PRINT May 1967

Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition, Part IV


THE ORIGIN OF THE SO-CALLED “drip” technique has become something of a sore point in discussions about Pollock. Certain of his partisans insist on his having been the first painter to drip or pour pictures; other critics stress Max Ernst’s and Hans Hofmann’s claims in this regard. But all these arguments are beside the point since it was not the dripping, pouring or spattering per se, but what Pollock did with them that counted. The particular character Pollock gave to this technique, and the unique pictorial fabric he drew from it, may be better distinguished by a brief consideration of certain of its anticipations. In the broadest sense Pollock’s drip paintings descend from a line within the modern tradition bent on increasingly loosening the fabric of the picture surface in a “painterly” way; I have already discussed Impressionism as the origin of this. But the Impressionists still used the brush and used paints of tube consistency. Crucial to Pollock’s drawing were the possibilities opened up by a more indirect relation of the artist’s hand to the picture surface concomitant with a more liquid pigment.

In 1917 Picabia spilled ink on a sheet of paper to make a spatter pattern—which he then titled, La Sainte Vièrge. This was simply a Dadaist gesture, akin to Duchamp’s adding a mustache and beard to the Mona Lisa or Schmalhausen’s doctoring a plaster bust of Beethoven. Nothing probably seemed more iconoclastic, more in the spirit of “anti-art” than this (Picabia’s Portrait of Cézanne was an assemblage with a stuffed monkey). Any splash could have made the point. But the degree to which even Picabia was seduced by the particular profile of the spatter is reflected in his un-Dadaistically having put aside the earliest version, in favor of an “improved” one when he reproduced it in his review, 391. André Masson reported a conversation with Miró) in the mid-twenties in which Picabia’s unintentional discovery of this pleasing new effect was discussed in relation to the Surrealist idea of exploiting the edges, shapes and even images different matières might produce “if left to find their own form.” Miró was at that moment exploring the use of spilled liquid pigment in his large Birth of the World (1925). Using rags, a sponge and paint thinned to the consistency of turpentine, Miró poured patches and veils of blue wash over a lightly primed burlap-colored ground. Passages of automatic drawing and shapes of flat primary colors drew an incipient iconography out of the “chaos” of the spilled washes. As its patterns indicate, The Birth of the World was painted vertically; later, in such pictures as Amour (1926), Miró spilled liquid matière over a stretched canvas cradled horizontally.

In their attempts to provoke new images through hazard and accident, and in their desire to bypass traditional methods of painting, the Surrealists explored a whole series of automatic techniques. Coulage (pouring), in its elimination of the direct touch of the brush, knife or other instrument—but only in that—adumbrates the mechanics of Pollock’s dripping. It was practiced by Gordon Onslow-Ford and Wolfgang Paalen in Paris in 1938–1939. Pollock never saw these pictures and despite Onslow-Ford’s presence on the New York scene briefly in the early forties, he probably never knew of their existence; they are simply of historical interest as a step in modern painting’s liberation from what the Surrealists called “the tyranny of the brush.”

With no a priori image in mind, Onslow-Ford poured cans of Ripolin enamel over the surfaces of his canvases (laid flat on the floor of the studio) watching the configurations which the paint itself took on. The partial fusion of the color produced effects akin to Matta’s early “Psychological Morphologies” and Thomas Wilfred’s clavelux. Since the Ripolin took weeks to dry, and even then did not harden all the way through, OnslowFord found it possible to peel layers off the surface thus to reveal different configurations underneath. These peelings suggested both figurative and spatial effects which he then detailed with linear drawing over the surface. Very different results with coulage were obtained by Wolfgang Paalen in the pouring of colored inks which fused much more readily and completely than the enamel paints and produced effects vaguely suggesting the recent paintings of Paul Jenkins (not that Jenkins ever saw these, of course).

Like decalcomania and frottage, coulage was an essentially passive or “inductive” technique, in which the artist hoped that an image would, in effect, form itself, or at least magically provide those clues which would allow the artist to conjure it forth. This is entirely opposite to the willful, actively directed drawing-with-paint which Pollock did. That had less to do with coulage than with automatic drawing. The fusion of different colors into “marbleized” swirls and pools—such as are produced by coulage—is extremely rare and pictorially incidental in Pollock where the lines and patches of any given color were almost always allowed to dry discretely. Hence we find nowhere in Pollock’s known works the coulage-like configurations of the first (A) of two pictures illustrated here which were offered as works by Pollock at Parke-Bernet Inc. and then withdrawn after questions were raised about their authenticity. There, as in coulage in general, the color has a tendency to cancel itself—or “brown out”—through fusion.

