallness and infinite vastness, paintings with no beginning or end, an image of a space in which no viewer exists.
These two scales of painting, "instinct with their time" -- meaning, one presumes, that the art in question was created with certain attributes of the historical period implicit within it, whether the maker is aware of it or not -- relate within the context of the era's hyper-consciousness of nuclear weapons, so that small and large were seen as "instantly convertible."
The handsome, rangy, black-clad Clark, with his long hair and beard shot with silver, is Hollywood's very image of a male academic speaker. With a mobile face and nimble tongue, he was patient with questioners and his reponses were humorous, although studied and highly deliberate.
Benjamin Buchloh criticized Clark for falling back on "well-received historical understandings" in reading Pollock's scale in terms of "nuclear fission." Modernism, Clark responded, is full of discontinuity, and is "continuously galvanized by raw contact with the historical moment."
Well, asked the gay art historian Jonathan Weinberg, author of Speaking for Vice (1993), "How big is it?" He proceeded to raise issues of sexuality, and developed a reading of Pollock's work as significantly revealed by Warhol's oxidation series, in which the artist urinated on canvas.
While acknowledging that "of course these paintings are bodily and carnal," Clark rejected Weinberg's venture. "It's all about a certain formal language," Clark said, "and it's unapologetic about that."
Ann Gibson noted that Lee Krasner had made many small works, and asked Clark to "contrast the domestic universe with the large universe you discussed today." Clark then discussed the "compartmentalization" in Krasner's work with the "desperate totalization" in Pollock's.
MoMA contemporary art curator Robert Storr marshaled a dense array of critical materials to speak a rushing brief for Pollock's American roots -- that is, Mexican, through his experience in the workshop of David Alfaro Siqueiros and his love for the work of Jose Clemente Orozco. These leftist artists showed how art could be ugly, and Siqueiros' studio practice helped Pollock evolve a mode of "painting in the round."
After the war the Mexicans fell out of favor. They were an "inconvenient example." Clement Greenberg, the powerful art critic who built his modernist formalism on the example of Pollock, sought to move Pollock out of range of expressionist art and link him with Picasso and Miró -- to give him "good blood lines." William Rubin, writing in 1967, widened the net but still sought to rescue Pollock from the romantics and nationalists.
As European immigrants, de Kooning and Gorky evolved out of European modernism in a way that Pollock could not. He was eclectic, and didn't work through modernism sequentially as many other conscientious avant-garde painters of the 1940s and '50s did.
Storr said the painter George McNeill told him that even though Pollock came from "bad influences" (Benton and the Mexican muralists), the magic happened for him and it didn't happen for the rest of their group.
Afterwards, the art historian Ellen Landau, who has written extensively on both Krasner and Pollock, rose to speak. Lee Krasner hated Siqueiros because he had helped try to kill Trotsky, she said. He was a "Stalinist thug," so Krasner wrote him out of Pollock's story. "The real man is Orozco," Landau said. Siqueiros influenced Pollock's technique, but Orozco he admired. He encountered both in California, where, as Reuben Kadish told Landau, the Mexicans coming to Los Angeles was like the Surrealists coming to New York.
Storr responded that the early modernist writings from which mainstream histories of modern art are written downplay the Mexicans. That, and "people can't countenance paintings that are that raucous and ugly."
Pepe Karmel's essay in the catalogue analyzed the film and photographs Hans Namuth made of Pollock working. Using outtakes and computer processing, Karmel and his team painstakingly reconstructed Pollock's working process and compositional method.
His tentative conclusions, that the great drip paintings of 1947-50 were rooted in drawing and based in part on figural prototypes (see pages 105 and 131 in the catalogue), were the principle bones to be picked over the weekend.
