PRINT April 1999

Moving Pictures

The Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was a triumph of arrangement, lighting, sight lines, and spatial design. It exerted a fierce grip on the visitor’s subjective passage through the installation, each moment of relative calm and relaxation giving way to a rush of funneling acceleration toward some revelation of spectacular and overwhelming visual impact. And then the cycle would repeat itself, until the dampening close of the installation on the 1953 canvas The Deep, with its covering of smoothly congealed white matter parted, only barely, to allow a glimpse into some indecipherable beyond.

The punctuations in this passage were played for maximal visual drama. Never have the major paintings been so brilliantly lit: The two rarely seen behemoths, the 1943–44 Mural (on loan from the University of Iowa Museum of Art) and the 1952 Blue Poles (from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra), shone with an intensity I can find nowhere in my memory of pilgrimages to see them on their home turf. The sanctum sanctorum of this processional was of course given over to the three equally monumental works of 1950 that mark the commanding summit of Pollock’s pouring, spattering, drizzling, trailing, splashing, stabbing, lashing (but almost never dripping) technique: Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950; One: Number 31, 1950; and the otherwise unnamed black skein of Number 32.

At that point, analogies to ancient sites of miracles gave way to an altogether different sense of presence, that of the luminous cinema screen, the three paintings adding up to a sensory spectacular in surround-vision. It is an old and facile observation to note the resemblance in scale and proportion between Pollock’s large canvases and the movies. Against this notion, one can recall that in his day theater screens were actually much larger. Indeed, the shape and dimensions of the paintings far more closely match the long-standing tradition of heroic narrative work as sanctioned by artists from Rubens and Lebrun to David and Géricault, a handmade monumentality revived for Pollock’s own generation by the muralism of Guernica and of the revolutionary Mexicans he so much admired. But that fortuitous resemblance to the screen (strengthened in our era of the multiplex) is now bound up with a deeper sense of the cinematic that has overtaken the Pollock story.

This is not a condition that any of us can escape. From the moment that Pollock presented himself to Namuth’s lens and directorial eye, the acting out of a new artist’s persona entered the experience of the paintings; once the famous sequential photographs and films came to light, no observer could un-know them. The Museum of Modem Art acknowledged this irrevocably hybrid condition by its choice of supporting exhibits and accessories. The continuous playing of Namuth’s film record of the painter in action was only to be expected and was in this context unremarkable; but even closer to the movies was the exhibition’s most startling concession to extra-aesthetic hero-worship, a full-scale mock-up of his rough, shedlike studio from the Springs at the east end of Long Island. This was a structure with only an inside, with nothing beyond its high windows, which only a camera could make look like the real thing.

That effect took on an uncanny resonance on the day I first saw the show, a normally closed Wednesday on which the museum was opened to a fairly large crowd of art professionals. The buzz among the visitors was that Ed Harris, slated both to direct and to play the leading role in a forthcoming film biography of the artist, had spent several hours there (with his family) absorbing the genius he intends to portray. I’m unable to confirm the truth of this—despite spending most of the afternoon there, I never noticed him—but just the idea, the unseen presence of the workaday celebrity whom many see as a Pollock lookalike, contributed to the eerie half-reality that the installation began to share with the staging of a film.

In many ways, Pollock had been the object of casting from the start of his mature career. Howard Putzel, a Hollywood native who had migrated east to serve as Peggy Guggenheim’s scout and adviser, selected him as the unique American recipient for her sustained patronage. Putzel, dead by 1945 and still cruelly underestimated by history as a key artistic intelligence, was also behind the commission for Mural: Without him Pollock would never have had that crucial early experience of painting on a heroic scale. And with Mural began the persistent practice of posing the artist for photographs in front of his paintings, just as the dramatic dust jacket of the MoMA exhibition catalogue—a still from Namuth’s film of Pollock painting on glass—gives us the artist as star in his own life story. As he lay beneath a glass plate, Namuth recorded Pollock leaning over this transparent ground against a cold clear sky of late autumn, depositing the skeins and spatters of his horizontal canvases in a forced simulation of his typical procedure. With Pollock’s flat tones as voice-over commentary, the film has long been a staple of studio art instruction. The catalogue jacket’s freeze-frame of the artist’s expressively craggy torso, in silhouetted closeup against an azure field, excludes everything but an actor’s stark presence and one looping trademark gesture (the lines of which seem to trace a fluid signature); the endpapers continue the sequence, an accumulating thicket of black marks melding with the presence of their maker.

