PRINT April 1967

Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition, Part III


THAT THE ALL-OVER POLLOCKS should have any connection at all with Analytic Cubism is a surprising suggestion (at least this writer found it so some years ago). So much in both the character and plastic structure of the drip pictures seems, at first consideration, diametrically opposed to that meditative, architectonic art. Yet the existence of such a relationship is the central thesis of Clement Greenberg, pioneer critic of the new American painting and particular supporter of, and commentator on, the work of Pollock; if for no other reason, it is an idea which any serious criticism is honor bound to at least consider. Yet of the two monographs on Pollock to have appeared thus far, Mr. O’Hara’s does not mention it, and Mr. Robertson’s, after praising Greenberg for his “consistent understanding of Pollock’s work and admiration for his achievement,” proceeds to attribute to him (Greenberg) the view that Pollock had by 1943 “broken away from the traditional conception of pictorial space that had extended from the Renaissance to the Cubist period in art and that Pollock was making a new kind of space.”1 This astonishing attribution entirely reverses the burden of Greenberg’s actual views which are that even the drip pictures, not to say the paintings of 1943–46, “have an almost completely Cubist basis.”2

Moreover, Robertson’s contention that a break with Cubism took place in 1943 runs counter to virtually all other Pollock criticism which considers the paintings of 1942–46 profoundly influenced by Synthetic Cubism, Picasso in particular. Lawrence Alloway, for example, judges them “one of the most brilliant achievements of Late Cubism.”3 But whereas these writers see Pollock rejecting Cubist structure in the all-over paintings of 1946–50, Greenberg considers that the Cubism—now Analytic rather than Synthetic—persists on what might be called the infra-structural level of the work. Even Michael Fried, the scholar whose critical methods have most in common with those of Greenberg, found that “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.”4

Alone among other writers on Pollock, Sam Hunter hinted—but only round-aboutly—at the possible value of Greenberg’s thesis. “Picasso’s Cubism,” he wrote in the catalog of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1956 memorial exhibition, “impressed” on Pollock “the overriding importance and transforming function of plastic values. A vivid appreciation of the painting surface as a potential architectonic organism has lent a consistent stylistic logic throughout his career even to Pollock’s freest inventions.5

I want to make clear at the outset that I do not accept Greenberg’s contention that the drip pictures “have an almost completely Cubist basis.” The reader will not be surprised that I consider Impressionism extremely important for him as well. (And Surrealism—though here more in the methodology and poetic spirit than in the plastic structure of the finished works.)

Nevertheless, Greenberg’s thesis seems to mr to contain a profound truth, however much he may overemphasize it and however little he has ever explicated or developed it:

By means of his interlaced trickles and spatters, Pollock created an oscillation between an emphatic surface—and an illusion of indeterminate but somehow definitely shallow depth that reminds me of what Picasso and Braque arrived at thirty odd years before, with the facet planes of their Analytical Cubism. I do not think it exaggerated to say that Pollock’s 1946–50 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 to which Analytical Cubism seemed headed. There is a curious logic in the fact that it was only at this same point in his own stylistic evolution that Pollock himself became consistently and utterly abstract.6

The interstitial spots and areas left by Pollock’s webs of paint answer Picasso’s and Braque’s original facet-planes, and create an analogously ambiguous illusion of shallow depth. This is played off, however, against a far more emphatic surface, and Pollock can open and close his webs with much greater freedom because they do not have to follow a model in nature.7

Beyond these statements, Greenberg has not clarified the relationship he postulates, nor has he mentioned the way in which the proliferating grids of late Analytic Cubism contributed historically to the integration of the all-over configuration. Rather he has been content to illustrate the Analytic Cubist and all-over Pollock pictures side by side8 and let the reader make the connection. This seems to me virtually impossible to do because of the morphological and structural distance between the works, which distance might be mapped by consideration of certain intervening steps to which I shall turn shortly.

My own awareness of the value of Greenberg’s insight came, curiously, during a prolonged investigation of Surrealist painting. In pursuing the development of “abstract” Surrealism—Arp, Miró, Masson, and Ernst (the last primarily between 1925 and 1928)—I found that these artists had not (with the partial exception of Miró) developed so thoroughgoingly new stylistic formulations as I had thought. The poetic content of the imagery was new and so was the shape-language (biomorphism) engendered to carry that content. But a morphology is only one component of style. It became increasingly clear to me that as far as space, compositional disposition, particularly in relation to the frame, and even (except in Miró) color were concerned, these artists clung to conceptions held over from the Cubism which all but Ernst had practiced extensively before their conversion to fantasy painting. It may very well be that Ernst’s weaker conviction about abstraction (or, put otherwise, the frequency of post-Chirico illusionism in his work) reflected, in part, his more fleeting contacts with Cubism.

That paintings as different in a prima facie sense from Cubism as were these Surrealist works could still be rooted in it, that a biomorphic art could still dispose itself classically in regard to the frame, and somewhat reflect Analytic Cubism’s shallow space and underlying rectilinear grid patterns, raised the same possibility in my mind for Pollock’s curvilinear art.

Synthetic Cubism, which had bodied forth the poetic iconographies of Pollock’s pre-1946 works seemingly disappeared with the advent of the all-over style. Increasingly, I began to feel that Cubism nevertheless persisted in subtle ways—transformed now in the direction of Analytic Cubism. Like Pollock’s poetry, which shifted from an explicit to an implicit state, the Cubism had gone underground. There, it gave his all-over drip pictures precisely that architectonic tautness of structure which had been missing from the Impressionism which, I believe, also profoundly—though even more indirectly—informed their style. When Cézanne carried Impressionism to a more complex formal level by “locking” its color sensations—now more architectural as brushstrokes—into structures which fixed them in a shallow space as well as in the lateral expanse of the picture, he established a dialectic which was renewed in late Analytic Cubism and in the all-over Pollock.

