Artist: There are no second acts in American lives, said F Scott Fitzgerald. And there was no development for Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) after the 1950 exhibition in New York that included his most beautiful,confident and inexplicable abstract paintings – One: Number 31, 1950, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950 and Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950. “After the ’50 show, what do you do next?” mused his widow, the painter Lee Krasner. What Pollock did was disintegrate.
Portrait and a Dream
In the brief, glorious period after moving to Long Island, with its view of the rolling, empty sea that reminded him of the prairies of his western childhood, Pollock invented and perfected his method of pouring, flicking and throwing paint on to a horizontal canvas. He created vortices, arabesques and webs of colour that had the authority of something that demanded to be made, to be told. And as he did so, he kept alcoholism at bay.
But after 1950, he lost everything: nerve, conviction, even singularity. He started to draw Picasso-like biomorphic images, while at the same time revelling in gothic self-pity, as in this wonderful, awful painting. Pollock’s late art is self-referential in the extreme, a theatrical wail for help, a conscious autobiography of self-destruction. No one who followed Pollock’s painting in the 1950s can have been surprised by his death in a drunken car crash on the night of August 11 1956.
Subject: Pollock said the head on the right of this painting was a portrait of himself “when I’m not sober”.
Distinguishing features: Pollock’s magic as a painter is in his refusal to acknowledge a gulf between his painting and himself. He spoke of being “in my painting”. His abstract art is not of the rational, ordering mind but of the entire self. This painting, too, is brutally, hysterically a piece of him. The portrait is a clumsy, violent thing, drawn in spiralling, blotted black lines, with that one open jaded eye and a ridiculously ham-fisted shape propped on a body that is too small – proof that Pollock was no Norman Rockwell, no homely illustrator.
The head is almost attacked with colour: non-representational, ungainly but incongruously alive colour. Transgressing the drawn border between the face and its surroundings, Pollock’s jarringly pretty grafts of colour communicate discomfort and anguish, like the colour of Van Gogh.
Melodramatically, Pollock colours the portrait to contrast with the deathly black-and-white tangle of bodies and the unreadable astral forms on the left. He said part of this “dream” denoted “the dark side of the moon”; Krasner later wished she could remember what else he had said about the painting in a moment of lucid confession. Even without its title, you would guess that it represents a head and its contents, a self and its inner life. In contrast to the total immersion of his supreme abstract paintings, Pollock stands apart from his “inner life”.
In his hour – when he had his hour – Pollock believed the mess inside him was somehow communicable and beautiful. Then, it was. Now, separate from this chaos of dreams, he contemplates its violence, menace, tangled psychosexual mayhem, as baffled as we are.
by Jonathan Jones