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Art: An American Legend in Paris

9 minute read
Robert Hughes

In his skeined patterns, Pollock sought a cultural synthesis

In the field of modern art, the most eagerly awaited show this winter is certainly the Jackson Pollock retrospective, organized by Art Historian Daniel Abadie for the Centre Pompidou in Paris.* It is not a full retrospective, but the cream off the milk—just as well, perhaps, in view of the exhausting prolixity and often dilute quality at the lower end of Pollock’s oeuvre. But it is a concentrated and moving show, probably the last of its kind to be seen in Europe or America. “Major” Pollocks are so expensive and fragile that their owners do not want to lend them, and museums find it hard to insure them.

It is superfluous to say that Pollock is one of the legends of modern art. American culture never got over its surprise at producing him; fairly or not, he remains the prototypical American modernist, the one who not only “broke the ice”—in the generous words of his colleague Willem de Kooning—but set a canon of intensity for generations to come. The sad fact seems to be that no younger American artist, in the 25 years since his death, has quite got past Pollock’s achievement. His work was mined and sifted by later artists as though he were a lesser Picasso; seen through this or that critical filter, it could mean almost anything. The basic données of color-field abstraction, which treated the canvas like an enormous watercolor dyed with mat pigment, were deduced by Frankenthaler, Morris and Noland from the soakings and spatterings of Pollock’s work. Along with that went the “theological” view of Pollock as an ideal abstractionist obsessed by flatness, which ignored the fact that there were only four years of his life (1947-51) when he was not making symbolic paintings based on the totemic animal or human figure.

Still, if Claes Oldenburg dribbled sticky floods of enamel over his hamburgers and plaster cakes in the ’60s. he did so in homage to Pollock. If a sculptor like Richard Serra made sculpture by throwing molten lead to splash in a corner, or Barry Le Va scattered ball bearings and metal slugs on the floor of the Whitney Museum, the source of their gestures was not hard to find. Distorted traces of Pollock lie like genes in art-world careers which, one might have thought, had nothing to do with his. Certainly Pollock scorned decor. He was not interested in painted hedonism; and yet his practice of painting “all over”—by covering an entire field with incidents that were not arranged in hierarchies of size or emphasis—became, in a stupefied way, the basis of the ornamental “pattern and decoration” mode that came out of SoHo in the late ’70s.

If the work was so influential, the image of the man was too. The very idea of vocation in American art was profoundly altered by the way photography and magazines projected versions of Pollock on the public. He was the first American artist to become really famous. Millions of people who never set foot in a museum had heard of Jack the Dripper. Dying at 44, a mean and puffy drunk with two girls in a big car, he was seen as enacting the all-American Heldentod, the alienated hero’s death that also, and at about the same time, lifted James Dean into undecaying orbit in the national psyche. Pollock became Vincent van Gogh from Wyoming, and his car crash—the American way of death par excellence—was elevated to symbolism, as though it meant something more than a hunk of uncontrolled Detroit metal hitting a tree on Long Island.

Pollock had been more photographed (by Rudy Burckhardt, Hans Namuth and Arnold Newman among others) than any other artist in American history. These photos, Namuth’s in particular, seemed to depict not his art but his “mythic” process of creating it: a man dancing round the borders of a canvas, an arena or sacred precinct laid flat on the floor, spattering it with gouts and sprays of paint. Pollock as seen by Namuth’s lens, half athlete and half priest, seemed to confirm Harold Rosenberg’s bizarre notion that abstract expressionism is not really painting at all, not paint on canvas, but a series of exemplary “acts.” And so these images of him would have their effect on the aes thetic of the happening in the ’60s, as on avant-garde dance in the ’70s.