Understanding these relations demands that we clear our minds of certain popular misconceptions about Cubism. Just as there are no “cubes” in Cubism or, for that matter, any other closed three-dimensional geometries (or even many closed two-dimensional shapes in Cubism’s Analytic phase), so the prevailingly rectilinear morphology of the Braque and Picasso paintings of 1908–1912 cannot be held—once we dismiss the term and just look at the pictures—to be necessarily the crucial aspect of the style. Equally if not more important are the space, light, distributional principle and hierarchy of accents. It is only by dissociating the rectilinear contouring from these other components of style that we can gauge the “carry-over” of Analytic Cubism in the works of the “abstract” Surrealists and various later “all-over” painters.9

The process by which the Cubism of 1911–1912 contributed to the all-over style of the classic Pollocks can be more easily understood if we fill in the gap between them (developments which Greenberg does not discuss). The essential intervening developments (apart from the work of Mark Tobey, with whom I will deal shortly) are: first, the Mondrians of the winter of 1913–1914, which carried Analytic Cubism further in its own explicit direction than had Picasso and Braque when they abandoned it something over a year earlier; second, the varieties of “abstract” Surrealist pictures which converted Cubism’s rectilinear grid scaffoldings into prototypes of crowded—sometimes virtually all-over—curvilinear compositions, while preserving the distributional and spatial underpinnings of Analytic Cubism. (Picasso’s curvilinear Cubist pictures all came out of flat, brightly colored Synthetic Cubism. They are not involved in the painterly shallow space and light dark armatures of the tradition I am describing, which line of development comprehends the classic—as opposed to the pre-1946—Pollocks.)

We must begin the discussion of the 1913–1914 Mondrians with a crucial observation made about the classic Pollocks by Greenberg, Alloway, and others: that the poured web—quite to the contrary of being a “run-on” fabric—usually stops short of the edge (or “frame”) of the picture, frequently by doubling back on itself. This may be observed to some extent in the transitional all-over but not yet drip paintings of 1946.10 However, it is not marked until after 1947 due to the persistence of Synthetic Cubist tendencies to go out to the edge of the field. This recession from the frame, virtually standard from 1948 through 1950, is more clearly confirmed by looking at the actual pictures than at photographs. Aside from the fact that the distance (sometimes just an inch or two but often considerably more) by which the web backs away from the edge is reduced to a virtually microscopic interval in a photograph of a large picture, most published photographs of drip Pollocks get slightly cropped or masked—which therefore obliterates the fact we are discussing.

In itself, the above observation testifies to nothing more than the Pollockian web’s “classical” relation to the frame (as opposed to the anticlassical tendency throughout history to controvert the binding and axial character of the frame). We do well to remember, however, that Analytic Cubism is the most seminal classical style of the 20th century. Crucial to Greenberg’s thesis is that Pollock’s dissolution of the web short of the frame reenacts the fading near the frame to which Picasso and Braque subjected their scaffoldings increasingly over the period (1908–12) of Analytic Cubism’s progress to abstraction.

This fading near the frame represents, in the Analytic Cubist works of 1911–1912, the vestiges of the figure ground relationships more discretely visible in the earlier, less abstract Cubist pictures. But—and it is here that Greenberg’s thesis begins to be inadequate—the fading near the frame, even in the advanced pictures of 1911–1912, takes place—with rare exceptions—on only three sides; the scaffoldings are usually anchored to the frame on at least one side, most commonly the bottom (from which they are supported as they build upwards, like architecture, narrowing toward the top).

This upward narrowing and dematerialization has always seemed to me something akin to Gothic architecture despite the fact that Picasso and Braque discovered these scaffoldings primarily in motifs of figures and still-life objects (which only confirms the remarkable autonomy of Cubist structure). I am convinced, however, that Mondrian perceived this analogy to the Gothic and that it is reflected in his frequent use of cathedral facades as motifs precisely at the moment he was recapitulating this phase of Analytic Cubism (that is, in 1912).

In the crucial Mondrians of late 1913, like the Guggenheim Museum’s Composition No. 7, the dissolution of the scaffolding near the edge is consistently carried out on all four sides, as it is in the classic Pollock. Moreover, Mondrian’s “floating” of his now more filigree structure in the lateral as well as the shallow recessional space of the composition gives it a lightness and less allusively architectural appearance more akin to Pollock than are the 1911–12 Picassos and Braques. It seems to me of great significance that the transformation I am positing was reflected in Mondrian’s shift, at this moment of passage into even greater abstraction than that of Picasso and Braque, from the use of cathedral facades to water-scapes as favored motifs. Looking at the sea, which extended before him laterally rather than rising perpendicularly (as did the facades), and which was a flickering and elusive surface rather than a concrete three dimensional object, Mondrian found that source in nature which is perhaps, through its “formlessness,” the most inherently abstract. It was not by accident that these are the pictures through which he evolves into the absolute abstractness (or non-figurativeness, to use the common term11) of the immediately succeeding “plus and minus” pictures.12

Essential for the developing synthesis which Pollock brought to a conclusion in his all-over pictures was that the Picassos and Braques of 1911–1912, like Ma Jolie, contained a good deal of flecked and luminous Neo-impressionist atmosphere (though their shadowy, monochromatic, and profoundly searching metaphor of human consciousness seems to me closer to Rembrandt than to Impressionism in spirit). This Impressionist content was enhanced in 1913 Mondrians like Composition No. 7 by the shift to the water-scape, a motif particularly favored by the Impressionists.

This is a subject which, for reasons which will soon be clear, reminds me of the pertinence at this point of the work of one of Pollock’s coevals, Philip Guston, whose painting was deeply involved with synthesizing just the Impressionist and Cubist sources we have been discussing.

