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PRINT March 2016

FIRST AMONG SEQUELS: JACKSON POLLOCK’S LATE WORK

Jackson Pollock, Echo: Number 25, 1951, enamel on canvas, 91 7/8 × 86". © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

ONE HALLMARK OF GREAT ART is its ability to simultaneously command attention and confound interpretation. Work like this draws us in but ultimately frustrates our attempt to reduce the experience to anything like a definitive reading. We might call it Zeno’s paradox of meaning: The closer we get, the more numerous and splintered our frames of reference become. Jackson Pollock’s art is great, and, unsurprisingly, its interpretative terrain is marked with multiple (sometimes diametrically opposed) arguments. His work epitomizes critic Harold Rosenberg’s “action painting” thesis as much as it satisfies Clement Greenberg’s formal imperatives. It triggers Michael Fried to think through opticality while also embodying Rosalind Krauss’s theory of base materialism. Pollock’s work negates metaphor, per T. J. Clark, while at the same time broadcasting postwar American ideology, as Serge Guilbaut maintains. And all this says nothing of its impact on makers, its enormously influential modeling of novel scales and means for painting as well as new types of artistic performativity.

No wonder, then, that this formidable and demanding practice is often analyzed in limited, manageable parts. Traditionally, the paintings Pollock made in a remarkable three-year run from 1947 to 1950 have garnered the most scholarly, critical, and artistic attention. This period—the middle, and some would say apogee, of his career—contains the most obvious internal consistency, and the dripped abstractions he developed at this time are benchmarks of twentieth-century art. Neither the Surrealist-inspired paintings he made before nor the stylistically diverse works he subsequently produced have commanded as much collective scrutiny or debate. But thankfully, this has begun to change. “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots,” a jewellike show focusing on Pollock’s 1951–53 work, on view through March 20 at the Dallas Museum of Art, is both a sign of this shift and a catalyst for fresh considerations of Pollock. Offering a penetrating investigation of the first few years of Pollock’s woefully understudied late phase, “Blind Spots” is truly singular and provides a much-needed opportunity to test received notions about late Pollock against the work itself.

Bracketed by the months immediately following his one-man show at Betty Parsons Gallery at the end of 1950 and his accidental death in August 1956, Pollock’s last phase is filled with difficult work and has proved recalcitrant to extended analysis. One reason for this is that the paintings and drawings in that period look and feel quite different from those that came immediately before. The Parsons show was a harbinger of the changes to come. In this exhibition, Pollock debuted his most ambitious and most obdurately nonreferential paintings; installation shots show a trio of oversize canvases—Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950; One: Number 31, 1950; and Number 32, 1950—anchoring the exhibition. Filling the space floor to ceiling, these three monumental dripped abstractions dominated the architecture of the gallery as much as they have the artist’s subsequent critical reception. Their distinctive pictorial conflation of figure and ground, their gestural grace and raw, corporeal power, defined the terms of what we mean when we say “classic Pollock.” However, as much as these paintings embodied the full promise of the artist’s distinctive pictorial idiom, they also exhausted it. The sparest painting in that group, Number 32, 1950, shows his vernacular stripped down to its most skeletal, monochromatic fundamentals. In realizing this big, black, spidery web, Pollock reached a formal and technical degree zero. Pollock’s wife and closest viewer, artist Lee Krasner, famously said that after these works, he “couldn’t have gone further doing the same thing.”1 “Blind Spots” picks up at this pregnant moment, assembling the largest group of late Pollocks ever presented in a museum.

In early 1951, Pollock returned to work by going back to the basics, retrenching to make a group of medium-size ink drawings. Some of these works are nonreferential, while others contain figurative elements reminiscent of his earlier work. Letters appear in some places, as a kind of cryptoscript. By restricting his palette to one or two colors and working at a smaller, more intimate scale, Pollock explored new directions in an elemental, relatively low-stakes, and even private way. The Dallas show contains a number of these drawings, and one particular pairing offers an evocative object lesson in this group of important transitional works. Two untitled sheets from 1951 are shown side by side, allowing attentive viewers to determine that these pages were originally stacked one on top of the other. Because of the exceptional absorbency of the Japanese mulberry paper Pollock used at the time, the lines and blobs of ink he drew would bleed from the top sheet down through to the one underneath. This created an image on the lower sheet that was a ghost of the first.2 Historically, it has been the imagery of these drawings, and the subsequent paintings they engendered, that has seemed most important, but given the artist’s intense engagement with devising new means of imagemaking throughout his career, the technical novelties of these works mustn’t be overlooked.

