PRINT Summer 1980

Reckoning with Notation: The Drawings of Pollock, Newman and Louis

TAKE AN EMPTY PAGE AND orient it vertically. Draw two lines freehand, from the bottom of the page to the top. Make them arc slightly in opposite directions and cross near the center of the page, to form an elongated X. You can now regard the marked surface according to several different aspects.

First, think of it as an unfinished map, and the two lines become armatures of a hypothetical aerial view. Suggestions of scale are potentially significant, but as yet only approximate and vague. The page’s surface remains optically flat because it corresponds to generalized terrain, not to the vertical depth implicit in a true aerial view.

Next, rotate the page 90 degrees and regard the lines as horizons. Now they hint at a representation of landscape as seen from a specific vantage point, whence the peak of a foreground slope coincides with the nadir of a background valley. The impression of scale relations is now consistent, but not yet descriptive. The space of the page breathes where before it was airless and closed.

Finally, turn the page upright again and think of the lines as having only a mathematical meaning, as being, say, the world-lines of two particles. Here we define the space of the page as analogous to space-time, in whose terms points correspond not to positions, but to events. A line in space-time, linking all the events experienced by a particle, is its world-line, whose extension denotes “extension in time,” the particle’s existence. When the world-lines of two particles intersect, their intersection has the physical meaning of a collision of the particles.

To this view, a sense of scale is irrelevant. Extension now corresponds to persistence-in-time, not to distance, and the space of the page differs in concept from its formerly pictorial character. In the absence of further definitions, the only aspect of the lines signifying something specific is their intersection.

The point of this exercise is to show that the eye and the mind can redraw what the hand has produced, even in the absence of an intention to “make a drawing.” The same cannot be said in regard to most painting, whose material premises are not so easily shifted. Paint events, even those of pure color, are not so easily “de-sensed” as are the vagaries of line.1 Painting and drawing may render the same things visible, but they render different kinds of things thinkable.

Paul Valéry suggested that the fulfillment of drawing is a “communication between the different activities of thought,” without suggesting that such communication must be mediated by conscious awareness. His notion is that “the activities of thought” differentiate themselves, become what they are, only within a medium in which we can consciously try out their relations. Drawing in the broadest sense is one such medium; language, or speech, is another.

Referring again to my initial exercise, think of how you would satisfy someone else that you were taking a specific view of your own rudimentary drawing. You would probably speak of the visual impression produced by concentrating on a chosen graphic aspect, and perhaps cite definitions, as I did, to exemplify your perspective. You might also point or gesture in an effort to get the person to share your angle of vision. Primarily, you would resort to what Wittgenstein calls “language games,” his term for what seem to us the common-sense ways of distinguishing verbally “the different activities of thought.”

The aspect of drawing that interests me here is its versatility as notation. That versatility is what enables us to project these “different activities of thought” upon an invariable visual tracery. In seeing drawing as notation, we can become aware not only of the tendencies of thinking but also of the principles by which we become conscious of these tendencies. I want to consider the idea that the notational potential of drawing is in fact its historical aspect. To do this, I will focus on the drawings of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis—three artists who considered themselves to be reckoning with the historical character of drawing, and whose drawings have recently been the subjects of major museum shows.

Pollock’s so-called “psychoanalytic drawings” (not included in this spring’s Museum of Modern Art show) attest to the fact that he was confronting the notational potential of drawing long before his major innovations in the medium; while undergoing psychotherapy in 1939–40, Pollock found that the effort to vent feelings through drawing helped him articulate what troubled him. The “psychoanalytic drawings” were a kind of test of his hand’s capacity to formulate emotional reference points which he could not fix with words. Pollock was putting the Surrealist notion of automatism to the test, with his own mental balance in some sense at stake. If what he drew was not foreign enough to his conscious awareness, it would not be of use to him psychologically. Evidently, he strove to maintain the “distance” between conscious awareness and the other activities of thought that might manifest themselves in the drawing process. Although his analyst ultimately deemed his treatment unsuccessful, the desperate effort of trying to draw what he did not know seems to have put Pollock’s work on the path that led to his greatest accomplishments.

In the early ’40s, Pollock drew as if conscious visual observation were a spell that had to be shaken off. (Realism is the notation of conscious visual awareness.) His efforts to disperse composition, and to twist figuration into unpredictable ganglia of imagery, were finally to put forward his work’s construction as its primary and ultimate reality. As long as images, or the stuff of images, remained, however, the force of his drawings would derive from the unconscious grammar of forms and feelings that psychoanalysts had tried to systematize. He seems to have discovered then that the notational character of his drawings was a problem—precisely because that was the aspect of the work that seemed unaffected by the nature or source of the images that appeared under his hand. It was not until he began to spatter ink and paint that he was able to reorient the notational aspect of his drawing.