The work of small masters is often useful in confirming developments which are not as evident in the work of the great artists whom they surround, where the influences of past art are more completely transmuted, and fused with newer insights. It does not seem to me accidental that the synthesizing process subtly going in Pollock should be more explicit and parsable in Guston’s pictures of the early 1950s which followed hard upon the formulations of the all-over style. Guston’s work at that time was sometimes labelled Abstract-Impressionist, not so much because its consistently rosy coloring was reminiscent of such prototypical pictures as Monet’s Impression, léve de Soleil (which it was), but because the myriad small strokes of pigment established an Impressionistic flickering, scintillating surface. Yet unlike Impressionist surfaces, with their dancing, any which way flecking, Guston’s brushwork was “magnetized” by an underlying axiality or implicit grid which organized his Impressionist derived sensations in the architectonic distributional and spatial patterns of late Analytic Cubism and the plus and minus Mondrians. Though these Gustons have a delicately nuanced impasto and touch as well as a winning and modest poetry, they are plastically essentially synthetic. The elements—Impressionist and Cubist—are all familiar, though their selection and quantification constitute a new recipe. (Their painterly qualities connect them more obviously—though no less actually—to French painting than does the more radical facture of the drip Pollocks.)13 This synthesizing is not readily perceived in the all-over Pollocks, which anticipated the Gustons, precisely because the process of transformation was more thorough-going and served as a platform for further inspiration.

The Mondrians of 1913–14 also extended and confirmed two other as yet undiscussed aspects of Analytic Cubism which were to play essential roles in Pollock’s all-over esthetic: fragmentation (or “analysis”) into increasingly small units, and distribution of these units (or accents) in frontal patterns (i.e., parallel to the picture plane). Increasing division of the surface into smaller units had been going on throughout the four year history of Analytic Cubism but in the most advanced form to which Picasso and Braque carried it, as exemplified by the former’s Ma Jolie, 1911–12, there was still a considerable range or hierarchy from large to small and from emptier to more crowded surface areas. There were, to be sure, certain pictures, like Braque’s Soda, 1911–12, which prophesied Mondrian’s direction. These, however, involved a break—governed by the tondo shape of the canvas—with the rectilinear scaffoldings that had prevailed. It may well be that the curvilinear support freed Braque here from an allegiance to “architecture” that had become limiting. But these exceptional variations were not developed by Picasso or Braque. Mondrians like Composition No. 7 have smaller and more numerous forms than 1911–12 Picassos and distribute them with such evenness over the surface that they certainly must be considered all-over lattices. (Anthony Smith recently recounted to me a conversation with Pollock at a Mondrian retrospective at the Janis Gallery in which Pollock specifically affirmed the connection of the 1913–14 Mondrians with the development of all-over painting.)

The sculpturesque Cubism of 1908–1910—a simulacrum of relief sculpture rather than of sculpture in the round, as we shall see in just a moment—had necessarily to include many forms whose planes turned obliquely to that of the surface. But the increasing painterly dissolution of this simulated sculpture, and the greater abstractness of the succeeding pictures ended in making possible, by the winter of 1911–1912, a scaffolding of fragmentary planes and lines almost all of which had become frontal. It remained for Mondrian in 1913 only to make this principle more explicit through the greater consistency and evenness with which his lattices adjusted to the surface. The plus and minus pictures rendered the conception even more absolute as the vestigial brushy indications of shallow atmospheric space were gradually eliminated. It is interesting to observe how a painter like Larry Poons helps clarify and testify to the relation between Pollock and the plus-and-minus Mondrian. Clearly in the tradition of Pollock’s all-over style in the more immediate sense—and investing it with qualities derived from “hard-edge” and recent color painting—Poons speaks of the plus-and-minus Mondrian as having been “very much in his mind” at the time of the integration of his style.

With the shift from early to late Analytic Cubism came a comparable change in the nature of the space from characterization by the displacement or projection of sculptural relief to characterization by a more atmospheric illusion. This painterly residue of a shallow relief space, refined and narrowed in the 1913 Mondrians, was the springboard, but only the springboard, for that of Pollock’s drip paintings. But in order to better demonstrate this, we must go back to the originator of that space, Cézanne.

In the face of Manet’s flattening of Old Master illusionistic space (in his most advanced pictures of the 1860s) and the Impressionist dissolution of modeled forms into juxtaposed patches of pigment, Cézanne invented a new kind of space which in a sense sought a compromise between illusionism and anti-illusionism. He made it clear that (among other objections) he found Impressionism too loosely structured and, above all, too light and airy (i.e., too dissolved into flecks of color sensation) to contain forms of sufficient weight and gravity to communicate the seriousness of his art. The latter were the Old Master qualities he yearned for.

Cézanne could have simply gone back to Old Master illusionism whole hog. Instead, he went forward to an art that accepted Impressionist sensations as its building blocks but organized them in patterns that gave an illusion of relief. This relief—and its concomitant sense of weight and gravity—is the modern form of the “tactile values” that Berenson identified with the monumental illusionism of the Italian tradition. Cézanne considered that only an appearance of physical weight and gravity in the forms could provide the desired metaphysical gravity of spirit, and that this particular property could not be effected—and as yet no one has proven otherwise—without some degree of illusion, given the actual flatness of the canvas surface. (Sculpturesque reliefs of impasto, relieved collages and assemblages have been among the 20th-century “solutions” to this problem.)