In particular, the distinctly Fordist one-after-anotherness of the transfer process should be factored into any assessment of the drawings, and of the paintings that immediately followed. In these paintings, which Pollock began producing in mid-1951, the subtly but unmistakably mechanistic aspects of the works on paper are literally writ large. Filling a turkey baster with thinned commercial black enamel and wielding it like a giant fountain pen, Pollock worked on long, uncut bolts of cotton duck, making images he called “drawings on canvas.” Studio shots from Pollock’s barn that summer show rows of these so-called black pourings—several discrete images per length of cloth—within the regular matrix of standard-width canvas. They look like photographic prints hanging in a developer’s darkroom. Copying, doubles, and seriality course through the artist’s 1951 production, complicating traditional readings that prioritize the uniqueness and supposedly personal, unconscious expression of the artist’s “return to figuration.” Pushing the reproductive logic that underpins the works on paper, the paintings, with their compartmentalized images regularly placed in strips, look as if they had come off a conveyor belt: iterations from the Pollock painting machine.

To be sure, some art historians have previously found resonances with mass production in Pollock’s work, but the discussion has generally been limited to his earlier dripped abstractions. I am thinking of Krauss’s note that abstract painters’ work bears the “mark of the multiple” and Clark’s remark on its “robotic” character. William Lieberman notably characterized 1951 paintings as “cinematographic.”3 But the relationship of mechanism and mass production to late Pollock hasn’t been fully analyzed, either historically or theoretically. The late work presents an ample opportunity for new investigations in this area. In particular, the ways in which the drawings and paintings of 1951 incorporate the logic of film (if not exactly that of the “cinema”) are significant and manifold. June of that year saw Hans Namuth premiere Jackson Pollock, the famous film of the artist at work, shot at the end of 1950. This film both amplified Pollock’s role as a media star and exposed his signature technique to intense scrutiny, with a notable section shot from underneath a piece of glass on which Pollock painted. Even without taking recourse to the biographical drama surrounding the filming (in whose immediate aftermath Pollock took his first alcoholic drink in years and repeatedly, drunkenly called Namuth a “phony”), we know that the experience of being filmed made a dramatic, perhaps even traumatic, impression on Pollock.

This experience surely informs much of Pollock’s work at this time. Is it too reckless an exercise to read Untitled (Black and White Polyptych), ca. 1950—or related works such as his vertical compositions from the same time or Untitled (Red Painting 1–7), also ca. 1950—as filmic? Characterized by regular, ruler-drawn, penciled “cels” filled with abstract imagery, these paintings recall the regular spacing and specific aspect ratio of film strips.4 Without, strictly speaking, representing film, these “cels” have an inorganic uniformity that bespeaks the iterative character of successive frames and of mechanical reproduction more generally. Consciously or not, Pollock here echoes a visual format that was both personally vivid to him and universally recognizable. Indeed, it is tempting to see these “filmic” paintings as figuring a particular frame within which we might situate most of Pollock’s post-1950 work. By then the artist was all too aware of himself as a painter “in reproduction”—not only because his works were already being used as fashion backdrops (as in the images of the Parsons show that Cecil Beaton shot for Vogue) but also because of how his own image as paragon of postwar American individuality circulated in mass media (for example, the famous Life magazine profile asking, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”). The complex relationships between mass media, the spectacle, and artistic production became paramount to American artists in the mid- to late ’50s. Pollock’s work here begins some of these investigations.

