PRINT September 1965

Jackson Pollock

The following article is a section from the extensive introductory essay to the exhibition “Three American Painters,” organized by Mr. Fried at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, and shown there from April 21 to May 30, 1965. A version of the exhibition (which consists of works by Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella) appeared at the Pasadena Art Museum from July 6 through August 3, 1965.

THE ALMOST COMPLETE FAILURE of contemporary art criticism to come to grips with Pollock’s accomplishment is striking. This failure has been due to several factors. First and least important, the tendency of art writers such as Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess to regard Pollock as a kind of natural existentialist has served to obscure the simple truth that Pollock was, on the contrary, a painter whose work is always inhabited by a subtle, questing formal intelligence of the highest order, and whose concern in his art was not with any fashionable metaphysics of despair but with making the best paintings of which he was capable. Second, in the face of Pollock’s all-over drip paintings of 1947–50—the finest of which are, I believe, his masterpieces—the vocabulary of the most distinguished formal criticism of the past decades, deriving as it does chiefly from the study of Cubism and Late Cubist painting in Europe and America, begins to reach the furthest limits of its usefulness. Despite Pollock’s intense involvement with Late Cubism through 1946, the formal issues at stake in his most successful paintings of the next four years cannot be characterized in Cubist terms*, and in general there is no more fundamental task confronting the formal critic today than the evolution and refinement of a post-Cubist critical vocabulary adequate to the job of defining the formal preoccupations of modernist painting since Pollock. What makes this task especially difficult is the fact that the formal issues with which Pollock and subsequent modernists such as Louis, Noland, Olitski and (though perhaps to a lesser degree) Stella have chosen to engage are of a phenomenological subtlety, complexity and richness without equal since Manet. The following discussion of Pollock’s work will concentrate on a nexus of formal issues which, in my opinion, are central both to Pollock’s art after 1947 and to some of the most salient characteristics of subsequent modernist painting. These issues concern the ability of line, in modernist painting of major ambition, to be read as bounding a shape or figure, whether abstract or representational. The discussion will begin with an attempt to describe the general nature of Pollock’s work between 1947 and 1950, and will move on to consider several specific paintings which illustrate the virtually self-contradictory character of Pollock’s formal ambitions at this time.

The Museum of Modern Art’s Number One (1948), roughly typical of Pollock’s best work during these years, was made by spilling and dripping skeins of paint on to a length of unsized canvas stretched on the floor which the artist worked on from all sides. The skeins of paint appear on the canvas as a continuous, all-over line which loops and snarls time and again upon itself until almost the entire surface of the canvas is covered by it. It is a kind of space-filling curve of immense complexity, responsive to the slightest impulse of the painter and responsive as well, one almost feels, to one’s own act of looking. There are other elements in the painting besides Pollock’s line: for example there are hovering spots of bright color, which provide momentary points of focus for one’s attention, and in this and other paintings made during these years there are even handprints put there by the painter in the course of his work. But all these are woven together, chiefly by Pollock’s line, to create an opulent and, in spite of their diversity, homogeneous visual fabric which both invites the act of seeing on the part of the spectator and yet gives his eye nowhere to rest once and for all. That is, Pollock’s all-over drip paintings refuse to bring one’s attention to a focus anywhere. This is important. Because it was only in the context of a style entirely homogeneous, all-over in nature and resistant to ultimate focus that the different elements in the painting—most important, line and color—could be made, for the first time in Western painting, to function as wholly autonomous pictorial elements.

At the same time, such a style could be achieved only if line itself could somehow be prized loose from the task of figuration. Thus an examination of Number One, or of any of Pollock’s finest paintings of these years, reveals that his all-over line does not give rise to positive and negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure, whether abstract or representational, against another part of the canvas read as ground. There is no inside or outside to Pollock’s line or to the space through which it moves. And this is tantamount to claiming that line, in Pollock’s all-over drip paintings of 1947–50, has been freed at last from the job of describing contours and bounding shapes. It has been purged of its figurative character. Line, in these paintings, is entirely transparent both to the non-illusionistic space it inhabits but does not structure, and to the pulses of something like pure, disembodied energy that seem to move without resistance through them. Pollock’s line bounds and delimits nothing—except, in a sense, eyesight. We tend not to look beyond it, and the raw canvas is wholly surrogate to the paint itself. We tend to read the raw canvas as if it were not there. In these works Pollock has managed to free line not only from its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, on the surface of the canvas. In a painting such as Number One there is only a pictorial field so homogeneous, overall and devoid both of recognizable objects and of abstract shapes that I want to call it “optical,” to distinguish it from the structured, essentially tactile pictorial field of previous modernist painting from Cubism to de Kooning and even Hans Hofmann. Pollock’s field is optical because it addresses itself to eyesight alone. The materiality of his pigment is rendered sheerly visual, and the result is a new kind of space—if it still makes sense to call it space—in which conditions of seeing prevail rather than one in which objects exist, flat shapes are juxtaposed or physical events transpire.