Cézanne’s pictures did not go back to Old Master perspective space which moved illusionistically away from the spectator and from the picture frame (which constituted the front limits of its illusion). Rather he accepted the insistence on the literal and hence lateral definition of the picture which was implicit in Manet and the Impressionists and became explicit shortly afterwards as painters began consciously to treat pictures as “two-dimensional surfaces covered with colors arranged in a certain order.”14 But while Cézanne accepted laterality as a base—since it conformed to the actuality of the support (i.e., the two-dimensional surface of the stretched canvas)—he did not carry forward the implications of Manet’s relative flatness, which were to be advanced rather by Gauguin and to culminate in the late Matisse and such insistently flat styles as recent “hard-edge” abstraction. Instead he created the “bumpy picture,” the simulacrum of a bas-relief in which forms are modeled not in the round, but in the front only, and in which they pass into one another by openings of the contours until the entire fabric is assimilated to a lateral plane in the rear, just as in a bas-relief.15 The monumental illusionism of the Italian Renaissance masters was built upon a simulacrum of sculpture in the round; Cézanne built on the notion of frontal relief. The bas-relief is really closer to painting than to sculpture in the round in containing its forms within a closed, regular lateral panel posed at right angles to the spectator’s eye. These forms, as in Cézanne’s paintings in general but in Analytic Cubism in particular, seem more to project out toward the spectator from the closed back plane than to move spatially away from him as in older perspective illusions.

Contrary to the Sunday Supplement versions of modern art history, the Cubists did not build upon Cézanne’s supposed treatment of nature “by the cylinder, sphere and cone.” These closed three-dimensional geometries are undiscoverable in Cézanne’s paintings and only people who look with their ears have ever been taken in by the meanings traditionally attributed to Cézanne’s famous remark about them (which meanings, it is encouraging to note, have recently been discredited by scholars).16 In fact, rarely are there any completely closed two-dimensional geometries in the mature Cézanne.17 Such isolated shapes would have inhibited that melding of forms which makes possible Cézanne’s extraordinary indivisibility of design.

What the Analytic Cubists did build on was the simulacrum of bas-relief which gave them, too, the possibility of solid, monumental forms with the gravity and solidity of architecture but still readily assimilable to the two-dimensional plane of the canvas in a way that monumental Old Master painting rarely was. They somewhat weakened Cézanne’s conception of composition however, by so frequently “standing” their scaffoldings on the bottom of the frame. The Cézannesque conception was more sophisticated, and involved all sorts of distributions, such as compositions that “spill” downwards (and still paradoxically have the weight of architecture). Of course the Cubists had by 1911 dissolved the sculpturesque solidity inherited from Cézanne into a less tactile, more painterly composition (but this, too, was at least anticipated in the work of Cézanne’s last years).

The way in which late Analytic Cubist grids underlie subsequent all-over compositional structures is easier to see by again turning to one of Pollock’s satellite painters, Bradley Walker Tomlin. In his all-over pictures of 1948–1952, Tomlin evened out the hierarchies of forms and the distributions of accents, but—partly under the influence of Gottlieb’s pictograph grids—remained far more obviously than Pollock in the shallow space and rectangular grid structure of Cubism. Tomlin did explore some open, meandering linear designs in which the Cubist grid was more or less suppressed, but he pulled back from this, preferring to work within a grid design felt as given a priori. Pollock showed that by accepting the challenge of wholly liberating his line, he could reincorporate the essence of Cubist architecture in a new way, at the end of his process, i.e., as the web filled out and the freely meandering lines became locked in an architecture of their own making.

The 1913 Mondrians still have clear vestiges of Analytic Cubism’s shallow atmospheric space; the space of Pollock’s drip pictures, though it has some affinities with them, is more complex. Contrary to what is sometimes said about Pollock’s pictures, they are not flat in the sense of insistently affirming two-dimensionality in the manner of the late Matisse, or even the more “optically” spatial Newman. The linear webs hang both actually and optically in front of the plane of the canvas. To this extent—but only to this extent—they recall the bas-relief, forward-coming space of Analytic Cubism.18

Where the Pollocks differ is that they contain no vestige at all of modeling. Though their articulation is more a matter of light-dark than hue relationships, the chiaroscuro has been rendered autonomous by the disengagement of Pollock’s line from contouring and therefore, even by implication, from shading.19 The very shallow optical space of his pictures is not a matter of illusion but of the actual overlapping of different color skeins and the tendency of certain colors to “recede” or “advance.” Pollock worked to minimize any sense of spatial illusion by locking the warm colors literally inside the skeins of the non-hues, of which the aluminum in particular was used to dissolve any sense of discreteness the space of the web might have—in effect to “confuse” it into a unified mass of light sensations.

Thus the culmination of Pollock’s mature style required that Analytic Cubism’s shallow but illusionistic space be discarded in favor of a non-illusionistic optically spatial scintillating web of sensations which has the surface sense of Impressionism: an affirmation of the pigment as a material surface which nevertheless dissolves into disembodied light sensations in the retina. At this point in the coalescence of the Pollockian picture, Cubism has therefore been subsumed by an Impressionism carried far beyond Monet in having transcended the spatial equivocation of Impressionism.20

As an intervening phase in the development of the all-over style between the 1913–1914 Mondrians and the painting of the 1940s it is interesting to consider the “abstract” Surrealist’s metamorphoses of Analytic Cubism. Andre Masson’s meandering line, in his best “Automatic“ pictures of the later twenties (like Pollock’s) disposes itself in relation to the frame in a manner that still betrays a recollection of the underlying Cubist grid which had dominated Masson’s earlier painting. As the fantasy elements, carried primarily through curvilinear, organic forms, began to dominate the pictures the Analytic Cubist grids faded into the background. But even when the meandering line had been quite liberated, as in The Haunted Castle, 1927, their vestiges were still explicit. Only in the tube-drawn sand-spilled paintings made later that year does the grid actually disappear, but the disposition of the drawing shows that it continued to operate on an implicit level.