Karmel's talk, "The Influence of the European Avant-Garde," further developed his essay. Karmel sketched a background of European developments -- like Picasso's "curvilinear Cubism" (as Alfred Barr called it) of the mid-1920s, Max Ernst's 1928 can-on-a-string drip method of painting and the work of André Masson, together with a series of Pollock's earlier works. In Stenographic Figure (ca. 1942), two figures at a table are seen through calligraphic marks "like a scrim that hangs in front of a stage-like space." The sharpest form of the drip-as-drawing argument commences with Pollock's 1946 painting The Little King, which Pollock overpainted -- "veiling and interlacing" -- as Galaxy in 1947.
Karmel described the avant-garde response to prehistoric painting with its "purely local space relationships." As in these "primitive" precedents, Pollock used stick figures continuously, from his crowd scenes of the 1930s through to Blue Poles (1952).
One respondent expressed gratitude to Karmel that his work had let us see Pollock in relation to great draughtsmen like da Vinci, and painters addicted to pentimenti like Rembrandt.
Karmel listened to this banal recitation and said, simply, "Amen."
Columbia University art historian and October magazine editor Rosalind Krauss said Karmel's "amen" struck her as having come "from the heart....Your determination to see all of this in terms of drawing...is why everything turns into a figure." She declared her "deep sense of outrage" at this reduction of Pollock's achievement.
MoMA's William Rubin then took the stand. He seemed to respond to Clark's presentation, speaking of the size of Pollock's painting. Unlike Rothko's fields of color, Pollock's painting did not require a big size. He had already defined the style in smaller pictures. The large works were heroic because of the effort needed to take a linear style to that scale.
Pollock, he declared, is basically a draughtsman. His art is made up of drawing elements. Like Picasso, he is a black and white painter. In the end, we have to call it painting, but it came out of drawing.
The heart of MoMA's recent Pollock effort is the extensive technical examination of the painter's methods and products. Karmel's work on Hans Namuth's film was complemented by a joint study by conservators Jim Cottington of MoMA and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro of the Menil Collection in Houston.
The close technical descriptions of Pollock's drip paintings revealed the artist's technical sophistication and wide variety of picture-making strategies, like flipping a canvas and working off the bleed-through on the back. The conservators tried to re-enact some of his techniques, suggesting that the long thin white strands ("tadpoles, we call them") on some paintings were produced by squeezing a tube of paint through a pinhole on its side. A stroll through the show after these talks revealed a new Pollock, a consummately restless artist entirely invested in his surfaces and their histories.
Sunday's session began with Rosalind Krauss' presentation, "Beyond the Easel Picture," wherein the renowned post-structuralist unfurled a thesis as complex as any drip painting. The key tenet of her paper was the contention that Pollock's example offered artists who followed him the prospect of "horizontality as a medium," a set of new possibilities that were explored by artists like Richard Serra in the late 1960s as process art or anti-form (an argument that is advanced in Krauss' book, The Optical Unconscious, 1993).
She began with a vigorous attack on Karmel's portrayal of Pollock the draftsman. Karmel's cavalier identification of elements as figuration, and of "space in reciprocity with solids," which is illusionistic Renaissance space, "plays havoc with the idea of Pollock as revolutionary."
Karmel's account ties Pollock back to traditional art-making practices, Krauss complained, with its picture of the artist as an intentional being, with drawing as a proof of his intentionality. Greenberg's claim for Pollock was the negation of this, and suggested that the painter presaged the "dissolution of easel painting into a larger category."
Other critiques of the ideal of Pollock as a draftsman, Krauss said, were contained in the art of Allan Kaprow, a pioneer in "Happenings," who saw his work acting between art and life. Cy Twombly read Pollock as graffiti, Warhol read him as peeing, and Robert Morris as cutting -- all conditions defeating form.
Through the lens of French Surrealist writer Georges Bataille, Krauss sees the drip paintings as an "attack on the vertical gestalt," that is, on the figural. Horizontality as a gravitational field is "below culture," and came to be associated with the unconscious.
