PRINT April 1999

Optical Allusions

ONE STRONG IMPRESSION left by the Jackson Pollock exhibition at MoMA is just how specific his gift was. Put brutally, he couldn’t draw, had no deep feeling for color, and (as Clement Greenberg noted a long time ago) never developed a painter’s touch in the usual sense of the term. What was going for him, then? Above all a drive to realize pictorial intensity at any price. Psychologically, this seems to have involved a need to suffuse every square millimeter of the surfaces on which he worked with a maximum amount of almost bodily energy: What he wanted was a painting that would everywhere bear witness to the all-or-nothing urgency of his desire, that even at the risk of appearing choked and clotted and incoherent (or simply ugly, an epithet Greenberg applied to his art in 1946) would refuse to sacrifice one part of the picture to another, that in the end would leave the viewer with no choice other than to accept or reject it in its entirety—a painting in which, to recycle a phrase I first used apropos of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons, both of whom look back to Pollock in this regard, every bit of the surface “competes for presentness” with every other (in Pollock’s case the competition is to the death). The precedents for this go back to Courbet, Manet, and Impressionism, which is to say that Pollock’s vision was grounded in one of the guiding ideals of pictorial modernism. But he gave that ideal an aggressive, uncompromising, powerfully physical interpretation that was something new under the sun.

The work that resulted turned out to be exceptionally difficult to describe, and—a truly astonishing fact—has remained so to this day. It has become fashionable to deprecate Greenberg’s writings on Pollock for their supposed failure to deal adequately with the works themselves, and it is true that until the early ’50s Greenberg’s brief accounts of what Pollock was up to, while hailing him as a master, largely avoid all but the most cursory formal analysis (e.g., “beneath the apparent monotony of [Number One’s] surface composition it reveals a sumptuous variety of design and incident, and as a whole it is as well contained in its canvas as anything by a Quattrocento master” [The Nation, Feb. 19, 1949]). Moreover, Greenberg’s best-known contribution to Pollock commentary, the characterization of the drip paintings in terms of alloverness, isn’t wholly fortunate. The key text is the 1948 essay “The Crisis of the Easel Picture,” in which Pollock is mentioned only once but is everywhere present, that announces the advent of “the ‘decentralized,’ ‘polyphonic,’ all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar clements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other and dispenses, apparently, with beginning, middle, and ending.” As a way of talking about the 1947–50 canvases this has its uses, but it presents as a compositional principle what was in fact an existential demand, and it also stresses lateral organization over the layered impactedness, mobile intensiveness, and experiential density of the painted surface, which in Pollock’s case were the ultimate point of his “allover” attack. Later in the same text, Greenberg characterizes the uniformity that alloverness tends to produce in terms of a “dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation [emphasis added],” which almost as an afterthought introduces an experiential note.

Subsequent writings by Greenberg analogize the 1947–50 drip paintings to high Analytical Cubist works by Picasso and Braque, in my view a brilliant but misleading comparison. But I’m impressed rather than put off by Greenberg’s willingness throughout the ’40s to single Pollock out as the leading painter of his generation while implicitly acknowledging the extent to which the paintings baffled formal description. And then there is the brief but suggestive passage in the 1952 art chronicle originally entitled “Feeling Is All” on Pollock’s 1951 paintings in thinned black duco enamel that marked an unexpected break with the drip pictures of the previous years. “Everything Pollock acquired in the course of his ‘all-over’ period remains there to give the picture a kind of density orthodox easel painting has not known before,” Greenberg wrote of the new work. “This is not an affair of packing and crowding, but of embodiment [in Art and Culture, ”of intensification and economy“]; every square inch of the canvas receives a maximum of charge at the cost of a minimum of physical means [emphasis added]. Now he volatilizes in order to say something different from what he had to say during the four years before, when he strove for corporeality and laid his paint on thick and metallic. What counts, however, is not that he has different things to say in different ways, but that he has a lot to say.” The crucial statement is the one I have italicized, which seems to me to hold for the 1947–50 pictures as well, despite their much more palpable material presence: In fact it seems more obviously true of those than of the 1952 canvases, as though only in 1952, with the abandonment by Pollock of a certain alloverness, did the ultimate stakes of the latter come into focus for. Greenberg in the displaced form of a legacy from the previous work.