But where is Jack the Dripper now, the harsh, barely articulate existentialist from the West, full of chaotic energy and anal aggression? This figment is not the creature whose work one sees on the walls of the Centre Pompidou. It is as though the eruptive violence people used to see in Pollock’s work 25 years ago had evaporated. Instead we see the work of an aesthete, tuned to the passing nuance. Many of the passages in his “heroic” paintings of 1947-51 remind one of Monet, or even of Whistler. Fog, vagueness, translucency, the scrutiny of tiny incidents pullulating in a large field—Lavender Mist, 1950, the title Pollock gave his most ravishingly atmospheric painting about sums it up. In it one sees the delicacy—at a scale that reproduction cannot suggest—with which Pollock used the patterns caused by the separation and marbling of one enamel wet in another, the tiny black striations in the dusty pink, to produce an infinity of tones.

It is what his imitators could never do, and why there are no successful Pollock forgeries; they always end up spaghetti, looking like whereas vomit, or Pollock—in onyx, or his best work, at any rate—had an almost preternatural control over the total effect of those skeins and receding depths of paint. In them, the light is always right. Nor are they absolutely spontaneous: he would often retouch the drip with a brush. So one is obliged to speak of Pollock in terms of a perfected visual taste, analogous to natural pitch in music—a far cry, indeed, from the familiar image of him as a violent expressionist. As William Rubin suggests in the catalogue to this show, his musical counterpart is not the romantic and moody Bartók: it is the interlaced, twinkling and silky surface of Debussy. No wonder that it took an enthusiasm for Pollock to provoke the re-evaluation of Monet’s Water Lilies among Americans, back in the ’60s.

Yet Pollock’s refinement is not the whole story. His best paintings (like all serious art) are triumphs of sublimation, but they leave no doubt of the strength of feeling he had to control. From the very first, when he was trying—in studies like Composition with Figures and Banners, circa 1934-38—to find painted form for the violently energetic, twisting, flamelike movement of large masses, Pollock was obsessed by energy. His great theme, one might say, was the dissolution of matter into energy under extreme stress. He did not approach this by some corny process of finding painted “equivalents” for Einstein, like so many pseudo artists of his time. Rather, he looked back into tradition, past his teacher Thomas Hart Benton, to El Greco and, with somewhat less understanding, to Michelangelo.

Pollock’s early work is permeated by the forms of mannerist contrapposto, the serpentine figures of 16th century art, and there is more than just an echo of the strange excavated space of El Greco’s paintings, simultaneously vast and womblike, in his work after 1947. Because of his aspirations to sublimity, it is difficult to assimilate Pollock—as some authorities have wished to do—to the traditions of the School of Paris. The French painter he most admired, the surrealist André Masson, was set against the pre-eminently French virtues of lucidity, calm and mésure. An extraordinary number of strands are braided and involved in Pollock’s work, from Indian sand painting to the theory of Jungian archetypes, from Zen calligraphy to El Greco, from American jazz and Western landscape to the doctrines of various occult religions.

These were woven around a sense of his own modernity as an American living in the mid-20th century, the heir but not the colonized admirer of Picasso and Miró. It seems now that Pollock was eager to wind so many elements together in his work, not out of some empty eclecticism (which is what our “expressionists” give us today) but in the belief that cultural synthesis might redeem us all. How can one follow this show, from its first choked and turbulent exercises, through the grapplings with chosen masters (Picasso, Masson, Miró, Orozco) in the “totemic” and “archetypal” paintings of the 1940s, into the air and vastness of Lavender Mist or Autumn Rhythm, without seeing that Pollock’s career was one of the few great models of integrating search that our fragmented culture can offer?

It does Pollock no service to idolize him. This point is that he grasped his limitations and refused to mannerize them. Thus he was by no means a natural draftsman, and his best paintings of the early ’40s, like the She-Wolf or Male and Female, are set down with terrible earnest ness but with no graphic facility. When he set up a repeated frieze of drawn motifs, as in the mural he did for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, the result—as drawing—was rather monotonous. But when he found he could throw lines of paint in the air, the laws of energy and fluid motion made up for the awkwardness of his fist and, from then on, there was no grace that he could not claim. Compared with his paintings, the myth of Pollock is of no importance at all.

—By Robert Hughes

* In fact, art lovers had to wait longer than expected; the show’s public opening was delayed last week by a strike of the museum cleaning staff.

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