The Last Dance

In Jackson Pollock’s hands, paint took on the delicacy, power, and variety of a human form. He laid it on with care, in dabs of black and skeins of intense color. He let it run off as he circled a canvas, as if it flowed from the motion of his body. On that enormous scale, it accumulates the debris of an artist’s life, from ashes and canvas ends to the sober gray of Long Island sunlight. At once palpable, fluid, and transparent to the light, it gives to an entire museum wall the brightness, odor, and ordinary necessity of fresh house paint.

After half a century of pattern painting and parody, Pollock’s drip paintings can be seen at last as a lot more than drips, but they remain the most defiantly abstract art ever made. And yet his retrospective begins with the small, clumsy image of a boy’s face, his own. Easter and the Totem (Museum of Modern Art, 1953)Achingly shy, he has the dark rings around his eyes of a battered child.

The painting, Pollock’s only known self-portrait, could stand for all the weaknesses of his art, right up to the desperately few final years that made him famous. Well past the excuses of student age, he settles for unpromising class work. The portrait’s derivative style lies somewhere between Expressionism and Sunday painting. By painting himself years younger, the victim of a father Pollock in fact hardly knew, he combines evasion with a severe case of self-dramatization.

Evasion and overstatement, self-assertion and the chaos of influences—they fill Pollock’s mature art as well. The majestic mature paintings beg to be larger than life. They allow the artist to step directly into a changing work and leave only a trace behind. The Museum of Modern Art makes it possible for one to linger over that glorious trail. For anyone who loves modern art, for anyone perplexed and angered by it, this is the show of a lifetime. A postscript updates this review for a survey of Pollock drawings some seven years later.

Painting out Pollock

The retrospective’s first few rooms run down one style after another. Long after he preceded his friend Philip Guston to New York, Pollock is at a loss to know how to paint, and all he has for certain is a violent imagination. He tries his hand at Thomas Hart Benton’s determined American scenes, but the landscape sits too still. He imitates the compacted bodies of El Greco or the Mexican muralists, José Clemente Oroczo and David Alfaro Siqueros. He dabbles in Jung, like Richard Pousette-Dart, and in automatic writing, as if looking hard for something to dream. Fascinated with art’s origins and star power, he keeps coming back to Picasso.

Even with his breakthrough work, Mural, he still has to look back. It may be the largest abstract painting Pollock ever made, but I thought first of Wilfredo Lam. Oh, no, another artist stuck between Surrealism and the future! Still, today one recalls Lam, if at all, mostly on account of Pollock. One remembers instead the mania in which he completed that work, in one long day and night. One remembers the fantastic scale on which Pollock can paint.

I can see why it impressed Peggy Guggenheim. I can see, too, why he captivated—and scared—a painter like Lee Krasner, his future wife. Amid the lurid excesses, Pollock is learning to scrawl. For a generation of painters, such as Cy Twombly, the scrawl will come to be a sign of maturity.

At first he layers over scenes, as if borrowing his old, lurid fantasies for a casual game of tic-tac-toe. A title like Guardians of the Secret has a double meaning: painting holds the secret, but also hides it. Pollock is erasing himself from his own longings. He can get that much larger than life if he leaves some of the overstatement—and the child—behind.

Pollock is painting himself out, bit by bit, along with all the old notion’s of art’s sublimity. That breakthrough work is a highly abstracted row of people. I walked beside it as if through a nightmare party. I felt that I could have reached out and touched the paint, but without connecting, unable to get anyone’s attention no matter how loudly I boasted. I bet that Pollock felt the same even when he drank. Or especially then.

More and more, Pollock’s scrawls merge with the underlying image, much as in the development of perhaps his only peer, Mark Rothko. They attain a fresh concentration through brighter colors, a simpler palette, and a surface devoid of obvious illusion. In remarkable abstract works such as Comet, Pollock creates a uniform, shallow space, the space of paint as a substance. Depth still exists, but forget old-fashioned perspective. It sits on this side of the canvas. It is depth for only the hand and the light to penetrate, leaving behind the dream.