Karmel immediately rejoined, asking Krauss, "Do you want to make a Chinese wall to cut off early work in understanding the later work?" He noted that at the earlier artist's panel ("Responding to Pollock: A Dialogue of Artists," held on Dec. 8, 1998, with Brice Marden, Jessica Stockholder, Terry Winters and Serra), Richard Serra had refuted a link between his work and Pollock.
At this point Storr jumped in, tag-team style, charging to Krauss, "You misconstrue facts." We are watching the construction of a new master narrative, he said, "theory running away from art history."
Krauss attempted some apologetics and clarifications, but at last fell silent, seeming fairly well pummeled. Her argument was wide-ranging and subtle, but it sank under a more conservative art historical point of view.
Berkeley modern-art historian Anne Wagner was next to speak, on "Pollock's Nature, Frankenthaler's Culture." She discussed the career of Helen Frankenthaler, a painter who, observing Pollock from a position as Clement Greenberg's girlfriend, invented stain painting.
Wagner noted that early critics masculinized Frankenthaler's painting, so that the artist was forced to square her ambition and success with womanhood. Wagner showed a painful 1957 Life magazine spread on Frankenthaler in which "the finished painting is used as a rug for a photo shoot," and the erudite artist is posed in full makeup and clothes.
Wagner's paper was rather elliptical and hard to follow, but she was really the only speaker to engage gender and body issues around Pollock, albeit indirectly (e.g., "ejaculation or menstruation?").
Buchloh questioned frankly whether Frankenthaler was of much interest. She was simply "reconventionalizing" Pollock, he said. For Buchloh the question is, what is the impact of a paradigm formation on the succeeding generation?
In the afternoon session, Jeremy Lewison, director of collections at the Tate Gallery in London, which will next install the retrospective, spoke of "Pollock and the Americanization of Europe" in England, France and Italy. Through a reading of the press, especially the British magazine Horizon, Lewison recalled the post-war understanding of the United States as a culture of "rock 'n' roll, chewing gum and nylons."
Pollock was called barbaric; he "symbolized the uncivilized enemy of European culture." A negative or favorable response to Pollock was ideological, involving American culture as a whole.
In France, resistance to American influence was linked to Yankee interference with French labor unions, and the flood of Hollywood films when quotas were lifted. Newspaper critics resisted Tapiès' call for an "art autre" when Pollock was first exhibited in Paris, and defended French hegemony in art. The violence, anxiety, destruction and freedom ascribed to Pollock's art was eventually linked to Existentialism.
In Italy, fascism had discredited the Italian nationalist identity and many Italian artists as well, so there was little resistance to American influence. As the Venice Biennale was revived in 1948, and Peggy Guggenheim exhibited her collection of Pollocks, the artist was hailed as the "Presley of painting."
MoMA's chief curator Kirk Varnedoe concluded the symposium with a rhetorically forceful presentation, lubed by his considerable personal dynamism. Varnedoe's off-handed mannerisms and slang locution veneer MoMA power with boomer charm.
Doing the exhibition gave him "that golden opportunity to be confused again." Now, She Wolf and Guardians of the Secret don't look like such bad paintings, but more the outcome of several different "campaigns ... beating against each other," the results of "too much trying to be done."
The heart of Varnedoe's talk -- nay, his speech, received with strong applause -- was his rapid, dazzling prose describing Pollock's painting. His portrayal of Pollock's various effects, his "redoubling and self-following," was a kind of ikphrasis.
The power of Pollock's example lies aside from the "rocket ride," the compelling story of his life. His art is a tale of failure leading to success, a rupture between "ineptitude and great virtuosity." This kind of radical innovation is a cultural tradition.
To observe Pollock's technical procedures, as was the museum's goal during this retrospective, cuts against the notion of his spontaneity.
Still, as Anne Wagner noted, "We are left with these as representations of spontaneity." It's not a dichotomy, Varnedoe replied, "The life of instinct is part of some of the highest moments of grace ... to conjure accident takes doing."
The proceedings of this symposium are to be edited and published in a volume available in the fall of 1999.
ALAN MOORE is an art historian and critic.