New York

Jackson Pollock

Marlborough-Gerson Gallery

The things in the Jackson Pollock show are of mixed but generally poor quality, but they do give a fair idea of what Pollock’s production as a whole was like, miscellaneous though this particular selection may be. The bulk of the show consists of a number of paintings from 1950–51, and these are supplemented by two groups of drawings, one from the early forties and the other from 1950–52. What the show leaves to one side, then, are the three or four years starting about 1947 during which Pollock did his best and his only important work, and this show was certainly a depressing one, in large part because the artist, when he painted these works, was evidently depressed as well as intellectually confused. Such lessons as the show has to teach have to do with the relation between these two conditions.

The major “issue” posed by Pollock’s work at its best, between about 1947 and 1950, is whether it must be considered late Cubist or post-Cubist. Of the things in the present show, those which antedate Pollock’s good period are in two familiar styles: the Picasso of Guernica or Masson of about the same time, and one can see that these sources are ambivalent, or at least can be made to act ambivalently. The Picassoid shapes are shapes, but their contours are strong and can be read as an overall linear design, although still they are lines. As for Masson’s space, like that of all the Surrealists it is fundamentally illusionistic, and so it is no different from Picasso’s, but two things kept it from being wholly that. One was the Surrealists’ interest in biomorphic configurations, since Cubist space is compartmentalized while the biomorphic predilection led necessarily to something more fluid. The Surrealist paintings that fail to resolve or even exploit this contradiction are innumerable––generally what one finds are fluid shapes on a ground of discrete and contrapuntal planes. But––and this is the second factor––if one takes the looping outlines of Picasso’s Guernica style and divorces them from what they require, seeing them simply as loose, not as loosed from a grid; and if one then deploys these lines in a very fluid kind of space such as biomorphic forms imply, then obviously one arrives at a post Cubist kind of painting.

Does the present show give any indication that Pollock ever conceived of these possibilities, let alone achieved them? Of the pre-1947 drawings, a few might seem to. They resemble––speaking very loosely and just to give some idea of what they look like––Wols or Michaux, and in fact they are not unified works of art, they are batches of doodles that happen to have been done on the same piece of paper. But of course looking at the batch of doodles afterward may have given the artist an idea for a work of art. To me the important thing about these doodles is that one must take them as personal documents, and what is depressing is to see how compulsive, rigid and insensitive these notations are––although certainly I would have been looking for these qualities, since I think that nearly all Pollock’s work has them. Anyway, these drawings are not responsive or free, and in my opinion it was this emotional limitation, which was very stringent, that prevented Pollock from realizing a coherent kind of art, of whatever sort.

We can see one of its pictorial consequences in the work of 1950 and later, which makes up the greater part of the present show: Pollock was unable to rid himself of the habit (necessity?) of thinking in terms of figure and ground, or at least of figure and surround, in which the figure is embedded. The image, where you can read one, struggles to free itself from the clinging lava of this surround, much as Hercules struggled to free himself from the burning cloak of Nessus, and I do not think it is in any way fanciful to take this as an image of the situation in Pollock’s emotional life; pictorially this meant liberating his style from a Cubist grid. The presence of Guernica is most oppressive, with its images of conflict and pain; as I said, when Pollock’s paintings contain a recognizable image more often than not it is an image of that nature, and I think that a very important question to ask about his work is what might be the relation between the fact that, when he painted recognizable images, they were so often of this nature, and the fact that his best work depends on no recognizable images at all.

Jerrold Lanes