Patience without distance

Start again with those first tumultuous images, borrowed so obviously from older artists. Pollock struggles not just with paint, but with his terror. He describes the mind’s sexual charge in terms traditionally reserved for morally elevated, public scenes. But as soon as sex becomes heroic, it gets out of control. Then a new generation of influences hits him, and the florid images vanish abruptly, as if banished by force of will. They turn into something overtly calm, dazzlingly layered, and abstract.

Does this career sound familiar? Paul Cézanne, a hero for Pollock’s generation, took the almost the same strange course. Impressionism showed Cézanne how to discard adolescent fantasies, and he created a new classicism from his shifting visions. However, the madness he cast aside haunts his finest, calmest creations. Cézanne’s sensual apples, like Pollock’s She-Wolf and frightened eyes, remind one of the emotions behind his most extreme formalism.

Pollock’s psyche also differs sharply from Cézanne’s. Think about it: why are there no apples in a Jackson Pollock? Well, start with why Cézanne chose them.

Meyer Schapiro, who first wrote about those apples, put the sex back into Cézanne’s still life. More than that, however, he asked why it had to enter still life. He looked back at the genre and found a specific tradition, a tradition of looking.

For painters such as Jan Vermeer centuries before, still life meant household affairs and high illusion. Not a bad combination for artists out to capture the world—and to unsettle vision. For Cézanne, Schapiro continued, still life makes Vermeer’s project modern. “The fruit, I have observed, while no longer in nature, is not yet fully a part of human life. Suspended between nature and use, it exists for contemplation alone.”

Pollock has no patience for Cézanne’s “steadfast commitment to the visible.” He paints so poorly at first because he cannot see the outside world well enough—and he never understands why he should. Too much presses in for contemplation alone, for what Schapiro called “esthetic perception as a pure will-less knowing.” Pollock nourishes the patient eye, but he never allows Cézanne’s “distinctive distance from action and desire.”

Dance class

Pollock’s early work may at times resemble still life, but one really gets just an empty table. In Guardians of the Secret, the table’s surface turns into the picture plane. It becomes a slate for a message that painting cannot deliver. I thought of Picasso’s harlequin, holding a blank easel like a playing card.

For much the same reasons, Pollock cannot handle landscape. His foregrounds crowd so with imagery that to speak of a backdrop makes no sense at all.

Like pretty much everyone else, I have compared the big drip paintings to the American west. I succumbed to the myth, and I was wrong. Pollock hardly knew his birthplace in Cody, Wyoming, before his family moved on. His gamble was to be rootless.

From the old genres Pollock cares only about the mural and the drama. Not even James Rosenquist could take them both to a larger scale. His lost fantasies were primal, political, and human. Like Mexican muralists, he was to see every action as greater than any one man’s. Like Surrealist doodling, he was to immerse an artist’s most basic gesture in the painted surface.

Pollock repeats every element of Cubism in human terms. Cubist fragmentation becomes spatter. The perspective that thrusts forward rather than into depth becomes a crust of enamel and oil. Cubist symmetry becomes an artifact of the artist’s working method, from all sides of canvas laid on the floor. Picasso’s rapid-fire puns on art, like Willem de Kooning’s return to Cubism’s women, become literal remnants of a painting’s process.

Harold Rosenberg described drip painting as an “arena for action,” and of course Clement Greenberg wrote about “flatness.” I can see both, but as carefully crafted illusions. Pollock has found when to enter these stage sets and when to step back. Painting can extend his movements, but paint itself must learn to dance.

Shimmering perception

Somehow, even when Pollock looks backward, every room at the Modern has a disclosure. And so the first rooms make a case for Pollock’s continued growth through heartfelt encounters with the past. The chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, has enough sense to hide a few clunkers in an alcove, alongside drawings. The show never quite lies, but it helps a career take shape.