THE PRIMACY OF THE PURSUIT OF INTENSITY HELPS explain the rapidity as well as the completeness of Pollock’s turn toward the drip and pour technique in the summer and fall of 1947. (The famous statement “My Painting,” which describes working with the canvas on the floor, dates from that moment.) Key early paintings include Full Fathom Five, Sea Change, Enchanted Forest, and Cathedral, all vertical rectangles, the last two quite narrow ones, and Lucifer, a horizontal rectangle of even more extreme proportions. After more than fifty years Pollock’s breakthrough has lost nothing of its capacity to stun and awe: Walking through the exhibition, knowing perfectly well what was about to happen, I was nevertheless caught up all over again in the excitement of his world-changing discovery of the absolutely fitting means for actualizing a conception of painting that until then he had been able only to approximate. Among those first drip paintings Enchanted Forest, comprising just three colors, is I think my favorite: There is something inexpressibly lyrical, even uncharacteristically happy, in the boldness with which the dripped black paint arcs, loops, pounces, and dribbles across the picture surface, to be thereafter punctuated, and in places effaced, by bursts and smudges of white and drips and spatters of red. The new work is more radically abstract than his previous painting (even if, as Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel argue in their catalogue essays, Pollock sometimes began by laying down a recognizable image that he went on to obscure), not so much because of any programmatic commitment to abstraction as because the desire for intensity militated against the internal distinctions, above all figure versus ground, on which representation depends. Space, never one of Pollock’s concerns, “happens” as a by-product of the act of putting paint on canvas, much as in Caravaggesque painting it comes about as a by-product of the depiction of bodies. And where in Pollock’s previous work the search for intensity risked generating a picture so replete with internal conflict as to tend toward a kind of stasis, the new paintings, no matter how charged or clotted with pigment, remain so full of movement, of competing and interpenetrating energies, that one is tempted to compare them, no doubt vulgarly, with the impact-studded fields of contemporaneous particle physics.

Not that Pollock’s drip procedures guaranteed artistic success, as Varnedoe also remarks. For one thing, they gave rise to an ever-present danger of decorativeness, a fault conspicuously absent from Pollock’s pre-drip work. In particular, pictures in friezelike formats could only be organized episodically, which even at their best, as in Number 2, 1949, gives them a disappointing blandness. There were also risks in Pollock’s tendency to seek to unify or alternatively to enliven a painting at a late stage by laying down looping, allover skeins of light-colored paint on top of a relatively dense snarl of darker pigment; so for example in Number 1, 1949 and Number 3, 1950, which are far from failures, the skeins of white in the first and of aluminum paint in the second threaten to command the viewer’s attention to an extent that detracts from a vital grasp of the painting as a whole. The opposite tendency, the “pulverization” of value contrasts (the verb is Greenberg’s), reaches its apogee in Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, a work of extraordinary sensuousness that resists easy evaluation by virtue of the flooding of the painted field beyond the framing edges in all directions. This yields a sense of compositional cropping that makes the painting as a whole seem more traditionally “spatial” than perhaps is good for it.