Better known—and putative prototypes of the drip Pollocks—were pictures executed by Max Ernst in 1942. The Mad Planet and the Non-Euclidean Fly contain more or less symmetrical, elliptical linear patterns achieved by swinging a paint can with a pin-hole in it at the end of a string. On the basis of this gimmick, Patrick Waldberg, author of the major monograph on Ernst, has the following to say:

The Mad Planet and the Non-Euclidean Fly had, historically, unexpected repercussions . . . When these canvases were exhibited late in 1942, the painters Motherwell and Jackson Pollock were astounded by the delicacy of their structures and begged Max Ernst to tell them their secret. It was a simple one (i.e., the string and can mechanism) and Jackson Pollock later used this technique, called ‘dripping’, most systematically. Later, he was credited with its invention.1

Similar claims are made—or at least repeated—frequently in European writing on Ernst, and Ernst told the French critic Françoise Choay that Pollock discovered the technique through his pictures. Motherwell, who formed an important link with the Surrealists-in-exile here during the war, asserts that these paintings were of little interest to him compared with other aspects of Ernst’s work, and that Pollock was certainly not “astounded” by them. One look at the pictures in question makes it clear that the mechanically preordained patterns determined by the gyrating have nothing in common with the poured, meandering and freely improvisational fabric of Pollock’s pictures five years later. Pollock’s method was an outgrowth of, and solution to, the problems posed by his own all-over“brush” paintings of late 1946. His dripping implemented a style; Max Ernst’s remained a technique for “forcing inspiration.” Moreover, it is clear from the way in which Ernst filled in these lines with color in 1947 (as he envisioned the “Young Man” of the new title) that he thought of them as planar edges––precisely the opposite of the autonomous line invented by Pollock (see Artforum, February, 1967).

The fact is that by the early forties, the use of Duco, and the practice of spilling it and letting it run on the surface was not at all uncommon as a marginal or “coloristic” effect. Gerome Kamrowski, who showed at Betty Parsons, and Anthony Smith, later Pollock’s close friend, had used it that way. Pollock had unquestionably seen some of the same effects as early as 1935 in the Siqueiros workshop on Union Square in which he and his brother Sande briefly participated. “Some of the technical resources employed there are of interest,” writes Charles Pollock, Jackson’s eldest brother. “The violation of accepted craft procedures, certain felicities of accidental effect (the consequences of using Duco and the spray-gun on vertical surfaces), and scale, must have stuck in (Jackson’s) mind to be recalled later, even if unconsciously, in evolving his mature painting style.”4

Since Hans Hofmann’s style in the early forties was much closer than Ernst’s to Pollock’s painting of the time, we are not surprised to find an affinity between his and Pollock’s first essays in spilling. The first of these, which dates from 1940, is Spring, where the pattern of spilled lines and patches spreads out over the surface, though clustering in the upper left. On the basis of Spring and other paintings of 1943–45 Clement Greenberg has characterized Hofmann as “the first ‘drip’ painter.” “These works are the first I know of,” Greenberg continues, “to state that dissatisfaction with the facile, ‘handwritten’ edges left by the brush, stick, or knife which animates the most radical painting of the present.”2 This seems to me an extravagant claim since apart from the entire battery of Surrealist techniques—which were certainly devoted to bypassing the refined mechanics of the “pure painting” tradition—the torn edges of collage had answered even earlier to the “dissatisfaction” of which Greenberg speaks.

Spring was rightly described by Sam Hunter as “something of a ‘sport’ or maverick” in Hofmann’s work since this sort of “automatism” did not reappear until three years late and was “never again to be given such exclusive attention.”3 Pollock did not see Spring or the other “drip” Hofmanns until later. By the time of Hofmann’s second essay in pouring (1943)—or at least very soon afterward—Pollock had himself begun spilling pigment and flicking it from a stick. In this regard, the Untitled Abstraction illustrated here is of particular historical interest. Probably painted sometime in 1943, though it might date from about a year later (it was sold early in 1945), it certainly antedates the all-over drip pictures by at least two years. The spilled line here functions much as it does in such Hofmanns of the same date as Fantasia, that is, it tends to relate to the contours of the color patches below, either outlining them or endowing them with linear grace-notes. This effect—a form of pictorial “colorism” has little in common with the independently coherent linear fabric of Pollock’s later work. It was not until after the adoption of the all-over configuration, late in 1946, that pouring or spattering could cease being incidental in Pollock and function to implement style. In effect—as I observed in the February issue of Artforum—the real development of the drip technique only took place in 1947.