Another of the Modern’s tricks is to stretch out the glory years. It chooses carefully and hangs its choices well. Big canvases never get in each other’s way. From this moment on, each room corresponds to just a few months. One experiences every small span of Pollock’s life as a separate stage and a glorious discovery.

First, paint takes over its shallow space. It gets denser, a painting’s symmetry gets more obvious, and the technique gets varied and absorbing. A physicist has actually quantified the symmetry, not implausibly, with fractal geometry. When Pollock calls a painting Simmering Substance, one sees the heat but feels a refreshing cool.

These works absorb attention for a long time, and when one looks back at the one before, it appears unfamiliar all over again. Pollock makes it dangerous to look back. Every look is like the poet’s glance at a love he fears he has left behind. I said that Pollock had to paint himself out of his work. It leaves him—and the viewer—exposed to loss.

Each of the next stages consolidates the new style and the loss. Pollock simplifies things. He discards titles and opens the weave of the paint. He sets it against an earthy red. He sticks entirely to black enamel or the quiet colors of Autumn Rhythm.

One still cherishes a painting for every last second of perception. Now, however, one’s eye moves comfortably between paint and ground. It is perhaps the finest moment of painting in this century. It could be the last time that painting let itself to be taken half as seriously. When brighter colors and fragile paint threads reappear in Blue Poles, a painting not seen here in many years, the effect is exhilarating.

The dark, timbered room

This show amounts to Abstract Expressionism’s critical comeback. It gives the movement’s star his due. It also runs hardly a mile from Rothko’s retrospective, as well as gallery exhibits of their contemporaries. Do not be fooled. The comeback comes at a price, the price of turning artists into classics. It accedes to their place in a happy male pantheon.

The Modern studies Pollock as a textbook figure, a technician. By this tactic, it gets past myths that have come to surround Pollock. It offers intelligent commentary, plus a recreation of the shed in which he dripped. It includes a video of him at work, as if brilliantly choreographed. It displays swatches of canvas made up to explain Pollock’s technique. The reviewers obediently speak of little else.

I gained precious insights from these displays. Heck, I would have worked on the floor myself. Pollock had cramped wall space, and the dark, timbered walls make a lousy backdrop for decent art. They must have looked truly pathetic just when modern art was entering a museum’s bare white walls. In arguing for painting’s “flatness,” a critical advocate like Greenberg reflected this emerging standard.

The grit of that shed, however, unsettles the purity of a pantheon, a tawdry American century. Besides, if technique matters so much, why do I have to put up with such inept painting at the start? Something else is at stake in the technical high-wire act, the underside of Pollock’s humanity.

When drip painting works, the dance never ends, but the artist has stepped aside. Canvas gets up off the floor of Pollock’s crude studio. Gesture detaches itself from the artist’s history. It takes on symmetry instead of a treacherously bent over pose. The pattern becomes abstract and public, like diagrams of dance instruction. The act of contemplation gets literally out of hand.

I risk something, too, entering the dance of abstract painting. As I look at bare spots of canvas, paint surrounds me and pushes me back. No glance or gesture can encompass it all. I cannot write off this stroke or that as decorative flair or Pollock’s personal problems. Like the artist, I experience its creation and find that it excludes me.

After the murmur

Psychologists have compared depression to a loss of language. The unconscious rules, reducing the human voice to a helpless murmur. Again like Cézanne, Pollock was overcome by too many words. He aspired to too many styles, too much of art’s past. He had to let eye and hand at last stumble on their own.

Julia Kristeva, a French psychologist and novelist, has a word for what artists do. She speaks of the symbolic giving way to the semiotic. She means that a depressed person can hope to recover not speech alone, but a freer play of words. She means that some people can attain not exactly a power over their art, but the power that art has over them. It is like taking control of one’s dreams. She associates the symbolic, or common language, with the words of a father. The semiotic, in contrast, draws on a woman’s vulnerability and strength.