A more sharply problematic aspect of Pollock’s art during the late ’40s has to do with a recurrent desire for figuration, specifically for a kind of shape definition that is at odds with the radically abstract premises of the new way of working: The paintings in which he gave free rein to that desire, such as White Cockatoo: Number 24A, 1948; Summertime: Number 9A, 1948; and The Wooden Horse: Number 10A, 1948; are among the weakest of the period. (For an analysis of those see my 1965 “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” reprinted in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews.) Finally, there is the challenge to judgment offered by the three uncharacteristically monumental paintings of 1950: Number 32, 1950; One: Number 31, 1950; and Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950. All are just under nine feet high; the first is fifteen feet wide and the second and third more than seventeen feet wide—dimensions at which abstract art is at a disadvantage. The two strongest, Number 32, 1950 and Autumn Rhythm, deal with the problem by emptying or rather greatly opening the painted field and by introducing straight throws of pigment along with curving and looping drips and pours, as if to acknowledge that at this scale the drip technique, with its implied reference back to the artist’s bodily movements, had reached the limit of its effectiveness. Moreover, Number 32, 1950 employs only black pigment, a further stripping down of pictorial means in the interests of an almost graphic starkness. In contrast, One: Number 31, 1950, with its “blonder, denser, more lyrically curvilinear nimbus” (Varnedoe), extends the drip technique to the new dimensions at a cost: The internal rhythms appear a little forced at the same time as the material density of the painted field combines with a certain structural repetitiveness to produce a mural-like effect of uniformity, which isn’t true of the drip pictures at their best. In general, as Sidney Tillim argued long ago, there seems to be a size limit for the efficacy of abstract paintings. My own sense of the matter is that Morris Louis’s Unfurleds, 1960–61, the most successful of which are about fourteen feet wide, come close to nailing down the maximum size possible for abstract works of the highest quality. That two of the three Pollocks triumph despite exceeding those dimensions bears witness to his genius. But the terms in which they do so make it unsurprising that he didn’t go on in this vein. (To point up the contrast with representational painting, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans, taking advantage of the module of the slightly larger-than-life human figure, is just under twenty-two feet wide, without the least sense of strain.) All in all, however, the exhibition more than confirmed the prior conviction that Pollock’s 1947–50 pictures are not only the high point of his art but one of the unexceedable summits of twentieth-century painting.

The inspired productivity of 1947 to 1950 didn’t, couldn’t, last; we touch here on one of the iron laws of artistic development, whether we are speaking of modernity or the High Renaissance (several weeks ago I stood in front of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina, and thought about the exalted but unstable formal and expressive equilibrium of the great Roman works of the year 1512). In 1951 Pollock made a series of paintings—the ones referred to in Greenberg’s “Feeling Is All”—in thinned black duco enamel on sized blank canvas in which recognizable imagery returned to the forefront of his art. The best of those, such as Echo: Number 25, 1951, are formidable achievements, though it is impossible not to miss the absoluteness of the works that preceded them. After which there is only the tragic collapse of the last years.

CRITICALLY SPEAKING, A topic that still requires further reflection concerns the opposition between opticality and materiality. I put forward the optical reading of Pollock’s 1947–50 pictures roughly thirty-five years ago by way of sketching an immediate historical context for the art of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. (The key texts are “Three American Painters” and “Morris Louis,” the latter also available in Art and Objecthood. The background to that reading lay in certain essays by Greenberg.) Without rehearsing my early arguments in detail, I will simply say that I drew attention to the extent to which Pollock’s allover line, being divorced from bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, gives rise to what I called “an opulent and, in spite of [the diversity of other elements in the painting], homogeneous visual fabric which both invites the act of seeing on the part of the spectator and gives the eye nowhere to rest once and for all,” or as I also put it, to a pictorial field “so homogeneous, overall, and devoid both of recognizable objects and of abstract shapes that I want to call it optical, to distinguish it from the structured, essentially tactile pictorial field of previous modernist painting from Cubism to de Kooning and even Hans Hofmann” (“Three American Painters”). In this connection I also claimed that “the materiality of [Pollock’s] pigment is rendered sheerly visual,” a phrasing that captures the all-or-nothing tenor of my thinking at that time, “and the result is a new kind of space—if it still makes sense to call it space—in which conditions of seeing prevail rather than one in which objects exist, flat shapes are juxtaposed or physical events transpire.” The painting I focused on most crucially, the remarkable Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949, today in Stuttgart, still seems one of the decisive works in Pollock’s oeuvre. Simply put, the viewer standing before Out of the Web understands that it has been made by cutting and scraping away various biomorphic-seeming configurations from a painted surface laid down by dripping and related procedures over a Masonite board. But that understanding counts for very little in his or her experience of the work, which takes place in another register, one I called “optical” in my writings of the ’60s. Indeed, I likened the viewer’s experience of the cutaway shapes to that of blind spots: “The sequence of figures in Out of the Web,” I wrote, “is almost as hard to see, to bring one’s attention to bear on, as a sequence of actual blind spots would be. They seem on the verge of dancing off the visual field or of dissolving into it and into each other as we try to look at them.” The larger significance of Out of the Web in my account was that it exemplified what I saw as an ultimately frustrated desire on Pollock’s part to combine opticality and figuration, a project I associated with Louis’s stain paintings of 1954 and after. But the connection to Louis is irrelevant here.