In a thoughtful gesture of completion, the curators arranged their own sound track for Pollock viewing, offering on the audioguide and in a compact disc some of the traditional and swing jazz that the artist actually favored during the critical years in which he was changing painting for all time. But this lightly proffered item of diverting biographical detail (and inventive merchandising) carries a certain argumentative edge, one that surfaces more explicitly in curator Pepe Karmel’s commentary on the art itself. If this was indeed Pollock’s preferred listening, then he was not attending to the music that was then exerting a parallel force within jazz, that is, the bebop fragmentation of harmonic structure and melodic line pursued by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and company. One may, on the one hand, see only a mild irony in this mismatch or, on the other, be prompted to rethink the whole proposition of Pollock’s assumed radicalism and outsider status: Perhaps his painting was composed in a spirit closer to the brand of jazz he favored, one more understandable in terms of familiar artistic conventions. Karmel’s industrious researches into the evidence provided by Namuth’s photographs and films leads him to something like the latter conclusion. Drawing, with its capacity to define figures and spatial architecture, has been the foundation of correct academic procedure since the Renaissance. So the received Pollock for the end of the century is to be Pollock the draftsman.

TO SEE POLLOCK PRIMARILY IN TERMS OF HIS line is not, in any event, a new idea. Michael Fried made it central, not only to his influential interpretations of the poured paintings, but to his whole argument three decades ago for the necessity of allover abstraction. Pollock’s achievement had been to unshackle line from the tasks of bounding and defining middle forms; liberated to index their own self-sufficient trajectories, his poured traces of pigment interwove themselves into miragelike thickets that defied correlation with any objects or bodies in the world. They made a space, but it was one accessible only to vision; in Fried’s terminology, they had shown the way to “opticality.”

That synthesis has always possessed a bracing clarity when the larger poured paintings are taken in from a certain distance. But it has always faltered when one’s focus shifts to a closer register. At their best, Pollock’s surfaces possess an extraordinary articulateness of pattern and crisp differentiation of shape seen even from inches away. And at this level of inner detail, the actual matter of his pigments, their shifts in thickness, texture, and reflectivity, have everything to do with sustaining this crucial fineness of effect. And without success on that microcosmic level, the macrocosms, the vast unbroken fields of One or Autumn Rhythm, would lose their fascination and power to convince.

Though they are far from the first to notice the necessary roughness of Pollock’s canvases, the MoMA curators do so with new evidence at their command. Conservators James Coddington and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro exploited the occasion of the show to conduct a comprehensive examination of the condition of the paintings and the knowledge to be gleaned from their physical states. One striking fact to emerge from the conservation studio is just how fundamentally sound the paintings remain, how little they require the sort of intensive care now demanded by many works of the artist’s contemporaries. Pollock proves to have been a nearly unerring craftsman, inventing new techniques with unconventional materials almost out of the air but gaining such quick understanding of their behavior and durability that his paintings have lost almost none of their original articulation.

And this articulation is nothing if not material; it is a matter of grain against slickness, of receding stains against knots, ridges, and swags of relief (one of Pollock’s repeated devices was to scoop up the congealed circle of paint that forms on an open can of enamel and transfer the sticky disks intact to the canvas, where they stand out as cupped, obsidian-like medallions of considerable beauty). The whole idea of drawing tends to miss this. To trace a line, after all, is an act of demarcation, a setting of an apparent boundary between substantial forms. When Fried perceived a play of line extracted from this differentiating function, he imagined it as preserving that immateriality, conjuring a numinous field untethered by reference to solid, gravity-bound entities. MoMA’s brief for Pollock likewise opts for line in its notional rather than its concrete, materialized state, but does so without any of Fried’s metaphysical aspiration. Instead, drawing returns in its traditionally dichotomous pairing with color, the linear versus the painterly. This is, for the organizers, a venerable position laid down some three decades ago by William Rubin, their éminence grise. Rubin judged Pollock to have accomplished an extraordinary alchemy whereby drawing, pushed to an extreme of density and elaboration, crossed over (just) into painting. The organizers’ own contribution, in this near-millennial presentation of the work, is to unveil a grand reinstatement of the human figure.