The same tendency to hang on to the Analytic Cubist infra-structure and shallow space, even after adopting an anti-Cubist morphology, may be seen in Miró, Arp and the more abstract Ernsts. Although biomorphism opened the way to a new vocabulary of forms, it did not in itself constitute a style (in the sense that Impressionism or Cubism did). Rather it provided constituent shapes for paintings in a variety of styles while not determining or generating any new comprehensive principle of design or distribution of the total surface—or of the illusion of space—in the picture. On the contrary, when more than a few such shapes were used by the “abstract” Surrealists, we almost always find them disposed in relation to one another and to the picture frame in a manner analogous to Cubist compositions. Thus, while we may speak of the form-language or morphology of Arp and Miró as anti-Cubist, this does not apply to the overall structure of their compositions, since both painters cling on that level to organizational principles assimilated from their earlier Cubism.

This is most easily illustrated by an extreme example, Miró’s Harlequins’ Carnival (1924–1925) which should be compared with his “Cubistic” pictures of the early twenties. The Harlequins’ Carnival is a full-blown Surrealist work, its iconography related to (Miró’s own) poetry and its forms almost entirely biomorphic. But despite the considerable suppression of straight lines and vertical and horizontal accents, the multitude of little organic forms is distributed over an underlying Cubist grid—the picture’s infra structure—as if constrained by some rectilinear magnetism.

We see the distillation of this design principle in Miró’s later “Constellations” (The Poetess, for example) which caused considerable interest when they arrived in New York after the Second World War.21 The originality of the “Constellations” does not lie in the variety of their forms, which are not particularly inventive. Beyond circles, stars, triangles, and other simple geometrical items, we find relatively few of the meandering biomorphic shapes which gave character to Miró’s most interesting earlier work. However, in certain of the “Constellations” the even spotting of colors and shapes and the close proximity of the many small forms destroy familiar compositional focus and hierarchy in favor of an all-over composition in which piquant variations in density produce an animated flicker punctuated here and there by brief flashes of pure bright color. As an optical experience the “Constellations” were unprecedented, having no forerunners even in Miró’s own work, except the Harlequins’ Carnival, where the more diluted coloring and less dense distribution minimize the effect. They anticipate the interstitial flashes of pure color within Pollock’s light-dark webs, an aspect of Pollock that would play a role in the integration of Larry Poons’s style.

There are numerous other works of the twenties, thirties and early forties in which the “abstract” Surrealists “filled out” the underlying grid in a manner approximating the all-over lattices of the 1913 Mondrian but with curvilinear rather than rectilinear accents. These constituted intervening steps adumbrating Pollock’s (though not—in their bypassing of Cubist morphology—Tomlin’s) all-overness. Take, for example, Max Ernst’s 100,000 Doves (1925–1926). Except for the rectilinear-curvilinear transformation, we have here a painting ultimately very like advanced Analytic Cubism in structure. A grid used to create frottage texture atomized the paint fabric into many small units distributed more or less evenly over the surface (but dissolving at the frame except at the bottom); the composition is essentially a value structure—cream tinted with blue and rose to create a shallow, frontal painterly space. More recent all-over Ernsts obviously respond to the formulations of Pollock and Tobey—indeed to the ubiquitousness of the all-over conception in the 1950s but they are just as clearly a natural outgrowth of such early works as 100,000 Doves.

From the interlacing curvilinear patterns (results of string and other frottage textures used to make this picture) Ernst “envisioned” the doves, which he then “clarified” by contouring birds’ eyes and bodies. This visionary, poetic phase of the painting is its specifically Surrealist side, but the Analytic Cubist infra structure abided. To see such a picture in juxtaposition with Mondrian’s Composition No. 7 on one side and certain Massons of the twenties and early forties, and the Miró “Constellations” on the other, is to see the plastic context that connects the all-over painting of the forties with developments prior to the First World War.

Whatever contribution the Surrealist painters made to the expansion of the all-over tendency inherited from Impressionism and late Analytic Cubism, there is no doubt that the same heritage was being developed—unbeknownst to them—into a more fully realized statement of the all-over conception by Mark Tobey during the late thirties and early forties. In fact, such Tobeys as Drift of Summer (1942) and Pacific Transition (1943) fulfill certain aspects of all-overness in a manner anticipating the classic Pollocks of four years later. Pollock himself did not see this “white writing” when it was shown in the Willard Gallery in 1944; the line of his integration of the all-over style—developing cues from Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism—in no way presupposes contact with Tobey. Tobey arrived at his all-over pictures not via Surrealism but through Klee (his “doodling” and Cubist-influenced grid compositions) and, more significantly (and unfortunately, I believe, for his quality), through Oriental calligraphy.

The all-over idea is clearly adumbrated in Tobey’s Broadway (c.1935) where its descent from late Analytic Cubism is manifest. But Cubist drawing is here reduced to a schematic and decorative convention which remains much more locked to the visual motif—much less metamorphosed by the process of “analysis”—than in the models which inspired it. The conviction of a deep and pre-modernist perspective space is relieved here only to the extent that the white contouring is disengaged from the darker ground and generalized by the eye as a network on the surface. This contradiction is only partly resolved in Broadway Boogie (1942) which carried the conception of the earlier picture into more marked abstraction. It is with the non-figurative and, hence, less descriptively calligraphic Drift of Summer (1942) and New York (1944) that Tobey achieved an even, shallow space that matched his now more even and entirely all-over patterning.

But except in their recession from the edge and in their shallow space, Drift of Summer and New York betray little of their Cubist background. The flickering, scintillating character of their white writing, however, recalls Impressionism and, indeed, Tobey referred even to the earlier Broadway as made up of “some Impressionism, some Cubism, and writing.”22 The white writing derived, of course, from Tobey’s explorations of Oriental calligraphy to which he had been introduced by a friend, a Chinese student named Teng Kuei in the winter of 1923–24; shortly before that he had made what he later called his “personal discovery of Cubism.” By animating the Impressionist-Cubist scintillating, all-over conception by means of calligraphy, Tobey moved in a direction parallel to that of Miró’s and Masson’s automatism—but at a greater remove from the center of the modernist tradition.

