Pollock in perspective

Print edition : July 03, 1999

A Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London occasions a reassessment of the Abstract Expressionist who is considered one of the most challenging and influential artists of this century.

JACKSON POLLOCK'S painting will endure, one feels. That is to say, even if what is asked of art comes to be very unlike what we want of it now, his painting will continue to be understood as art: it will not be taken for pictorial remains, merely, from another time and place. Saying so implies that whatever the practice of art may become, it will remain linked to what that practice now is, and to what it has been, in ways that enable art to have a history: and that is not at all obvious, given the sorts of things that are taken for art now. Arthur Danto, the noted American philosopher of art, has recently argued that the practice of art has become 'posthistorical': from which he concludes that "art can now be whatever artists and patrons want it to be" (and will continue, presumably, in that free state forever).

A comprehensive retrospective of Pollock's painting, the first in decades, is now going on at the Tate Gallery in London. It has come there from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibitions have been a great success, apparently, drawing crowds as well as critical acclaim: Pollock is as well-regarded a painter now as he ever was. But if Danto is right it may be of no consequence that Pollock's painting, or anyone's, endures: if art can be whatever artists and patrons want it to be, why should curators of museums not take art to have been whatever they want it to have been? There must be good reasons to resist Danto though, and here is one thing that should prompt us to do so: what Danto asserts of contemporary art cannot be said of science or poetry, say, or of any other sustained way of making sense of, and conducting ourselves coherently through, the world as we find it. But there is no room here to argue, so I am simply going to assume that art cannot, in fact, be whatever artists and patrons want it to be: that whatever may result, were that so, would not be enough like what we have so far called art to deserve the name.

Recent writing on Pollock has tried to tie his painting closely to the ideas his milieu would have afforded. That his intimates were all more or less under the spell of Carl Jung, for instance, has been stressed; and that Pollock was analysed for extended periods, by psychoanalysts who were decidedly Jungian, is accorded great importance. The attempt to set Pollock firmly in a time and place, in the New York of the 1940s and the early 1950s, was as much as anything a reaction to the Formalist reading of modernist American painting that Clement Greenberg got going in the 1950s: which came to dominate American criticism through the 1960s (and on, till postmodern practice made talk of painting seem, for a while, otiose). Formalist criticism, intent on tracking late Modernist painting as it supposedly discloses the essence of painting as an art, tended to neglect the larger culture around painting; so this sort of redress was needed. (Needless to say, this is a caricature of Formalist thought; and it may be worth noting now that Greenberg was reacting to the melodrama of Harold Rosenberg's 'existentialist' reading of Pollock; it was Rosenberg who coined the phrase "action painting" for Pollock's work.)

Besides Jung's writings, Pollock seems to have been familiar with what students of mid-century American life have come to call 'Modern Man' discourse: which was a popular mode of writing, mixing psychology and anthropology (among other things) to produce an account of the peculiarly riven creatures human beings are supposed to have become in the 20th century. It seems to have been a staple of Modern Man writing that 20th century civilisation had exacerbated, to an unprecedented degree, the tension between our reason and our unconscious instincts and drives. Jung's theories, as it happens, seemed to account for and point a way out of that predicament.

What Pollock made of Jung seems especially pertinent to a formal description of Pollock's earlier paintings: to an account of how they do whatever they are taken to be doing. Jung had taken certain visual symbols - certain motifs and images that seem common to cultures remote from each other - for natural signs, so to speak, of certain psychic 'principles' or powers; and a number of these motifs do appear in many of the drawings Pollock did while he was undergoing analysis. It is through these symbols, which are thought to connect individuals to Jung's 'collective unconscious', that our conscious minds are thought to retain what little contact they ordinarily have with Jung's principles (which 'primitive' man is thought to be much more in touch with than 'civilised' man. (Jung's notions allowed Pollock to value, and take into his painting in a considered way, the art of the supposedly primitive cultures of the Americas: of the surviving Amerindian tribes, and the destroyed Pre-Columbian societies.)