The problem of how to surpass the perceptual conveniences of figure and ground is somewhat different, though certainly one Pollock was dealing with just as deliberately. (It is the binary nature of figure/ground relations, that makes these a special case within what I mean by the notational aspect of drawing.) He was clearly seeking a way beyond the restrictions of pictorial structure that figure and ground impose. But it is clear that at the same time he was trying to find the proper or ultimate function of the notational aspect inherent in all drawing. It seems he began to succeed in this when he broke contact with the page he was marking. As dense and abstract as some of the 1945 works are, for instance, they retain an ideographic quality; in them he was still pushing media around the surface. The decisive change appears in the works of 1948–9, in which his drip technique came into its own.

Drawing with paint seems to have ended the problem I have been describing—partly because of Pollock’s handling of paint and partly perhaps because of the plastic qualities of the paints themselves. The new modulation of pictorial space he accomplished seems to have banished the notational aspect of drawing as it had previously appeared in his work. But it is not until the drawings of 1950–51, in which he returned to using ink, that Pollock found a way to focus the notational aspect. In these works, we see with unprecedented clarity that the notational aspect of the medium of drawing stands in the way of abstraction.

The best of these drawings of the early ’50s are successfully abstract because the marking in them serves as notation only of the drawing process itself. And only no “activities of thought” relevant to the drawing process can be projected as notations onto them. This is the deeper sense of the familiar observation that Pollock’s mature work evidences no preconception accountable for its form. In the ambiguity of drawing’s notational aspect lies a metaphor for the transcendence of activity by thinking, for the transcendence of the disjunctions of a personal existence lived in terms of subjectivity and objectivity. And in Pollock’s resolution of notation in his drawings lies a metaphor for, or an exemplification of, release from such a life.

Barnett Newman’s early drawings, too, grapple with the notative character of their medium. Following the lead of European Surrealists, Newman seems to have tried to invent forms that would be seen as if they occupied the representational space of figurative drawing, while not being recognizable. As felicitous as many of the drawings are in terms of color and execution, their biomorphism inevitably looks derivative and unresolved. In some pieces, it seems as if Newman thought his use of color might overcome the conventionality of the spatial impression the works make, as when he brings a band of intense color up to the edge of a page.

If we take an overview of Newman’s drawings, the turning point in his work as a whole seems to have happened in drawing first, before it was then carried into painting. In a few crucial works done in 1946, Newman seems to have discovered the transformation of pictorial space that eluded him in earlier works. The change looks like a matter of magnification, as if he had seized upon an interstice in one of the early works and raised it to the scale and status of a “complete” drawing. The result was a drastic change in the impression of the page as a marked surface. It is as if Newman had discovered a pictorial field within “the mark,” and in consequence transformed the very act of marking. Even in his own previous work, marking always occurs within bounds clearly set by other means. Abandoning these, Newman expanded marking until the process itself set the limits within which it must be recognized and understood. The idiosyncratic quality of his early drawings is missing from the later ones as a consequence (though it recurs pleasingly in a couple of 1946 ink drawings openly reminiscent of Matisse), and the notational character of his drawing disappears as well.

An untitled drawing from 1960 looks to be Newman’s most direct confrontation of the notative aspect of drawing. The work I am speaking of consists of a single large stroke of brush and ink on an otherwise empty page. This drawing affirms an observation made by Brenda Richardson2 of The Baltimore Museum of Art, that Newman’s unerring feeling for scale makes his works on paper seem to be composed in black and white, rather than black on white. The single brush mark is large and deft enough that it does not seem to have been brought in from outside the space of the page, but to be “simultaneous” or coeval with that space. I think this drawing also confirms my sense that Newman overcame the problem of notation in drawing by manipulating our sense of the scale relations that occur within the pictorial space he engenders.

Here we seem to be brought into unusual proximity with a single mark, and it is as if the space immediately surrounding the mark (the entire page surface in this instance) is of a different nature or structure from that in which and through which drawing is usually done. We feel that the “magnified” space of this drawing is one that could not accommodate figuration, one which cannot coexist with “descriptive” marking. The light that penetrates Newman’s drawings, as “zips,” “beams,” or the “flying white” within brush strokes, is not the incident light that illuminates representations. It is a phenomenal light apparently produced by the drawing process, as sparks can be produced by hammering stones. (By 1946, Newman had made his drawing process almost a painterly activity.) As Bernice Rose3 of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, points out, Pollock’s reinvention of “drawing” also resulted in the discovery of an unprecedented kind of pictorial light. Pictorial realism typically depends upon an analogy between the light by which we see the picture and the illumination described by the image. It is no accident that in the process of trying to surpass the notational aspects of drawing, Newman and Pollock should both have originated novel sensations of pictorial light.