Though on rare occasions Tobey’s linear webs are painted “off the picture,” seemingly uninfluenced by the frame (as are some of the Pollocks of 1947), the great majority fade near the frame leaving the tracery comfortably adjusted to its edges and evenly hung in a shallow frontal space. The web has an evenness of density, free of such marked hierarchical relations as might compromise its all-overness, and at the same time an airiness and transparency. All this it holds in common with the classic Pollocks which derived these qualities from the same sources.

However, what strikes us about the confrontation of Tobey and Pollock—questions of quality apart—is how utterly different they appear despite such crucial common denominators. Some reasons for this are obvious, others much less so.

If not strictly a miniaturist, Tobey is nevertheless—like Klee, and for some of the same reasons—a painter of very small pictures. Naturally, the average Pollock makes a profoundly different impression on the basis of its size alone. Size, however, is only one aspect of Tobey’s extreme modesty, a modesty which sometimes leads, as Thomas Hess observes, to “under-statement to the point of preciosity and restraint to the degree where statement is innocuous—both flaws which so often mark Oriental painting.”23

Tobey’s virtually consistent eschewal of oil paint in favor of tempera results in pictures that lack the substantial material richness that we appreciate in Pollock (and most of his American coevals). Tobey sought this “bodilessness,” of course, and was committed to it philosophically, as well as propelled toward it by his study of Chinese painting. And however much he may consider his work influenced by Impressionism, it is precisely Impressionism’s dual emphasis—on the stuff of the pigment and its dissolution into colored light—that is missing in Tobey and present in Pollock. Tobey’s light and space remind us more immediately of the “dematerialized” imagery of Byzantine and Oriental art.

William Seitz has pointed to the importance in Tobey of “unfilled and unlimited space—as a void”24 observing its centrality in Oriental art and its alienness to the Western tradition. Pollock’s drawing derives from a tradition in which space is not thought of as an autonomous void but in reciprocity with solids. Even though Pollock’s space is drained of illusion, his articulation is informed by the optical vestiges of this Western spatial bipolarization. Though Tobey frequently covers his “voids” with a massing of lines, the lines do not carry with them—as in Pollock—the connotations of dissolved sculptural conceptions from which contouring has been liberated; despite the autonomy of Pollock’s line, his webs constitute a metamorphosis of a spatial structure that goes back to Cézanne. Tobey’s webs do not fix themselves in the shallow space nor do they seem locked to the ground plane as do Pollock’s. This makes their reading much simpler and leads to a decorative, “textured” appearance rather too readily.

The relative boredom of Tobey’s all-over essays (I find other of his compositional devices more interesting) is abetted by the centrality of calligraphy in his method. This “writing” (Tobey’s word), like all writing, tends to fall unconsciously into pre-set patterns. Seitz has described an “inventory of Tobey’s brush signs”25 which is fairly extensive; that such an inventory can be made at all is an indication of the problem. Pollock’s meandering drip technique was invented in part precisely to free him from the habitual conventions of the drawing he had learned. His line—though he develops analogies in given paintings—is unpredictable in a way that Tobey’s is not.

Pollock’s web seems to result from a dramatic point-to-point improvisation: Tobey’s looks like it was conceived in advance as a whole, and then simply executed—hence its more decorative appearance. It is not so much that Tobey’s markings are repetitious in a verbatim sense (though this is far from lacking) but that the differences we discriminate are singularly limited in range and frequently not endowed with sufficient pictorial meaning or interest to warrant the effort required to disengage them.

Pollock arrived at his all-over style quite without having seen the Tobeys we have been describing; he had seen, however, in 1944 and again in 1946, a few paintings by Janet Sobel which prophesied his own style even more closely than did the Tobeys. Mrs. Sobel was an autodidact, a “primitive” painter whose work drew the attention of Peggy Guggenheim and the then collector and critic, Sidney Janis. Born in Russia in 1894, Mrs. Sobel came to America at the age of fourteen, married, had five children, and was a grandmother when she began to paint in 1939. She had her first one-man show at the Puma Gallery in April 1944 (introductory note by John Dewey). Her work had already been exhibited at the Arts Club in Chicago and the Brooklyn Museum. By the time of her show and the concurrent publication of Janis’s Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, Mrs. Sobel had gone beyond her conventionally “primitive” images to a highly abstract and decidedly all-over kind of painting. Music was illustrated in Mr. Janis’s book in color and was exhibited in the exhibition which he arranged at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery in connection with his book. It was inspired, the painter says, by Shostakovich’s music which “stimulated me . . . I have tried to present those feelings in my picture.” The picture was improvised quickly (“the method here is so free,” wrote Janis, “that it approaches pure automatism”)26 and arranged in an all-over configuration which governed not simply the drawing motif but the color distribution as well. Music is much closer to Pollock than is Tobey’s painting, in part because of the substantial corporeality of the pigment. The line, however, is not continuous or meandering but forms cluster patterns suggesting the superimposition of the vein patterns of leaves. This picture was dismissed by one reviewer as “a heightened sort of doodling”27 and praised by another for the “near Persian richness of color and inventive design.”28 Painted in duco, the texture of Mrs. Sobel’s abstract pictures seemed “compounded of marble, mother-of-pearl, multi-colored spider webs and a spatter of milk.”29

Music was among the Sobel paintings included in a group show at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century early in 1944. (She gave Mrs. Sobel a one man show there in 1946.) “Pollock (and I myself) admired these pictures rather furtively,” Clement Greenberg recalls. “The effect—and it was the first really ‘all-over’ one that I had seen, since Tobey’s show came months later—was strangely pleasing. Later on, Pollock admitted that these pictures had made an impression on him.”30 Greenberg goes on to observe, however, that Pollock had anticipated his own all-overness to some extent in the Peggy Guggenheim Mural of 1943. He had, in fact, anticipated it in an even more marked way, though on a much smaller scale, in an untitled painting of the late 1930s.

