PRINT October 2006


Jackson Pollock’s late work

SOMETIMES THE SMALLEST things create the most arresting aesthetic experiences—an observation resoundingly reconfirmed for me at “No Limits, Just Edges,” the Jackson Pollock works-on-paper exhibition recently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (and before that at the Guggenheim Foundation’s outposts in Berlin and Venice). As I walked through the show’s expansive last room, my eyes gravitated, almost magnetically, to the lower right-hand corner of an untitled 1951 drawing, where, beneath the slashing arrows and scrawled numerals soaked into the fibers of the absorbent Japanese paper Pollock favored that year, lay one of the artist’s most remarkable, if diminutive, passages: the letters P-o-l-l-o-c-k fashioned out of his trademark drips. I have long had a special interest in post-1950 Pollock, and although I was familiar with this particular work, the crystal-clear logic with which the artist applied his signature style to his signature itself remained striking. Indeed, the dripped signature, strangely, seemed less the result of an artist’s simply working within his own given mode than an act of self-conscious appropriation. That is, the way Pollock used his painterly mark to play on the technique he made famous looked almost like one artist parodying another’s style. Here, at the crucial juncture of his career, when he was moving beyond the dripped abstractions so indelibly associated with his name, Pollock seemed to step outside himself, to begin to address issues of artistic authorship and individual style with an amazing acuity and critical distance. This sly gesture, which is, in fact, typical of Pollock in these years and yet very much at odds with the popularly accepted image of him as an unintellectual, intuitive shaman, reminded me again of how unexplored the artist’s late works are, even now, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

The reasons why half a century of art history has virtually ignored late Pollock are myriad, but undoubtedly stem in part from the works’ eclecticism. Indeed, the paintings and drawings Pollock made between 1951 and his violent and premature death, at age forty-four, in August 1956 not only look very different from what is understood to be “typical” Pollock, but are themselves tremendously varied. Those who remember the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 Pollock retrospective may have shared my impression that the room of late works there looked more like a group exhibition than a section of a monographic show. How could paintings as apparently dissimilar as The Deep (a strange, brooding abstraction painted primarily with viscous white enamel) and Easter and the Totem (a garish figurative riff on Matisse done in solvent-rich oil that looks almost like watercolor), both dated 1953, have been made by the same artist in the same year? Scale shifts, variations in paint handling, and a restless shuttling between abstraction and figuration characterize the works from this period, in which Pollock brought all the elements of his artistic arsenal to bear. This stylistic staccato makes for extreme variations among paintings, and oftentimes creates disjunctions within individual works as well.

Take for example 1953’s Portrait and a Dream, a huge painting in which the dripped “portrait”—an oversize head filled with alternating patches of soaked-in orange pigment and choking gun-barrel gray impasto—gazes across the work’s surface at an area of shiny, dripped enamel. Here, in a single canvas, as figuration teeters uneasily beside abstraction, and Pollock’s looping, lyrical paint application contrasts with tight rendering, we see an artist self-consciously dismantle the stylistic coherence that seemed to define his very artistic identity. Indeed, is it too much to read this painting, which has been interpreted as a self-portrait, as a picture of Pollock’s own process of self-examination—as a “portrait” of the artist regarding the “dream” of his dripped production from a safe distance? Like other works from that time (his last painting, Search, 1955, which is literally a palimpsest of all his mature styles, is paradigmatic in this respect), Portrait and a Dream is an image of dissociation: a portrait, one might say, of Pollock’s own production, and thus necessarily rendered in an amalgam of different styles.

This stylistic heterogeneity, in addition to making late Pollock particularly resistant to easy categorization, has also led to the late works being regarded as inconsistent: one of modernism’s cardinal sins. However, the post-1950 works look disjunctive only when viewed through the kind of formalist lens that to a surprising extent still frames much of Pollock studies today. Originally drafted by the artist’s first apologist, Clement Greenberg, this approach, which informed the recent Guggenheim show organized by Susan Davidson as much as it did the MoMA retrospective, reads Pollock’s early work as a series of ineluctable steps toward abstraction, his oversize, lyrical drip paintings as modernist masterpieces, and his late works as eclectic failures. While such a view creates a neat, tripartite linear narrative (capped off, Greek drama–style, with a tragic end), it has more trouble accommodating something as strange, and apparently off-message, as Pollock’s dripped signature and the self-reflexive attitude it represents. Of course, Greenberg’s modernism required a critical posture of its protagonists, but this was always meant to be applied more on the level of the medium itself than on the metalevel of a critique of artistic authorship.

To be sure, the current canon of Pollock scholarship is replete with robust nonformalist models that depart from, and often refute, the Greenbergian reading; I am thinking in particular of the work of Michael Fried, T. J. Clark, and Rosalind Krauss. But since these scholars generally concern themselves with issues of modernism as played out in Pollock’s classic abstractions, the artist’s post-1950 production remains chronically neglected. Now fifty years old, Pollock scholarship needs a makeover. A new model is necessary to understand these late works, one that focuses less on what they look like and more on how they came to look that way. Pollock’s return to figuration in 1951, for example, is best understood not merely in stylistic terms—that is, as a retreat, a wholesale disavowal of abstraction—but, instead, as indicative of a critical retrospective attitude in which the artist mined his own repertoire as a means of grappling with what his big abstractions had done for (and to) the tradition of Western painting. If “classic” Pollock represented the simultaneous culmination and destruction of modernist painting, late Pollock offers one of the provisional forays into the world thereafter, a world that must have seemed resolutely postlapsarian to those invested in the modernist project. Who, after 1950, would consider themselves so at “one” with their art that they would dare echo the sentiment, if not the words, of Pollock’s oft-cited mantra of existential artistic immersion, “I am nature”? Certainly, as it turned out, not even Pollock himself. Instead, the artist accepted the terminal logic of his own production (even though its terms may have seemed paralyzing) and began to cast a cool eye on the already trodden ground of his own oeuvre as a means of trying to begin again. Pollock’s late work suggests the artist realized, as much as he had hoped to the contrary, that the rhetoric of pure individual self-expression was just that—rhetoric—and that style was not inextricably bound to a single, authorial hand, but rather was separate, mobile, detachable, and indeed, potentially reinhabitable.

Seeing Pollock’s “signature signature” at the Guggenheim reminded me of the remarkable rigor and self-awareness with which he covered this new terrain in the last five years of his life, confronting, as he did, the consequences of his own radical practice. Passages like these (and there are a lot of weird signatures that year—several more dripped versions, a sheet of “practice” signatures, and a signature “patch” affixed to a large collage, to name a few) seem quite significant, not only for understanding Pollock’s methods, but also for contextualizing the practices of the generation of artists that immediately followed. What is at stake is not only a new perspective on Pollock’s late works, but also a better understanding of the birth of postmodern painting. Rather than view the late work as aberrant and denigrate it as the pathetic record of an artist who lost his way (as Greenberg ultimately did and all since have unfailingly echoed), we might reread Pollock’s post-1950 production as a process of concerted reflections on the possibilities of painting after Abstract Expressionism. Several years before Robert Rauschenberg lampooned AbEx’s signature gestures with feigned spontaneity in works like 1957’s Factum I and Factum II—and way before Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstrokes”—Pollock himself began to play the role of the first “post-Pollock” painter. Ultimately, such a viewpoint can not only accommodate moments like Pollock’s dripped signature, it can also help explain them—and make late Pollock perhaps less surprising, but, in the end, much more interesting.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and writer whose paintings are on view this month at Artists Space in New York. He is finishing a manuscript on Jackson Pollock’s late work.