It was only with the liberation of Pollock’s line from contouring that the line itself developed the variety of characteristics which mark Pollock’s mature “handwriting.” This was not confirmed until after the first months of 1947. The dripping, pouring and spattering in some of the pictures of late 1945 (Moon Vessel), 1946, and early 1947 (Galaxy) are still superimposed on the kind of totemic figuration that dominated Pollock’s work until that time. Despite the considerable independence and roughly even distribution of the frothy whites of Galaxy, they have still to accommodate themselves to the “personages” below. By the late spring of 1947 the latter had gone completely underground—suppressed in favor of a fabric now non-figurative even in its inception—only to reassert themselves in the black pictures of 1951.

My mention of Pollock’s “handwriting” above alludes to an aspect of his draftsmanly genius which has recently been questioned by Clement Greenberg:

Pollock’s “drip” paintings, which began in 1947, eliminated the factor of manual skill and seemed to eliminate the factor of control along with it. Advanced painting had raised the question of the role of skill in pictorial art before Pollock’s time, but these pictures questioned that role more disturbingly if not more radically than even Mondrian’s geometrical art had . . . Again like Mondrian, Pollock demonstrates that something related to skill is likewise unessential to the creation of aesthetic quality: namely, personal touch, individuality of execution, handwriting, “signature.” In principle, any artist’s touch can be imitated, but it takes hard work and great skill to imitate Hsia Kuei’s, Leonardo’s, Rembrandt’s or Ingres’ . . . With a little practice anyone can make dribbles and spatters and skeins of liquid paint that are indistinguishable from Pollock’s in point purely of handwriting . . . Ostensibly, the impersonality of handling that reigns in avant-garde art of the sixties is like Mondrian’s. But it does not feel like Mondrian’s, and this has to be explained in good part by the different interpretation of impersonality found in Pollock’s “drip” paintings (as well as that found in Barnett Newman’s only seemingly geometrical art).5

While there is no question of the relation of Pollock to such painters as Noland, Louis, Stella and Poons, this relation seems to me to reside—as I have detailed in my earlier articles—elsewhere than in Pollock’s supposed impersonality and absence of “touch.” Greenberg’s view not only feels wrong to me, but rests, I think, on some demonstrably false assumptions.

That any two people dripping or pouring a line with liquid paint will get somewhat similar results says nothing more than is true of a pencil, brush, or knife line. The extraordinary range and variety of effects Pollock achieved depended upon a number of choices which not only had to be made, but had to be linked in tandem: viscosity of the paint, the speed and gestural manner of pouring (flicking, flinging, dripping, flooding, spattering, etc.), the intermediary instruments used (e.g., stick, brush, trowel, basting syringe). Contrary to Greenberg’s assertion, the use of this battery demanded a great deal of skill (we can see this developing between late 1946 and late 1947) and Pollock himself always asserted the importance of control in this method. (It may very well be that the physical mastery needed to control a larger “figure” in this technique partly explains why the more bodily inflected patterns of the wall-size pictures came only after three years of working with it.)

Neither the skill nor the touch of a painterly Old Master resides in a single brushstroke—any more than in an inch of Pollock’s line. The handwriting depends upon the succession of accents. Here Pollock too worked within a framework of myriad choices. His genius—like that of old artists—lay in deciding what to do; Pollock’s skill, not to say virtuosity, in articulating his effects imparts an undeniable sense of touch. The mere fact that a brush or knife is not touching the surface is not crucial here as long as Pollock knows what he wants the paint to do and how to make it do it. After all, a far more mechanical and impersonal process intervenes between the pianist’s finger and the sound he produces, but who would deny each of the great pianists his distinctive “touch”?

It is doubtful whether the mechanics of dripping and pouring will produce even the same kind of short line segment (as opposed to the more complex articulation I have been discussing) unless—as in the 1943 pictures of Hofmann and Pollock—there is a concurrence of desired effects. The line produced by Ernst’s dripping is utterly unlike Pollock’s. Even more to the point, however, since it functions in the context of the all-over configuration, is the “unfamiliar” nature of the line in the drip painting (B) illustrated here which was offered at auction as the work of Pollock. This was not made by Greenberg’s “anyone,” but by an obviously skilled painter. The threat of legal action prevents me from saying more about the articulation of the line and the “touch” of this work which nevertheless makes my point, I believe, just in the looking at it.

––William Rubin



1. Patrick Waldberg, Max Ernst, Paris, 1958, p. 388.

2. Clement Greenberg, Hans Hofmann, Paris, 1961, pp. 18 and 27.

3. Sam Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 20.

4. In a letter to the author dated November 29, 1966.

5. Clement Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock: Inspiration, Vision, Intuitive Decision,” Vogue, April 1, 1967.