VEILING AND UNVEILING ARE THE KEY terms in the current arguments over Pollock’s significance for artists in the twentieth century (“the last achievement of whose status every serious artist is convinced,” as Philip Lieder once pronounced from the height of his influence as editor of the present journal). “To veil” is a hallowed term in Pollock studies, owing to his having been reported to say about There Were Seven in Eight of 1945 that he chose “to veil the image.” In this still Picasso-like exercise, it was a case of underlying figures being erased by yet more figures; but in the key transitional year of 1947, he put this idea into practice in a far more thoroughgoing way. To make Galaxy, he altogether effaced another painting, called The Little King, which was not only complete (and congruent with Troubled Queen of 1945) but had already been exhibited under that title. Yet most remarkable is Pollock’s having left so much of the underlying figural composition visible, the deft economy of the poured overlay obliterating its integrity with a modicum of actual coverage.

In the paintings that followed over the next three years, particularly in the large ones, it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle what lies beneath from what is doing the veiling. Karmel has undertaken to remedy this with a computer-aided reexamination of Namuth’s film and photographic record of the artist at work in 1950. Uncovering the sequence of layers that added up to a work like Autumn Rhythm, the curator finds not only biomorphic figures in Pollock’s first calligraphic forays but also the spatial order, the symmetries and compositional regularity that traditionally accompany the presence of the figure in painting—and, what’s more, all of these components survive as key elements in the final outcome. Thus remade as a tireless draftsman, Pollock takes his place in a grand sequence extending back to the Renaissance, and the “veiling” no longer tears at the integrity of this tradition but merely renders it more absorbing and imbued with a piquant mystery appropriate to our era.

It will surprise no one, of course, that the first trails of paint falling from Pollock’s practiced hand traced some broadly approximate human and animal configurations. But only subsequently were those marks enlisted into the real work of making a credible painting, and in the ultimate filling of the surface, their significance changes utterly. MoMA’s approach to making Pollock intelligible fails to consider the key lesson of Galaxy, which ought to function as something of a Rosetta Stone in Pollock interpretation (in that its two competing idioms both exist as independent entities and remain wholly or substantially visible as such). The final effect of the painting stems from the incompatibility of the two marking systems involved in its manufacture; the clash of the two systems is what makes it painting and not inflated drawing or retrograde figurative muralism.

Pollock’s conception of his art during the peak years of his career depended on an increasingly refined and sustained clash of incompatibilities among his proliferating procedures of marking. From orchestrated contradiction emerged the literal concreteness, the obdurate materiality, the exile of natural metaphor and the consequent invasion of the unbounded and the ungraspable, which the best commentary on the artist has always emphasized—and which the projects of reflective European painters, among them Gerhard Richter and Art & Language, have likewise recognized and acted on. The dissonant disabling of a represented nature made Pollock’s canvases function themselves as the equivalent of nature, where the powers of the artist to impose form are strictly limited, where final effects are instead a matter of inducement and invitation, with the brute fact of the painting having the last word.

As this fact lies nowhere but in the matter he laid down, the insights of the MoMA conservators into the astonishing variety and inner life of the paintings tend to undercut the argument for Pollock as consummate draftsman, a latter-day old master proffering, in Karmel’s words, “precisely the illusionistic space of Renaissance art.” The discovery of such an eternal verity in these works depends on their receding to some state of virtual apparition, and here the high professional competence of the installation may, paradoxically, dovetail with the inadequate platform of ideas on which the organizers’ insistent claims for Pollock’s greatness are made to rest.

