PRINT January 1971

Jackson Pollock’s Drawings

DURING THE EIGHTEEN MONTHS of his analysis in 1939–40 Jackson Pollock produced for discussion between himself and his analyst, Dr. Joseph Henderson, 69 pages of drawings, 13 of which bore images on both front and back. The imagery on almost half of these sheets relates directly to Picasso’s Guernica. In conversation, Dr. Henderson has said that these drawings were dream representations which Pollock produced specifically for his analytic sessions—rather than drawings made independently of the therapy and brought into the sessions to facilitate the process of association. Are we to think, then, that in 1939–40 Pollock’s dream life was taken up with the Guernica?

Last year, with the consent of Lee Krasner Pollock, Dr. Henderson sold 67 of these sheets to the Maxwell Gallery in San Francisco. Only two of them had been exhibited previously (“Jackson Pollock” The Museum of Modern Art, 1968). Some years earlier Dr. Henderson had presented a paper to the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute of which he was then head, on the relationship between Jungian theory and the imagery of the Pollock drawings. Upon acquiring them, the Maxwell Gallery commissioned a monograph on the drawings and arranged an exhibition of them at the Whitney Museum—both acts undertaken without the advice or the knowledge of Dr. Henderson. The result has been to dump onto the art historical and critical community a cache of material which is strangely contextless. There is almost no extra-analytic production from these same years with which to compare this body of work. The text of the monograph provides us with little that is substantive from the course of the analysis itself: pitifully abbreviated quotes from Dr. Henderson’s unpublished paper provide no insight into this area beyond what has appeared in other monographs on Pollock. We are left with a panorama of drawings, the primary subject of which is double and triple figures locked into acts of mutilation, the frame of reference for which is the most authoritative picture of the late thirties—the Guernica.

What we have no way of gauging is the role that transference might have played in the selection of this frame of reference. Pollock’s doctor was an analysand of Jung, and by the time the therapy began Pollock already knew a fair amount about Jungian theory. (This was from his friend Helen Marot, a teacher at the school where Pollock worked briefly as a janitor.) Given the Jungian analytic model, in which individuation is pictured as in a titanic struggle between opposing psychic forces, Pollock might have turned his attention to the most relevant battle picture of the decade in an effort to win the approval of his doctor. If this is true, it was a strategy that paid off because Henderson (then in his first year of practice) writes: “I wonder why I neglected to find out, study or analyze his personal problems in the first year of his work . . . I wonder why I did not seem to try to cure his alcoholism . . . I have decided that it is because his unconscious drawings brought me strongly into a state of counter-transference to the symbolic material he produced. Thus I was compelled to follow the movement of his symbolism as inevitably as he was motivated to produce it.” This symbolism takes up, among such Jungian staples as the mandala and the tree-of-life, the open-mouthed horse’s head from Guernica, pincering down on a shriek, the dagger-tongued weeping woman, and the mélée of figurative fragments including the horse, bull and severed warrior’s head from the final composition. (The other major constellation of images throughout the drawings involves American Indian and African tribal motifs.)