To sum up then: in Pollock’s masterpieces of 1947–50, line is used in such a way as to defy being read in terms of figuration. I hope it is clear that the opposition “figurative” versus “non-figurative,” in the sense of the present argument, stands for a more fundamental issue than the opposition between the terms “representational” and “non-representational.” It is possible for a painting or drawing to be both non-representational—what is usually termed “abstract”—and figurative at the same time. In fact, until Pollock that was the most that so-called “abstract” painting had ever been. This is true, for instance, of de Kooning, as well as of all those Abstract Expressionists whose work relies on Late Cubist principles of internal coherence. It is true also of Kandinsky, both early and late. For example, in Kandinsky’s Painting with White Forms (1913), a heroic attempt has been made to allow line to work as freely as color. But one senses throughout the canvas how the line has been abstracted from various natural objects; and to the degree that one feels this, the line either possesses a residual but irreducible quality as of contour, so that one reads it as having an inside and an outside—as the last trace of a natural object that has been dissolved away by the forces at work in the pictorial field—or else it possesses the quality of an object in its own right: not merely as line, but as a kind of thing, like a branch or bolt of lightning, seen in a more or less illusionistic space. In his later work—Yellow-Red-Blue (1929) is a case in point—Kandinsky tried to overcome his dependence upon natural objects by restricting himself to geometrical shapes that could be made with compass and ruler; and he chose to emphasize or heighten the quality which his line possessed from the start, of being another kind of thing in the world. In paintings such as this, Kandinsky’s line seems like segments of wire, either bent or straight, which are somehow poised in a space that is no less illusionistic than in the earlier paintings. Both these canvases by Kandinsky could be called non-representational; but both are clearly figurative, if we compare them with Pollock’s all-over paintings of 1947–50.

Pollock, however, seems not to have been content with the non-figurative style of painting he had achieved, and after 1950 returned to figuration, at first in a series of immensely fecund black-and-white stain paintings, and afterwards in works which tended to revert to something close to traditional drawing. These latter paintings probably mark Pollock’s decline as a major artist. But it is important to observe that Pollock’s involvement with figuration did not cease entirely between 1947 and 1950.

For example, the painting White Cockatoo (1948), was made by dripping black paint in a series of slow-moving loops and angular turns which come nowhere near covering the brown canvas; but instead of trying to create the kind of homogeneous visual fabric of paintings like Number One, Pollock chose to fill in some of the areas accidentally circumscribed when his black line intersected itself; with gouts of red, yellow, green, blue and white oil paint, either knifed onto the canvas or squeezed in short bursts directly from the tube. It is significant that Pollock was careful not to fill in only the most conspicuous of these areas. Some of the most positive contours are left almost completely devoid of painted fill-in, whereas areas that seem to lie between more positive contours have been filled in. The result is that the painting leaves one with the strong impression that the black line, instead of retaining the non-figurative character it possesses in the optical paintings made at the same time, works to describe shapes and evoke forms seen as if against a colored background. By filling in certain areas isolated by his black line as it loops and angles back upon itself, Pollock restored to it some measure of line’s traditional role in bounding and describing shapes and figures. And the fact that in White Cockatoo he filled in both predominantly convex and concave (or positive and negative) areas does not work to counteract the figurative character of the line. Rather, it creates a rough equivalent to a Synthetic Cubist ambiguity of figure versus ground, but without the rigor and strict consequentiality of Synthetic Cubism itself. White Cockatoo, then, represents an awkward compromise among three stylistic modes: first, Synthetic or Late Cubism; second, what might be called naive abstract illusionism or naive abstract figuration, in which an abstract shape or figure is seen against a background situated an indeterminate distance behind it; and third, the all-over, optical, non-figurative abstraction of Pollock’s best contemporary work. White Cockatoo is not a successful painting. But it is an important one, because it suggests that as early as 1948, when Pollock was realizing masterpiece after masterpiece in his optical style, he could not keep from chafing at the high price he had to pay for this achievement: the price of denying figuration, of refusing to allow his line to describe shapes, whether abstract or representational. It is significant, however, that White Cockatoo does not try to repudiate the techniques of paintings such as Number One. Instead it suggests that Pollock had begun to cast about for some way to do what seems, on the face of it, impossible: to achieve figuration within the stylistic context of his all-over, optical style.

There are other paintings, such as The Wooden Horse (1948) and Summertime (1948), which reinforce this interpretation. In all of these Pollock seems to have been preoccupied with the problem of how to achieve figuration within the context of a style that entailed the denial of figuration; or to put it another way, with the problem of how to restore to line some measure of its traditional figurative capability, within the context of a style that entailed the renunciation of that capability. Only if we grasp, as vividly and even as painfully as we can, the contradiction implicit in what seems to have been Pollock’s formal ambition in these works—to combine figuration with his all-over, optical style—will we be able to gauge the full measure of his achievement in two other paintings of these years.