With the wall size pictures of 1950 Pollock brought the possibilities of the all-over configuration to a kind of realization which made further work in that style appear redundant to him. It was then, in any case, that he veered off in the direction of the blotty, Rorschach-like black pictures which dominate 1951 and early 1952. In the transitional pictures, such as No. 17, 1951 which lead into the latter group, the absence of the long, meandering drip line shows us the all-over configuration in closer proximity to its Cubist sources than it ever appears in the work of 1947–50 where the Cubist jointing must be perceived through the picture’s curvilinear tracery. Though Pollock returned to a modified form of all-overness in a group of pictures of 1952–53, the latter lacked the exquisite transparency and equilibrium of the best of the earlier drip paintings.

Pollock’s later work was largely aimed at developing alternatives to all-overness. But that configuration was meanwhile taking root—in at least certain of its aspects—in New York painting. Indeed, it was fast becoming a lingua franca of abstract painting throughout Europe as well. Arman, for example, used it to transform Cornell’s Surrealism into Abstract Expressionism; painters as different as Dubuffet and Ernst adapted it to the purposes of their respective poetries. We even find it among the marvelously variegated compositional ideas which inform the large late Matisse paper pictures. To some extent this general development may be traced to European contacts with the art of both Pollock and Tobey. But if the late Ernst reproduced here presupposes some such contact, it must be considered equally—as already observed—an extension of the anticipatory all-overness in some of Ernst’s own earlier pictures. The spread of this configuration transcended the immediate catalysts of Pollock and Tobey, realizing implications that go back to the very roots of the modern tradition.

Pollock passed into total abstraction with his all-over pictures of 1946–47 and returned to figuration when he abandoned these in 1951; his linear webs were, in the radical nature of their all-over drawing, incompatible with literal representation.31 But in its less radical realizations, all-overness was no more inhospitable to figuration in the 1950s than it had been in its anticipatory, pre-Pollockian forms. In Pollock’s immediate circle, Alfonso Ossorio, for example, invested all-over patterning with recognizable metaphoric imagery and gradually transformed this into a personal form of relief collage. The European artists mentioned above were equally committed to subject matter in this context.

In general, all-overness in America was to take a less obvious form among the younger painters than it did in Europe. If, on occasion, it was directly stated in the compositions of Johns and Warhol, its survival depended, as I suggested earlier, on the isolation of certain of its qualities and their incorporation in “single-image” or “holistic” paintings by such artists as Francis, Louis, Noland and Stella. Practitioners of the more immediately recognizable all-over manners both here and abroad have since largely abandoned it; its ubiquity by 1960 doomed it to being all-over in a chronological sense as well.

Pollock’s all-over pictures remained his best. Even his most successful later works contained less of him and less of the richness of the past art which he had assimilated. This richness—the influences of a tradition leading from Impressionism through Cézanne to Cubism—had been integrated with his own inventions in part through the catalysis of automatism, the one crucial Surrealist influence that survived Pollock’s progression from fantasy imagery to total abstraction in the winter of 1946–47. As a method which attempted to draw upon the stored recollections of the unconscious—which contains, after all, a confusion of past experiences of art as well as Freudian life traumas—automatism was an ideal technique for the instantaneous fusion of cues from other painting styles. In the next issue of Artforum I shall discuss the way in which Pollock’s use of the drip technique freed automatism to play a plastic role of a kind its Surrealist inventors had never conceived.

William Rubin


1. Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock, New York, 1960, p. 143–144.

2. Clement Greenberg, “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name,” Encounter No. 111, Dec. 1962. Greenberg has observed privately that Pollock was fully conscious of the relationship of his all-over style to Cubism; so has Anthony Smith, to whom Pollock made observations specifically confirming that relationship.

3. Lawrence Alloway, Introduction to Jackson Pollock, catalog of an exhibition at Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London, June, 1961.

4. Michael Fried, Three American Painters, catalog of an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1964, p. 13.

5. Sam Hunter, Jackson Pollock, Museum of Modern Art Bulletin v. 24, no. 2, 1956–57.

6. Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting” (written in 1955, revised in 1958) in Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, pps. 208–229.

7. Greenberg in the New York Times Magazine, April 16, 1961.

8. Ibid. The pictures illustrated are Picasso’s Ma Jobe, 1911–12 and Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm, 1950.

9. C.f. my “A Post-Cubist Morphology” (f.n. 17, in particular) in Artforum, Vol. 5, no. 1., September 1966.

10. For example, Shimmering Substance and Eyes in the Heat I. These pictures are more “contained” within the frame than the first all-over drip pictures which followed hard upon. Not until the end of 1947 did comparable recession from the frame become typical of the poured paintings.

11. I have used this term in the interest of clarity simply because it is commonly so used—or, to be sure, misused. Michael Fried distinguishes between abstract figurative and non-figurative drawing (op. cit.), defining a line that contours a non-representational shape as figurative. This use of language is quite correct, but I fear that his precision in this regard has resulted in considerable confusion among his readers.

12. It is important that at the time of Pollock’s formation Mondrian’s paintings of this transitional period were in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, in Peggy Guggenheim’s “Art of this Century,” where Pollock had his first shows, and in the Museum of Non Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim Museum) where Pollock worked as a part-time carpenter in the early forties. Mondrian himself was among the artists in exile who were spending the war years in New York.

13. Pollock liked to think of his work as alien to French modern painting. He was reported to have minimized the role of de Kooning with the remark, “Bill is a good painter but he’s a French painter.” (Selden Rodman, Conversations With Artists, New York, 1957, p. 85). At our present remove the all-over Pollocks seem immeasurably closer to the spirit and character of French art than the painting of de Kooning, or most other artists of the “first generation.”