Whatever the causes for Pollock’s attraction to the Guernica, his drawings deviate rather consistently from the late Cubist mode of design monumentalized within its perimeters. In the Guernica, as in Picasso’s late Cubist works in general, there is an attempt to endow every shape within the picture with figurative implications. Nothing is intended as merely interstitial background, but rather every area is to be read positively. What we take initially to be the dark, blank ground behind an anguished woman holding a dead child, is the flank and legs of a bull, or again, the black wall of a house reads just as persuasively as the garment of a figure emerging from an opened window. Thus the picture slowly spews every part of itself out onto the surface like sewage erupting onto a pavement. But in some of the studies for the Guernica, particularly the ones for the head of the weeping woman, a different strategy is suggested; and it is this formulation that seems to have been taken up and extended in Pollock’s own drawings. There, one faces a configuration in which areas of the figure get reconverted into ground for new, yet more autonomous pieces of figuration, they in turn becoming ground for further figures. Since Picasso retains the ultimate unity of the initial figure (the contour of the head as a single entity is never challenged), this tactic comes across as powerfully expressive but not formally very radical. In some of Pollock’s drawings, on the other hand, one has the feeling that no area is circumscribed as figure but that it is not designated as ground for yet another figure, and further, that this begins to break down the autonomy of figuration itself. (See, particularly, figs. 1 and 2.) The effect is not at all like looking at a late Cubist array, but like looking at a wall on which the presence of posters has served as the provocation for the posting of further sets of images until the sense of the image is only that it is a ground. If the dark/light structure in Guernica is ultimately decorative, with black areas given the same forward thrust as light ones, in Pollock’s work the effect of modeling in light and dark goes back to the sense of chiaroscuro where darkness reads as that part of the figure which is obscured from light, enshrouded by blackness and therefore usurped to read as ground.

What begins to emerge from some of the drawings of 1939–40, then, is a preoccupation with imagery which is conceived of as fundamentally unstable—unstable in a way that bears on a central attitude of picture-making for any Cubist-informed sensibility. In the 1942–43 paintings and collages that follow the psychoanalytic drawings, it is simply not accurate to describe Pollock’s method as “late Cubist.” If he was concerned with the modernist problem of, as Greenberg has put it, delimiting or recreating flatness, it was not approached in Picasso’s or any other late Cubist’s terms. The only works it bears a remote resemblance to are Miró’s Constellations, and those Pollock could not have seen until after the war. In practical terms this meant that Pollock was making extremely large pictures, canvases with dimensions of six and eight feet, in which there was no formal room for structure. Late Cubist pictures had recourse to organization by means of structure as a macro-figurative element—the pedimental shape by which Picasso intends the unification of Guernica is a particularly obvious example. In Pasiphaë, Gothic and Night Ceremony (Male and Female and Guardians of the Secret are the only possible exceptions to this), Pollock’s conversion of figure into ground leaves him no access to structural patternings or armatures of any kind.

The analysis of the work of post-war American painters and sculptors has tended to run to formulas about a mixture of Cubism and Surrealism with a pinch of this and a dash of that. The literature on Pollock, de Kooning and David Smith, for example, has had tedious recourse to this recipe which in increasingly obvious ways fails to intersect with the work of these men on any meaningful or accurate level. In the case I know most about—the work of Smith—drawings of a highly private nature proved crucial to opening up a new way of looking at the sculpture and arriving at a characterization of it that was about its own formal and contextual premises and not about those of its putative sources. The drawings to which I am referring suggested an obsessive concern on Smith’s part with a very limited group of images and a formal aspiration that seems to have been the correlative of those thematic concerns. Very generally this involved a question of sexual violation giving rise to the problem of some kind of formal prohibition against touch. My hunch is that the Pollock drawings made available at the Whitney will have a similar function in shaking off the grip of an outworn methodology and suggesting a more specific way to understand what Pollock was after in the early 1940s. What I have raised in the above paragraphs is only the vaguest suggestion of one possible analysis.

Immediately upon its opening, the Whitney show was surrounded by little bonfires of moral indignation that confidential material was being brought before the public—material deemed esthetically uninteresting on its face. One has only to think of the case of Van Gogh to realize that with reference to the work of many artists any information about their perceptual sets is gratefully accepted—confidential or not. Whether Dr. Henderson should have sold the drawings or given them to an archive is a matter which does not concern me as an art historian. I only know that had David Smith’s private sketches been inaccessible to me, I would have been left with fragments of a puzzle for which crucial pieces were missing. And it was a puzzle that was wholly esthetic in nature. The level of scholarship in the field of modern art is not so high that we can indulge in graceful little aversions of the head or mews of displeasure. What’s needed, it seems to me, is hard work.

Rosalind Krauss