Valéry remarked that the secret aim of a work of art is “to make us imagine that it created itself.” We sense this aim, and even feel it to be achieved, in the most striking of Pollock’s and Newman’s drawings. We can credit Morris Louis’ “Veil” paintings too with producing this same phenomenal impression. It is remarkable, with these in mind, to survey Louis’ drawings and see how seldom they even intimate such an ambition.

Both Pollock and Newman found ways of managing details in their innovations of drawing process. (That is part of what I mean in saying that they successfully contended with the notational aspect of drawing.) The problem of organizing graphic detail was one that Louis, on the other hand, never really solved. In the 1940s, Louis too was pondering problems of figure and ground, automatism, and how to take the figuration out of drawing. Unlike Newman and Pollock, however, he was never to find in drawing a way to undo or circumvent the narrative character of line (one possibility of its notational aspect). Not a gifted draughtsman, Louis drew continually, during two decades of work, toward a breakthrough in painting he could not have foreseen. He imitated the graphic styles of Picasso, Matisse and Miró, trying to absorb their renunciations of conventional techniques that he had never really learned. He did succeed in producing some works that can stand comparison with drawings by Picasso; however, the notational aspects of the linear drawing he practiced were a problem he seems never to have even formulated as such (at least not in the drawings themselves), and it was these which thwarted his efforts at original drawing.

If we see with the hindsight provided by his masterful late paintings, Louis’ drawing efforts look like a discipline, a way of keeping up the pressure on himself, or on his media. In fact, this discipline would yield both the problem and solution that raised his art to a level of accomplishment he could not consciously have envisioned. When his breakthrough in painting came, it turned out to include the elimination of linear drawing from his pictures; perhaps it should not be surprising that he seems to have given up drawing altogether in 1953. In part because of the suddenness of Louis’ change of direction, the discovery of the mass of Louis’ drawings by Diane Headley4 of Harvard’s Fogg Museum is most important. It sheds light on just how much of a “breakthrough” Louis’ sudden transition in painting was. Did 20 years of fairly undistinguished drawing activity sharpen Louis’ judgment so that he recognized a great pictorial idea when he happened upon it? Or are the drawings primarily documents of the frustration Louis suffered in those years of striving to be, in modernist terms, artistically conventional?

It seems as if Louis never went beyond the notational aspects of drawing because he never found a way of transforming linearity itself. Pollock introduced a new speed and elasticity into line, even a novel impression of the meaning of “length.” Newman magnified line until it could no longer be recognized for what it was. But even Louis’ best drawings, such as the late one designated D399, fail to question line as medium in any important way. The problem of detail, and of the kinds of meaning possible within the notational terms of marking, preoccupied him right up to his last known drawing. Perhaps his inability to reinvent drawing as he would have wished to provided him with a keen sense of painting as opposed to drawing. In any case, color was finally even more important to Louis than to Newman or Pollock in their respective struggles with notative marking and its tacit affirmation of repressive conscious awareness.

The reason I have suggested that the notational aspect of drawing is its historical aspect is this: whatever activity of thought can be projected onto (or derived from) drawing’s notative aspects, the paradigmatic or definitive use of graphic notation is representation. And representation affirms almost automatically a common-sense faith in conscious awareness as the determining force in human affairs. In our time, and perhaps long before, the assumption that conscious awareness shapes historical events has led either to belief in the perverse nature of humanity or to an equally pessimistic view of how little we can know ourselves and each other. Pollock’s and Newman’s ability to surpass the notational aspects of drawing was part of their effort to conceive and perform a kind of activity that would somehow transcend the emotional and ideological confines of a social life in which the scope of one’s awareness is increasingly defined by political and economic forces.

Kenneth Baker is a free-lance critic who writes frequently on contemporary art issues.



1. “It would be wrong, I believe, to try to establish a hierarchical order among the mind’s activities, but I also believe that it is hardly deniable that an order of priorities exists. It is inconceivable how we would ever be able to wit or to judge, that is, to handle things which are not yet and things which are no more, if the power of representation and the effort necessary to direct mental attention to what in every way escapes the attention of sense perception had not gone ahead and prepared the mind for further reflection as well as for willing and judging. In other words, what we generally call ‘thinking’ though unable to move the wit or provide judgments with general rules, must prepare the particulars given to the senses in such a way that the mind is able to handle them in their absence; it must, in brief, de-sense them.” Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Thinking, Volume I, New York, 1978, pp. 76–77.

2. For a more complete discussion, see Brenda Richardson’s “Barnett Newman: Drawing His Way into Painting” in the catalogue Barnett Newman, The Complete Drawings, 1944–1969, The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1979.

3. For a more complete discussion, see Bernice Rose’s essay in the catalogue Jackson Pollock: Drawing into Painting, The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

4. For a more complete discussion, see Diane Headley’s essay in the catalogue The Drawings of Morris Louis, the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.