14. This famous old saw of Maurice Denis is frequently cited in books on modern art as a programmatic pronouncement. Indeed, in the history of modern religious art, with which Denis was involved, it played that role; for modern painting in general, it was simply a verbal summation of an already well established painterly attitude.

15. This closure in the rear of the shallow space is easiest to understand in the still lifes and portraits. In the landscapes, the illusion attributed to the space of the picture by the viewer, who rings in his knowledge of the extra-pictorial space the motif suggests, makes for greater difficulty.

16. Theodore Reff, “Cézanne and Poussin,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 23, nos. 1–2 1960, demonstrates that this famous passage from a letter to Emile Bernard was not a description of the forms Cézanne used in painting, but a reference—framed in conventional terms—to certain problems of perspective. Its subsequent exploitation—in isolation from its context—related to the needs of neoPlatonic theorizing in the circle around Bernard.

17. The polyphonic, open character of Cézanne’s drawing and its relationship to frontal modeling first came to my attention as an undergraduate at Columbia University in Meyer Schapiro’s lectures.

18. I believe that this same space obtains in the mature Rothko. Rothko’s ground color is almost always applied evenly and opaquely and his painting of the canvas wrapped around the side of the stretcher enhances this sense of the support as a solid plaque which stops the space. His rectangles sit inside the bounds of this field, adjusting to its edges in a manner analogous to Pollock’s webs (his symmetrical structure also relates him to all-over, holistic painting). They also hang in front of the ground, seeming to project out toward the spectator. The painterly tonal variations of the rectangles, and their fuzzy edges in particular, serve to dissolve them into the ground, locking them to the surface in a manner different from—but analogous to—the manner in which Pollock’s dissolving painterly web anchors to the hack plane.

19. See Artforum, vol. 5, no. 6, Feb. 1967, pages 20–21.

20. Michael Fried (“Jackson Pollock,” Artforum, Sept. 1965) recognizes this sheerly optical dissolution of sensations and considers it “a new kind of space.” He does not, however, recognize its antecedents, which I see as deriving from a perfectly understandable development of the anti-illusionist side of Impressionism as modified by Cézanne and late Analytic Cubism; the shallow illusionist space used by Cézanne to “order” Impressionist sensations having been then drained off by Pollock. Moreover, I question Fried’s characterization of Pollock’s space as one “achieved in terms of eyesight alone, and not in terms that even imply the possibility of verification by touch.” (Ibid, italics mine.) This is overstated since it applies only to the illusion of tactility. In Pollock, as in Impressionist painting, the experience shifts away from the totally optic situation when we get close to the surface. There, we become aware of the stuff of the pigment, recognize the layers of the web on top of one another as material entities creating an extremely shallow “laminated” space by their own overlapping and displacement.

Robert Goldwater concurs with my reading of Pollock’s space as shallow and frontal but insists that another simultaneous reading exists in which we look “through” the ground of the canvas to an illusion of infinite space, the ambiguity created by these simultaneous readings being central to the pictures’ poetry. But such a reading, however much it might he envisioned in the more open drip pictures on unpainted grounds, seems to me unequivocally precluded in pictures on colored grounds. When Pollock used a colored ground, he painted it on evenly, not in a painterly illusion of atmospheric space. (His grounds thus compare with Rothko’s opaque, evenly painted grounds and are polar opposites of the vague, infinite spaces suggested by the uneven grounds in such pictures as the “cosmic” Mattas of 1944.) In these pictures Pollock clearly wanted to “close off” the back of the space in the manner I have discussed. Such pictures seem to me to provide the least ambiguous clue as to what Pollock was about spatially.

21. The “Constellations” constituted Miró’s last really important invention. Against a modulated ground of diluted tones he placed a labyrinth of tiny, flat shapes linked by tenuous webs of lines. The compactness and complexity of these diaphanous compositions are astonishing. “I would set out with no preconceived idea,” Miró) recalls. “A few forms suggested here would call for forms elsewhere to balance them. These in turn demand others I would take it (each gouache) up day after day to paint in other tiny spots. stars washes, infinitesimal dots of color, in order to achieve a full and complex equilibrium.”

22. Cited in William Seitz, Mark Tobey, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1962, p. 27.

23. Thomas B. Hess, Abstract Painting, New York, 1951, p. 121.

24. Seitz, op. cit, p. 23.

25. Ibid, p. 22.

26. Sidney Janis, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, New York, 1944, p. 87.

27. Review (unsigned) in Art News, Vol. 43. May, 1944, p. 20.

28. Josephine Gibbs, review in Art Digest, Vol. 18, May 1944, p. 7.

29. Review (unsigned) in Art News, Vol. 44, January 15, 1946, p. 22.

30. Greenberg, “‘American Type’ Painting,” op. cit.

31. The drip line in itself was by no means incompatible with representation as I observed in the February issue of Artforum, nor, as we have seen, was all-overness. It was only the conjunction of the two that militated against it. Nevertheless, Thomas Hess—partly on the basis of a remark made by Pollock himself—believes that even the all-over drip pictures of 1947–50, usually held to he entirely abstract, are figurative to the extent that the first stages of the drawing represented landscape or figure elements which were then “painted out” during the application of the succeeding lasers. While it is true that some drip patterns in pictures of late 1946 and early 1947 are woven over manifestly figural shapes, the poetry of the full blown all-over drip paintings seems to me metaphysically rather than literally present. In many of the paintings of 1948–50 we can make out quite clearly the first “layer” of the web (No. 32, 1950, for example. is a single “layer” picture); these contain none of the patently anthropomorphic and landscapelike morphologies that reappear in the black pictures of 1951. The abstract beginning as well as ending of the 1948–50 canvases has been affirmed by Anthony Smith, one of the few people often present when Pollock began pictures; it can be further confirmed by reference to the photographs and motion picture made by Hans Namuth.