"One: Number 31, 1950". Oil and enamel paint on canvas (269.5 cm x 530.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.-

The stated goal of Jungian analysis was to bring the conscious mind to a greater awareness of how these psychic agencies shape, or sometimes distort, our thought and action: and thereby to 'integrate' ourselves. How Pollock manipulates Jung's symbols in these drawings (the way he combines them to construct images, for instance) could be taken to show that Pollock tried, at the time, to understand himself in a Jungian way; he was not a passive analysand, apparently, and his therapy seemed to involve an attempt to grasp Jung's theories. What happens in these drawings could be seen as a reflection of that grappling with ideas; and some of what happens in the drawing can be seen in what Pollock painted at the time (around 1940, where Jung's symbols mix with Amerindian and Aztec imagery).

The more careful sort of writing that tries to set Pollock firmly in his time and place does not neglect his modernist pictorial sources. For instance, Michael Leja's Reframing Abstract Expressionism, which has become something of a standard, tries to point to how Pollock's manipulation of Jungian symbols is conditioned by his contact with the painting of Orozco and Picasso. (The catalogue for the retrospective, incidentally, leans heavily on Leja's book.) Leja is clear enough on this matter; but when he comes to draw the conclusion he most wants to - which is that Pollock's painting, however abstract it may come to look, always tried to depict the unconscious - Leja seems to lose his way.

He admits, without any seeming discomfort, that the unconscious is unrepresentable: and does not worry about the consequences of doing so. For if the unconscious cannot be visually represented, then no attempt to depict it is any better than any other: in which case the visual character Pollock's paintings have as attempts to depict the unconscious can have little to do with why they are works of art (and not merely paintings, so to speak). The character his paintings gain through their relation to Orozco or Picasso, on the other hand, has everything to do with why they are works of art: and so we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of not being able to relate, in formal terms, two principal facts about the painting.

Leja suggests elsewhere that Pollock's paintings could be taken for depictions of the unconscious because they conform to contemporary descriptions of it (in Modern Man writings, for instance). But the problem cannot be evaded that way. Many paintings might conform to a given description: but only some would be works of art and, again, because the unconscious is not a visible thing, whatever visual character these have through conforming to that description could not play a role in making them works of art. (Let me bring out an assumption I make here, which should make my argument plausible. If the fact of a painting depicting some object matters to its being a work of art, then what matters is how it depicts that object; and the manner in which the object is depicted will make the painting a work of art only if that depiction enters into certain discernible relations with how that object is otherwise visible, in the world, or in other depictions of it.)

Leja wants to maintain, against the Formalists apparently (for whom painting inevitably becomes abstract as it discloses its essence), that Pollock's painting always depicts something, somehow or other, even when it seems most abstract. But a nimble Formalist could grant that, actually, without abandoning his larger programme (consider Michael Fried's well-known reading of the work titled "Cut Out", for example, to see how) and the way Leja contests the detail of Formalist readings is not very persuasive. (His counter-reading of "Cut Out", at least, is not. Leja studied with T.J. Clark, who seems to have been the first historian to take the issue seriously with the Formalist reading of Abstract Expressionism. Clark and Fried, who seems the most sophisticated of Greenberg's heirs, disputed the matter in a series of essays and rejoinders in the late 1980s.)

How depiction enters into Pollock's painting, and what formal role the unconscious might play in its production, are complex and related questions. The kinds and degrees of control Pollock seems to exercise, over how he brushes or pours or drips (or splashes, trails, spatters, and so on) paint onto canvas, invites us to think of him as yielding, as he paints, to powers beyond his control; and what we know of him warrants thinking of these as unconscious forces or drives. To grant that is not, however, to grant that the unconscious factors acting on Pollock need to be understood in any particular way: as Jung might have, say, rather than Freud. In fact, when one comes to look at Pollock's most achieved painting - at "Lavender Mist", for instance, or at "Autumn Rhythm" or "One: Number 31, 1950" - the detail of psychoanalytic theory seems irrelevant.

A painting like "One: Number 31", once one begins to look in earnest, draws the eye across it in particular ways, and in doing so endows looking with a definite character: its contained turbulence - the way the painting appears to manifest the same power working through the painter, which he at once yields to and directs - at once compels and vivifies sight, let me hazard saying.