Even from this brief summary, the chief weakness of the optical reading—its extremity, its all-or-nothing character—is perfectly obvious, and it is only natural that later commentators on Pollock’s art, including Varnedoe and Karmel, have criticized my account of his pictures as failing to do justice to their material richness and complexity. What may seem surprising, though, is the difficulty many of those writers, Varnedoe and Karmel not excepted, have had in firmly holding an alternative view. In Varnedoe’s essay the difficulty shows up in a telltale phrase. After complaining that my too-general idea of “line” fails to do justice to the extraordinary variation in Pollock’s paint handling (I can only agree), he writes: “All these things give the surfaces, especially at any close viewing range [emphasis added], an immense impurity that appeals not just to a sense of things grasped and released but to sensations of weight and volumetric swell and ebb, wonderfully corrupting the border between line and form and evoking a space of indeterminate depth with concrete, physical associations well beyond the firings of the disembodied retina. [Why ”disembodied“? I never thought of it that way.] A fuller formalism, applied to such works, would need a greater empirical inventory of effects, and perhaps as many words for ‘line’ as the Inuit legendarily have for snow.” But Varnedoe’s “especially at any close viewing range” doesn’t quite capture what is at stake here. The problem is rather that, at least in Pollock’s larger paintings, many of the effects that Varnedoe cites (e.g., the “variations from filament to delta in a given vector, the scales of low and high relief, the different viscosities of enamel and oil, the edge qualities of soft bleeding or fringed leakage,” etc.) are not visible as such at an ordinary viewing distance, by which I mean a distance sufficient for the work to be taken in as a whole, a fact that threatens to make the fuller development of Inuit-like supplements to “line” a largely academic enterprise. More broadly, for all his scrupulous attention to the minutiae of Pollock’s effects, Varnedoe never explains what all the variation, indeed what dripping and pouring, are in the service of, pictorially speaking. Similarly, he admires Out of the Web for its “dramatic and successful” insertion of cutout figurative elements into the “densely woven congestion of the poured surface” but is silent about the terms of that alleged success, which at the very least leaves open the possibility that the optical reading of that painting may still have something to say to the contemporary viewer.

For his part, Karmel announces that “it required a powerful effort of will for Fried to argue away the tactile quality of Pollock’s paint surface, with its impasto, its handprints, and its collection of studio debris.” This leads the reader to expect that his own considered summation of Pollock’s art will have a radically different emphasis, but in fact Karmel concludes by distinguishing between two major tendencies in pictorial modernism, an art of primordial (visual or optical) sensation, going back to Impressionism, and an art of the sign, associated mainly with Synthetic Cubism. “Pollock’s achievement, in his pictures of 1947–50,” he writes near the end of his essay, “was to transform graphic flatness into optical flatness—to show that by piling layer upon layer, sign upon sign, you could generate a pictorial sensation equivalent to that of the primordial visual field.” When I first read this I could hardly believe my eyes (so to speak): After all Karmel’s laborious, layer-by-layer analysis of Pollock’s procedures and studentish demonstration of the inadequacy of ideas put forward more than thirty years ago, he ends up advocating an updated version of the optical reading, in language that is anything but felicitous (“piling layers upon layers and signs upon signs” seems particularly inappropriate to the drip pictures). Evidently something is amiss, and my suggestion is that the very attempt not just to go beyond the optical reading but virtually to expunge it from the armory of Pollock criticism turns out to have the curious effect of keeping it alive.