Kristeva gushes much too much for me. She revels in the infamous obscurity of her own creative father, Jacques Lacan, the psychologist. And she manages to combine this with a New Age sensibility. I might say that she mixes two ways of making no sense at all. I thought of her, however, as I watched Pollock’s life unfold.

In the last decade, feminism has seen the macho underside of Abstract Expressionism. A pack of tough-drinking men took the dribs and drabs of Surrealism and got high art under control. It spoke a language of symmetry and grandeur. It took as its hero modern art’s great misogynist, Picasso. Like others influenced by Surrealism, Pollock liked titles that spoke of the origin of the world, another cliché for the male fascination with women.

Meanwhile, women vanished from the scene and the textbooks. Janet Sobel, who made the first and maybe loveliest drip paintings, remains unknown even to Pollock fans. Lee Krasner, one of my favorite painters, pretty much set her career aside. Pulling her husband back from the drunken edge was a full-time job, not to mention ultimately a futile one. It is not a pretty picture.

Perhaps, but why not put women back into Abstract Expressionism, too? I mean as both history and a feminist understanding. I mean a renewed look at what followed the murmur of words.

Walk softly

History is the easy part. Lee Krasner made Pollock take fresh notice of Cubism’s rigor. Through her, he met Hans Hoffman and other European immigrants. They helped him rein in those early fantasies, and in turn he gave her art a space to breathe. In the show’s final room, one finds new simplicities, including a figure in soft brown, Easter and the Totem. Its palette and gentle ovals were to become Krasner’s trademark for twenty years.

A more nuanced view of men and women should also clarify the change in Pollock’s art. At some point, he discovered when to use his brush, but also when to put it down, take up a paint stick, and let ‘er drip.

I might still use words like mastery to describe Pollock’s developed technique, but he had mastered an art of acceptance. I am happy to see the stick as a penis, a gesture of arrogance, an act of pure aggression. This is one screwed-up guy, in a company of arrogant, screwed-up men. Still, I see also the act of giving pleasure. In Pollock’s dance over a canvas, it takes two to tango. Moreover, exactly which is Pollock?

When Pollock paints his fantasies out of his art, painting starts to have a life of its own. It is neither wholly the feminine other to Pollock’s caress, nor wholly his extension. When he steps back from it, his absence is telling. Every viewer has to risk entering and leaving a work this large in scale. I felt the risk in that shock of perception whenever I turned to look back.

If the canvas is the woman to the painter’s drip, they are also wrapped up in one another, representing each other. If Pollock cannot rest with pure contemplation, he cannot paint women the old way. His subject no longer waits for him eagerly and passively.

And then one steps back and looks away, much like Pollock once did. For every beauty one senses a deprivation. Seeing his late work, I remembered again the hold his mother had over him. I remembered the journey on which she had led her family across the west. It was a journey from poverty to desolation.

Risk and renewal

Eventually, the rootlessness of Pollock’s art caught up with him. It scared him, perhaps, to death. The pure black paintings or the echoes of autumn’s dying leaves feel calming really. At the very end of Pollock’s life, however, fear pours in, and so do references to the world.

By the end of the retrospective, nature has entered again. It enters through the colors. It haunts Pollock’s anxious drive to experimentation, his unquiet hope of renewal. His career has the same restlessness as the creation of a single work. Think of the recycled canvas in Out of the Web. It disrupts the web of paint around it, and it refuses the comfort of last month’s web.

In the retrospective’s final room, canvases abandon a hope of symmetry. Paint no longer darts in firm verticals like those electric blue poles. The curves assemble into suggestive images. They move with little energy but relentlessly, right to the edges where the dripper once danced. The refusal to distinguish figure from ground leaves him nowhere to stand.

Pollock still does not represent himself in a painting. He has moved through it and gone. Only the towering shapes must then look none too comforting. Abstraction still identifies paint with a body, not quite Pollock’s and not quite another’s. But where does that leave the viewer when another body threatens to appears? Black, which he once treated as a color, is reduced to the Romantic’s starved associations with black and white.