In his piece “Notes on Gesture,” Giorgio Agamben offers one way to theorize the import of what Pollock’s uniquely gestural techniques signified in the larger social field, and how Namuth’s film crystallized the attending stakes. Agamben argues that “in the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures tries at once to reclaim what it has lost and to record its loss.” Though he certainly wasn’t talking about Pollock specifically, Agamben argues for film’s unique capacity to capture gesture—which for him entails the physical means of human movement—and hold it as a repository for a society mourning some loss. It’s an oblique argument but seems painfully pertinent, as Pollock was filmed at the very moment his own gesture—so closely identified with his artistic identity that it was called his signature style—was exhausting itself. Further, Agamben links this concept of gesture with a type of reflexivity—for him, it is a mise en abyme of self-reflexiveness (“the exhibition of . . . the process of making a means visible as such”)—that resonates strongly with modernist preoccupations. In this sense, I can’t help but telescope the complex relation of gesture to the making-visible of means into the film that makes visible Pollock’s gestural means. Lastly, when Agamben further describes gesture as means without ends (“means that, as such, evade the orbit of mediality without becoming, for this reason, ends”), I see a remarkable rhyme with Greenberg’s fundamental prescription that painting should pursue its own specific means. Greenberg’s ideas were of course well known to Pollock and indeed, sometimes parroted by him.5 While the links between Agamben’s formulations, Greenbergian aesthetics, and Pollock’s work begs further attention, the Italian philosopher’s name-checking of Kant and his concept of “purposefulness without purpose” seems one pertinent place to start.

If Pollock’s output in 1951 found the artist wrestling with the implications of an individual, expressive subject alienated from his gestures—through their entry into mass media, their mechanistic character, or their zero-degree logic (or a combination of the three)—Pollock soon focused on these painterly means as such. This is evident, for example, in Number 5, 1951 (Elegant Lady). In this large canvas, Pollock explores a panoply of approaches to mark-making: A field of somewhat regular dots in the upper-right-hand corner creates an even, diffuse tonality, while the amoeba-like curve at the upper left shows how the dripped mark, if thick enough, can assume a figural quality. The looping teardrop forms running vertically left of center delimit shape in more traditional ways, and the rows of x’s at the bottom edge veer toward writing. Such experiments with the different ways a mark can signify and perform—the way “drawing,” “painting,” and “writing” can all converge and diverge—appear in much of Pollock’s work of the early to mid-’50s.

Significantly, Pollock had worked in an almost identical manner at another pivotal moment. In the mid-’40s, before fully pursuing the dripped technique in earnest, he made several drawings that recorded a similar experimentation with diverse pictorial languages. Coming at a comparable moment in his career—one of transition—these drawings reveal an important precedent for the kind of semiotic consciousness and formal experimentation Number 5, 1951 demonstrates. One of these early sheets bears particular mention for its striking commonalities with Number 5, 1951. An untitled 1947 drawing is filled with almost identical thickening lines, agglomerations of small loops, pictographic forms, crosshatch marks, and protozoa shapes. Not only is the sheet clearly an example of the sort of “early images coming thru” Pollock described in the “black pourings” works—indeed, Number 5, 1951 seems like a readaptation and expansion into the more public realm of painting—but it functions as an important prototype for the kinds of fundamental formal examinations that Pollock undertook at moments of great upheaval in his approach. This becomes even more compelling when we realize that Pollock revisited this particular sheet at this time. Although he had already signed and dated the work in 1947, Pollock inscribed, dated, and initialed the drawing again in 1951, demonstrating that he had recently had it in hand and perhaps that he felt it was newly relevant to his current work. It is possible that Pollock had the earlier drawing explicitly in mind while painting Number 5, 1951. Their resemblance on levels of form and operation reveals that Pollock’s strategies at related moments of artistic change held constant through his career. These kinds of operations—as opposed to specific styles or imagery—are what ultimately constitute the governing logic of Pollock’s late production. And yet this is not the prevailing story of these works in the existing literature.

The striking gesture of signing a work twice, and the internal split a reinscription implies, foreshadowed things to come. The fact is that even as Pollock explored new directions, all of his work from 1951 on was pervaded by acutely self-aware retrospection. If the artist’s “black pourings” married early imagery with novel techniques, the work that immediately followed saw him revisit the dripped abstractions that had made him notorious. These latter-day drips went on view at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952; more than half of the works in that exhibition are gathered in Dallas. Convergence: Number 10, 1952 and Number 12, 1952 are the largest and most ambitious canvases of this new group in “Blind Spots” (Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 is the third major piece from this time but, unfortunately, didn’t travel from Australia). Convergence most clearly shows how Pollock would rethink the terms of his prior production. Far from a nostalgic reprise, this revisitation fiercely detourned his past idioms. Comprising two formally distinct registers, the painting began as a typical black pouring, and an explicitly figurative (though overworked) image characterizes the first layer. Pollock then submerged this campaign beneath a marbled network of dripped pools of colored paint, as if to overlay a painting from 1949 on top of one from 1951. Like oil and water, these layers repel each other in formal disassociation.6 Convergence is an image of the present occupied by a past that, although pervasive, can never be integrated or assimilated. In this top layer of dripped paint, Pollock literally broke the spectrum into its fundamental parts, laying down the three primary colors with the two neutrals, black and white. In a return to a kind of chromatic fundamentalism, Pollock began working with unmixed and undiluted color. In contrast to both the natural, “autumnal” palette of the 1950 dripped abstractions and his more recent penchant for austere blacks, the five colors here look artificial and disjunctive. When people refer to the proverbial “colors not found in nature,” they are referring to colors that are found in a store.7 These are manufactured colors—ready-made. In Convergence, chromatic dissonance rather than organic harmony prevails: Color is consciously presented as something given rather than controlled, as material fact rather than metaphor. If elements of the past are to reappear in the present, Convergence seems to argue, they would do so disassembled and separated, if not also ironically.