It is unlikely, of course, that any one way of talking will be better than every other in bringing out just how Pollock "controlled the paint" even as "in some way the painting controlled him", as Danto neatly puts it (in a review of the retrospective). But one should ask of a description that it enable the eye to see (or otherwise sense) how a painting might be a work of art (even if one cannot say just how it comes to be one). What was just said about "One: Number 31" may be thought to pick out some visual character the painting would have had wherever and whenever it was produced. That is doubtful; but even were it so, one doubts that "One: Number 31", had it been painted 50 years before it actually was, would have 'compelled' or 'vivified' the eye enough to pass for a work of art.

What I ventured about the look of "One: Number 31" and its effect on the beholder would have to be linked in certain ways, then, if they are to matter, to why this painting is a work of art. One would have to bring out the manual character of the actions that produced it in ways that make the effect a plausible consequence of the look on a beholder familiar with Pollock's modernist sources. How one describes the detail of its surface should make visible how the actions (pouring, trailing, flicking and so on) that produce that detail have grown, through the intervening painting, out of Pollock's early ways of drawing and brushing, which themselves have now to be seen, above all, as ways of coming to grips with certain painters.

"Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950". Oil on canvas (266.7 cm x 525.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.-

Orozco and Picasso have already been mentioned. Orozco seems to disappear from Pollock's painting quite early: by the time of "The She-Wolf" and "Pasiphae" certainly, where Picasso is an emphatic presence (as he often is till the mid-1940s.) Miro, actually, shapes Pollock's early painting almost as much as Picasso does, though how he does so is not nearly as obvious. Miro is evident in "Moby Dick"; but as Pollock develops Miro becomes an increasingly subtler presence, informing drawing and composition as a foil, of sorts, to the vigour Pollock's brushing gains from Picasso. One can see how quite easily in the "Stenographic Figure" (of 1942), but Miro has played his part in shaping a work like "Totem Lesson 2" (1944) as well; and, importantly, how Pollock learned from Miro is clear in the earliest work (of 1943) where line is poured and trailed out.

Pollock encounters Kandinsky sometime after the war; and the "Accabonac Creek" series (1946) records how Kandinsky made him reconsider the relation between colour, on the one hand, and drawing and brushing on the other. "The Sounds in the Grass" series of the same year addresses that relation in a very different way; and when Pollock begins pouring and trailing again (in black or white) the following year, the varying relation of these actions to the brushed-on colour around restates and explores that difference. (One could compare "Reflection of the Big Dipper" to "Full Fathom Five" here.)

"Summertime" and "Number 1A" of the following year (1948) discover new ways of relating pouring and trailing to colour: where action and colour divide between themselves, as it were, the formal load that drawing and brushing might have borne. "Summertime" is a formal summa of sorts, though, integrating everything Pollock has learned from Picasso and Miro and Kandinsky; while the quality of release the actions of pouring and trailing have in "Number 1A" points forward.

"Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950". Oil, enamel and aluminium paint on canvas (221 cm x 299.7 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.-

Pollock seemed to move in a different direction in 1949, with works like "Cut Out"; but the pouring and trailing and flicking in the following year's "Autumn Rhythm" join the control of "Summertime" to the released action of "Number 1A" in ways that prepare the eye, finally, for the marvel of controlled release the painting body achieves, one is tempted to say, in "One: Number 1, 1950". (This a summary account, of course; but the genealogy sketched above has, I hope, persuaded the reader that the look of "One: Number 1" can be linked to its effect on the beholder in the required way.)

It seems significant that there should be a retrospective of Pollock's painting just now, when it looks as if (to put it as a manifesto might) Power has suborned Art: and has done so by seeming to allow artists extraordinary licence. (Consider the sorts of things transnational corporations sponsor as art.) One wonders if Pollock is going to be seen as an emblem now for what the radically free artist can do, once he is released from the burden of what art has been. But the artist's new freedom may be largely illusory, and what part of it is actual may have been bought at the cost of art; it seems particularly important, then, to insist that Pollock achieved what he did by mastering his past.

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