The Deep‘s silky flecks of white surround an irregular black center, vaguely resembling a corpse. The dark figure could be sinking into ice or looming up into white, as if threatening the firmness and purity of abstraction’s two-dimensional surface. Either way, it is none too friendly.

Pollock continues the child’s overstatement right up to the end. He still wants everything larger than life. Where he had once made his youthfulness too extreme, in the end he has turned a fear of dying into an image of death.

A postscript: can Pollock draw?

Jackson Pollock eradicates the distinction between painting and drawing, right? I know you rely on critics for clichés, but an exhibition of Pollock drawings makes this one inescapable. The curators insist on it, and it turns up, too, in every review that I have read. Oddly enough, though, the Guggenheim may also prove it wrong. It could also put you in the mood for the Fourth of July with a perennial candidate for greatest American artist.

Of course, the cliché does not mean that Jack the Dripper introduced a fine line to canvas. Rather, it points to how Pollock lets paint—as color and as material—determine the composition. Perhaps Pablo Picasso had drawn like J. A. D. Ingres before he learned, as the great Modernist ego put it, to paint like a child—or perhaps like thrift-shop art. Pollock loved from the first playing the unruly child, eager to shout, “Reach for your guns, draw!” Paint takes over from the priority of drawing temporally as well as formally, too, for Pollock improvised on canvas, without preparatory sketches. Each of his many works on paper has a life entirely its own.

You may therefore expect a mini-retrospective, in more ways than one. The Guggenheim offers a display well suited to the occasion, in scope and intimacy, as well. Set away from Zaha Hadid out on the ramp, in an upstairs tower gallery with more or less normal walls, it proceeds roughly chronologically—but with an emphasis on Pollock’s classic drip period. Some of the best examples, in fact, lie immediately to the right just as one enters. However, the artist has a few tricks up his sleeve once again. Contrary to cliché, I might even argue that he has made his own drawings all but superfluous.

They can shed only limited light on Pollock’s most impressive museum pieces and their germination, since each object stands alone. They do not have the novelty of his paintings either, since paper has long held an artist’s first thoughts. One expects drawings to begin with a blank sheet of paper on a table, whereas Pollock’s dance around large areas of canvas laid flat to the floor imposes a constraint special to his art. It disrupts the vertical as drawing on paper does not, and it makes the a work’s edge into an extension of the artist’s body and line of sight. In drawing, on the other hand, paint or ink does not cross the edge only because the paper gives out. Paper passively resists its traces, and Pollock does not linger long enough on a sheet to achieve the density of those traces in my favorite paintings.

Perhaps for the same reason, the white of paper sets a limit on the image in a way that a canvas or particle board never does. In Pollock’s greatest work, one remains aware of the tan weave, and its color and texture have an interplay with oil and enamel that helps establish the image. They also help enable his fiendishly indefinite space—at once shallow, infinite, and literally a painted surface. Ironically, while the white of paper has traditionally stood in for sky, with Pollock it flattens into a stark plane, fully apart from the medium. In his last big paintings, Pollock achieves something of that effect on canvas, by paring back to black and white, with a tracery that suggests a kind of dark, unfinished self-portraiture. However, at that point, he also pretty much gave up drawing on paper!

All that still leaves a central role for drawing. Because Pollock makes scale and materials matter, even on paper, this show brings his technique up close. The colors and drips look familiar, but also accessible and just plain pretty, and one of those I mentioned near the entrance seems to have more thin lines and layers than I might have thought possible on paper. The Guggenheim could have tried to make up for this comforting view. By stressing his stubborn, clumsy, early years—or, conversely, by stretching the show’s definition more to encompass small paintings—it could have presented a truly scabrous personality. Pollock sure seemed like one last year, in small works paired at a gallery with those of Krasner. For now the intimacy will have to do, and it lets an officially great American painter become just an artist again, with color and drawing to spare.

John Haber
in New York City


Author: James Presley

I am an artist and I love it. What do I have to do to live from what I love? I'm not dying or cutting me bloody ear off, that's for sure.

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