Jackson Pollock, Convergence: Number 10, 1952, oil on canvas, 7' 9 1/2" × 13'. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The other noteworthy exhibition Pollock mounted in 1952 was a miniretrospective, organized by Greenberg. Retrospective exhibitions famously generate mixed, even contradictory feelings for living artists. On the one hand, the opportunity to survey the breadth of one’s achievement can be intensely satisfying, providing a brief respite and a moment to rest on one’s laurels. At the same time, however, it can trigger a feeling of panic—a sense that time is short in light of what one still wishes to accomplish. Judging from the works he produced—unfortunately, his public statements about the exhibition have been lost—Pollock’s retrospective experience was more motivating than celebratory.8 The inclusion of signal canvases from the early to mid-’40s showed him several of the paths he had forgone when embarking on the project of the dripped abstractions. Seeing eight major paintings brought together renewed Pollock’s ambition, and all the paintings he made in the following year and a half were in explicit dialogue with these older works. The retrospective provided an opportunity to formalize the process of reviewing his earlier production that began with the “black pourings” and to develop it as an operative strategy moving forward.

The paintings Pollock made in 1953 and 1954 were shown in what was to be his last solo gallery exhibition of new work. In most cases, they directly correspond to individual pieces in the retrospective, with Pollock reinhabiting earlier styles and rejuvenating former strategies. Sleeping Effort, 1953, was certainly among the earliest of the paintings executed in the wake of the retrospective, and it is virtually identical to The Key, 1946, in almost every important aspect. Roughly five by seven feet, both canvases are oblong and contain two figurative forms, one vertical and one horizontal, filling their frames. They are mirror-imaged, however: The vertical figure in The Key is at the right, while the standing “figure” in the later painting is to the left. Their compositions imply direct contact, like the peeling off of a print from an etching plate. Defined by the same painterly syntax—a kind of cloisonnist device in which a linear network of solid lines encloses areas of turbulent and contrasting color—these paintings also share a shallow, shadow-box-like pictorial depth. The two works are also identical in terms of paint handling: Areas of thick, swirling impasto, in which colors are often brushed into one another without mixing, contrast with passages in which the paint has been scraped away with a palette knife. The greatest similarity, however, is in the artist’s use of color, with both paintings built on the same tension between warm yellows and cool blues and greens. These chromatics are punctuated by high-key reds, and the lowest third of each painting is a ruddy brown. While these discrete color families are generally separated by the linear network, when colors do blend, they do so in specific, identical ways. In short, the precision with which Sleeping Effort recasts The Key is remarkable. Almost as remarkable are the correspondences between other works from the retrospective and canvases Pollock produced in 1953. Number 2, 1949, haunts Frieze, 1953–55; Number 9, 1950 is transmuted into Unformed Figure, 1953; and elements of Totem Lesson 2, 1945, recur in Easter and the Totem and Ritual, both 1953. While none of these works are on view in “Blind Spots,” considering these pairings with that exhibition in mind makes it easier to see that there is a strict system organizing these correspondences, a system whose product is myriad repetitions and reproductions.