Opticality is also at issue in Rosalind Krauss’s recent account of Pollock’s drip paintings as indexically oriented to the ground on which they were made. (See the sections on Pollock in two recent texts, The Optical Unconscious and Formless: A User’s Guide, co-authored with Yve-Alain Bois.) For Krauss, what she calls “Pollock’s mark”—the drips, spatters, and pours that compose his paintings—is “self-evidently horizontal.” It thus gave Pollock’s drip pictures “an ‘internal meaning’ they would retain even after they had been lifted off the ground on which they had been made and onto the wall on which they would be viewed.” As she writes, “It makes no difference that the most prestigious reception of Pollock’s work in the years succeeding his death would read past this mark, repressing its implications by a series of complicated recodings that turned the metallic paint into transcendental fields and the ropey networks into hovering, luminous clouds, thereby attempting to resublimate the mark, to lift it into the field of form [which in Krauss’s argument is linked to the vertical axis of the upright body and still more broadly to culture as opposed to nature]. The mark itself not only sits there on the surface of the works for anyone to read, but its subversive intent was perceived by a whole series of artists who felt authorized in their own interpretation of Pollock’s art by the series of photographs Hans Namuth had taken in 1950 of Pollock working” (Formless).

The “complicated recodings” are, of course, nothing other than the optical reading. My aim in disputing Krauss on horizontality in Pollock is not to reassert the terms of my early account of the drip pictures, any more than that has been my concern in commenting on Varnedoe and Karmel. But to the extent that Krauss is claiming that Pollock’s 1947–50 paintings, seen at an ordinary viewing distance, positively invite or instruct the viewer to read them as oriented to the ground, the argument is invalidated by one’s actual experience of the work. Krauss’s further claim is that the “visual formation of the Gestalt”—of wholes as such—is called into question by the indexical horizontality and “low” materiality of Pollock’s mark, which secure “the condition of the work as formless,” a notion borrowed from Georges Bataille. But this too cannot be sustained if the viewer’s experience of the paintings is first and foremost of an upright—horizontal or vertical—rectangle on a wall; such a work is by definition not in the realm of the formless, whatever one takes to be the unquestioned meaning of the mark in and of itself. Put slightly differently, what Krauss describes as the “repression” or “resublimation” of Pollock’s mark, even were one to grant her reading of the latter, would follow inevitably from two factors: the lifting (by Pollock, not me) of the dripped canvases from the floor and their presentation in the vertical plane; and the introduction of the condition of ordinary viewing distance, which at once suspends the viewer’s awareness of the surface’s materiality in a more “pictorial” mode of experience—I’m deliberately avoiding the term “optical”—and frames that experience within what might be called the weak Gestalt of the upright picture-rectangle (as opposed to the strong Gestalt implied by claims of pictorial unity, which in the present context aren’t my concern).

Beyond these inescapable considerations, Pollock’s drip paintings, especially, though by no means exclusively, those in vertical rectangular formats, often seem upright with a vengeance: Thus his pursuit of intensity was from the outset correlated with the essential facingness and in that sense uprightness of his pictures. (Early pictures like Bird, ca. 1938–41, and the ferocious [self-portrait?] Head, ca. 1938–41, with their open staring eyes, are full of portent for the works to come). Plus there is the implicit presence of the mobile body and its rhythms in the 1947–50 pictures, a feture stressed by Varnedoe and alluded to in my discussion of the three monumental 1950 canvases: The notorious handprints in Number 1A, 1948, which, being clustered near the top of the painting, inevitably hint at bodily uprightness, are one of many manifestations of this. As for the subversive implications that Warhol, Morris, Hesse, and others are held by Krauss to have drawn from the drip paintings, what inspired those artists, as she all but acknowledges, was less the nature of Pollock’s mark than Namuth’s photos and films of Pollock at work.

To make my own position as clear as I can, let me say that my present stake in the idea of opticality is infra-thin, and that I agree wholeheartedly that the blatant and heterogenous materiality of Pollock’s surfaces, a major vehicle of what I have characterized as his pursuit of intensity, deserves far more emphasis than I earlier gave it. But it remains an open question—a task for criticism—how best to characterize the significance of an awareness of that materiality in the viewer’s experience of the drip paintings. Out of the Web would be a challenging place to start.