The first of these I want to consider is the painting Cut-Out (1949). Either before he came to paint it or, more probably, in the course of painting it, Pollock arrived, almost certainly through intuition rather than rational analysis, at the realization that the only formally coherent way to combine his all-over, optical style with figuration was somehow to make the painting itself proclaim the contradiction implicit in this ambition. This sounds more paradoxical than in fact it is. It has been observed how Pollock’s all-over style entailed the negation of figuration; and how figuration in turn entailed the negation of that style. In Cut-Out  these negations become the fundamental means by which the painting is made. That is, in Cut-Out Pollock achieved figuration by negating part of the painted field—by taking something away from it—rather than by adding something as in White Cockatoo, The Wooden Horse and Summertime. Here Pollock actually cut away the figure or shape, which happens to be roughly humanoid in outline, from a piece of canvas on which an all-over painted field had previously been dripped, and then backed this piece with canvas-board. The result is that the figure is not seen as an object in the world, or shape on a flat surface—in fact it is not seen as the presence of anything—but rather as the absence, over a particular area, of the visual field. This enhances, I think, the force of the word “optical” with which I have tried to characterize Pollock’s all-over style. Figuration is achieved in terms of eyesight alone, and not in terms that imply even the possibility of verification by touch. The figure is something we don’t see—it is, literally, where we don’t see—rather than something, a shape or object in the world, we do see. More than anything, it is like a kind of blind spot, a kind of defect in our visual apparatus; it is like part of our retina that is destroyed or for some reason is not registering the visual field over a certain area. This impression is strengthened if we ask ourselves where, in this painting, the cut-out area seems to lie in relation to the painted field. For me, at any rate, it does not lie behind the field, despite the fact that where the field is cut away we see the mostly blank canvas-board behind it; and it does not seem to lie on the surface, or in some tense, close juxtaposition with it, as in the shallow space of Synthetic Cubism. In the end, the relation between the field and the figure is simply not spatial at all: it is purely and wholly optical: so that the figure created by removing part of the painted field and backing it with canvas-board seems to lie somewhere within our own eyes, as strange as this may sound.

In Cut-Out Pollock succeeds, by means of the most radical surgery imaginable, in achieving figuration within the stylistic context of an opticality almost as unremitting as that which characterizes paintings such as Number One. But there are two important respects in which Cut-Out  remains inconsistent with Pollock’s all-over, optical style. The first is its tendency to focus our attention on the figure created where Pollock cut away the painted canvas. This figure is emphasized as no single visual incident or cluster of incidents is ever emphasized in those all-over pictures in which the painted fields are left intact. And the second has to do with the proportion of the total canvas occupied by the cut-out figure. In Cut-Out  it is large enough to deprive the visual field of the sense of expansiveness, of sheer visual density, that we find in a painting such as Number One. Both these qualifications disappear in the face of the last painting I want to consider in detail, Out of the Web (1949).

Again in Out of the Web Pollock achieved figuration by removing part of a painted field, which in this case had been dripped onto the smooth side of a piece of brown masonite. This time, however, the figures that result do not occupy the center of the field; they are not placed so as to dominate it and to focus the spectator’s attention upon themselves. Instead they seem to swim across the field and even to lose themselves against it. In Out of the Web, as in Cut-Out, figuration is perceived as the absence, over a particular area, of the visual field. It is, again, like a kind of blind spot within our eyes. But unlike the figure in Cut-Out, the sequence of figures in Out of the Web is almost as hard to see, to bring one’s attention to bear on, as a sequence of actual blind spots would be. They seem on the verge of dancing off the visual field or of dissolving into it and into each other as we try to look at them.

Out of the Web is one of the finest paintings Pollock ever made. In it, for the first and only time, he succeeded completely in restoring to line its traditional capability to bound and describe figures within the context of his all-over, optical style—a style I have argued was largely founded on the liberation of line from the task of figuration. It is, however, not surprising, if one is at all familiar with Pollock’s career, that he did not retreat his remarkable solution throughout a whole series of works; among the important American painters who have emerged since 1940 Pollock stands almost alone in his refusal to repeat himself. And having solved the problem of how to combine figurative line—the line of traditional drawing—with opticality in Cut-Out and Out of the Web, Pollock abandoned the solution: because it could not be improved upon, or developed in any essential respect, and because to repeat the solution would have been to debase it to the status of a mere device. In this sense Pollock’s solution was both definitive and self-defeating, and from 1951 on his work shows the strong tendency already mentioned to revert to traditional drawing at the expense of opticality. But in a series of remarkable paintings made by staining thinned-down black paint into unsized canvas in 1951, Pollock seems to have been on the verge of an entirely new and different kind of painting, combining figuration with opticality in a new pictorial synthesis of virtually limitless potential; and it is part of the sadness of his last years that he appears not to have grasped the significance of what are perhaps the most fecund paintings he ever made.

Michael Fried



*For example, in his essay “American-Type Painting,” Clement Greenberg remarks on what seems to him the close visual relationship between Pollock’s all-over painting and Analytical Cubism. “I do not think it exaggerated to say that Pollock’s 1946–1950 manner really took up Analytical Cubism from the point at which Picasso and Braque had left it when, in their collages of 1912 and 1913, they drew back from the utter abstractness for which Analytical Cubism seemed headed.” (Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 218.) One is always ill at ease disagreeing with Greenberg on visual grounds; however, I cannot help but see Pollock’s all-over painting of these years in radically different terms.