But perhaps Pollock’s most remarkable and significant response painting in his last years is Portrait and a Dream, 1953. One of the highlights of the Dallas Museum of Art’s collection, it anchors “Blind Spots” by filling the exhibition’s final wall. Here, Pollock not only seems to comment on his most majestic black pouring, Echo: Number 25, 1951, he also figures his retrospective process more generally. The painting can be read as picturing and embodying the strategy of critical self-examination that characterizes his late work as a whole. Portrait and a Dream is an enormous long canvas characterized by two distinct zones: an oversize dripped head “portrait” on the right, with a single eye trained leftward toward an abstract form rendered in a dexterous black poured line. The looping strokes and tight tonal areas of delicate marks of this “dream” section betray the distinctive and specific pictorial lexicon of Echo. Read narratively, the two sides of Portrait and a Dream depict a person looking at a painting, that person being the artist himself. Pollock reportedly told his therapist the image was a self-portrait, and he notably posed for a photograph before the work in a manner that explicitly draws this equivalence.9 But if relying on the hearsay of an analyst and the artful composition of a photographer seems the argumentative equivalent of loading the dice, the painting itself tells us the portrait is Pollock. Crossing the central divide of the canvas, a single, solitary line strays ever so tenuously from the left zone across to the right, becoming the first mark to define the “portrait” and, in so doing, showing to whom the “dream” belongs. Like an umbilical cord that genetically connects Pollock (the man) to the Pollock (the painting), this dripped line gives form to the artist’s fantasy that he still had access to that private reserve of unconscious material—those “dreams”—that fueled the early images ultimately recurring in works like Echo. But it depicts that fantasy as fantasy—a floating vision next to the dreamer’s head, like a thought bubble in a comic strip. Portrait and a Dream not only presents images of an earlier painting and the artist himself, it pictures and questions some of Pollock’s most basic assumptions about artistic identity and underscores the processes of critical revisitation and reconfiguration at the heart of his late works.

Such analytic self-consciousness diverges significantly from the popular image of Pollock as a man unconsciously “in” his work. Indeed, in retrospect, the approach characterizing Pollock’s working strategies from 1951 to 1956 seems as close to the cool analytics of an emergent neo-Dada as it does to the overblown pathos associated with AbEx. It seems incontrovertible that after 1950, Pollock, as the generation of artists who followed him would also necessarily do, began to reckon in a variety of ways with his dripped abstractions’ effect upon the course of advanced painting. And perhaps he also began to reckon with how the reception of those celebrated paintings—their mass dissemination and their connection to the image of the artist-celebrity who produced them—might affect the course of advanced art in general. Pollock after 1950 was not an artist who had “lost his stuff,” as Greenberg would aver, but one working through his own oeuvre with a studied willingness to return to the past and upend it. While a nuanced picture of this important period is just now beginning to emerge, one thing seems clearer than ever: The first post-Pollock artist was Pollock himself.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and a professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

NOTES

1. Lee Krasner in B. H. Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” in Jackson Pollock: Black and White, exh. cat. (New York: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, 1969), 7.

2. Bernice Rose provides a detailed, and foundational, account of the technique and sequencing of these drawings in Jackson Pollock: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980). Further technical notes can be found in each individual drawing entry in Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, ed. Francis V. O’Connor and Eugene V. Thaw (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978). Further, Stephanie Straine contributes an essay analyzing the drawings in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition: “Beyond Work: Pollock Drawing,” in Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, ed. Gavin Delahunty et al. (London: Tate Publishing, 2015), 101–13.

3. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Picasso Papers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 128; Timothy J. Clark, “Pollock’s Smallness,” in Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, ed.Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999), 29; William Lieberman, introduction to Jackson Pollock: Black and White, 5.

4. Thanks to Graham Bader for helping me theorize this relationship to film cels.

5. Michael Schreyach offers an interesting reading of the Namuth film, which revisits the idea of “ventriloquism” in Pollock’s public statements in his “Intention and Interpretation in Hans Namuth’s Film, Jackson Pollock,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 48, no. 4 (2012): 437–52.

6. Indeed, if conservator James Coddington’s hypothesis that the colored paint is Magna is confirmed, this analogy would be as literal as it is visual. James Coddington, “No Chaos Damn It,” in Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, 112.

7. For an analysis of one artistic response teasing out the “readymade” characteristics of Pollock’s use of enamel, see “Negative Capabilities: Branden W. Joseph on Claes Oldenburg and Jackson Pollock,” Artforum, April 2013, 230–39.

8. The audio track of the interview Pollock gave during the retrospective’s Bennington College run, for the television series March of Time, remains unrecovered.

9. This account comes from Elizabeth Wright Hubbard, Pollock’s therapist at the time, as quoted in Francis V. O’Connor, Jackson Pollock: The Black Pourings 1951–1953, exh. cat. (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1980), 20.