Since they went to the trouble of building the interior mock-up of the Springs studio, it might have been a revealing exercise to try hanging the big paintings of 1950 on its walls, to underscore their achieved concreteness, to make them crowd in on the viewer and impose an environment of their own insistent making, to forgo for a moment the apparitional brilliance imparted by optimized museum lighting and let the shifts and fading of natural light do their work in grounding them in the realm of the actual (Pollock could never paint past dark for lack of artificial lighting).

THERE MIGHT THUS BE SOME MERIT IN TAKING the idea of the exhibition as cinematic theme park and pushing it even further. To see the paintings rough, which this unlikely museological scenario might encourage, would be to break down obtuse distinctions between the unquestioned period of greatness of 1947 to 1950 and everything that came before and after. Our organs of middlebrow taste are fond of this separation, which allows them to characterize, with much unearned condescension, Pollock’s achievement as a one-time lucky accident. John Updike, writing in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, is typical, discerning in the three years after 1947 no more than “flashing instinct” and “brief and hazardous. . . visitations of grace” (that is, the artist as animal and puppet of supernatural intervention: all these years on, his class and lack of education are still held against him). For such commentators, Pollock’s hard-won effacement and transmutation of his earlier manner remain invisible because they cannot bring themselves to see that he had anything of value to sacrifice.

The fastidious Updike hurries past everything before 1947, dismissing it all as “ferociously ugly, the cluttered amalgams of a man putting brush to canvas in wild hopes that a picture will emerge.” Sophisticated observers on the spot—Putzel, Piet Mondrian, James Johnson Sweeney, Marcel Duchamp, Peggy Guggenheim, and Clement Greenberg among them—had an altogether different opinion. Or, better, they might have deployed the same words as terms of high praise, out of their common recognition that some such drastic action, one then beyond the reach of Europe, was required for the very survival of modern art in the West.

Greenberg, to his credit, later worried that Pollock’s eventual submersion of his earlier tense, unsettled forms under the rain of pours might have been leaning too far in the direction of prettiness. The MoMA installation certainly allows the viewer to overvalue the fragile harmonies of 1947 to 1950 at the expense of the refractory materials that went into their making. The evidence of the final gallery, which gathers virtually all of his subsequent work, makes the point that Pollock himself was intent on intensifying and dramatizing his work of contradiction, willfully sacrificing the balance and resolution he had achieved in 1950.

“Hideous . . . awkward. . . harsh,” gasps Updike, and the organizers seemed to accommodate those of similarly tender sensibilities by positioning the exit in advance of the final room, just to the left of Blue Poles. But those who gave that room thoughtful examination found much to reward their patience. If Galaxy has a didactic counterpart at the later end of Pollock’s interrupted trajectory, it is the aptly titled Convergence: Number 10, 1952, a large canvas where a newer mode of thinned fluid puddling in chromatic primaries with brilliant white stands out as a virtually independent painting against a dense and troubled allover composition in black. The muted, organic, decorator-pleasing tones of Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm, and One fall away—and not before outstaying their welcome. Reliable elegance departs, and risk returns, and so do occasional failures. Of course they do: Without failure, without resounding disasters even, how does one know that any commensurate risk was ever present? The moves toward stained black in one direction, and toward garish oranges, yellows, and blues in the other, effect a prizing apart of Pollock’s previous harmonization, not to say confusion, of color and tone (as Convergence is there to teach us). So, likewise, does the explicit reemergence of the figure, now baldly juxtaposed with an equally recalcitrant overdoing of practiced abstracting devices; White Light of 1954 redeploys Pollock’s signature streaks and ropes squeezed straight from the tube and accumulates them to choking intensity so as to extinguish the very possibility of figuration.

This is all exhilarating. But the later work demands that the viewer shake off the grip of the received narratives of Pollock’s life and art, including the gothic of “to a violent grave.” It is an indictment of our culture that it has yet to generate a satisfactory story of what is arguably its most important artistic event. Literary talent has been humbled before it. Ed Harris has nowhere to go but up.