New York

Jackson Pollock, Adolf Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky, Karel Appel, Joan Mitchell, and James Brooks

Finch College Museum of Art

Martha Jackson, dealer, enthusiast, and friend of many of the best artists of the New York School for a generation, died leaving behind a large and remarkable art collection, nearly 200 works, selections from which appeared at the Finch College Museum of Art. The show, first mounted at the University of Maryland, will be at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo after the New Year. It represents a large part of the collection, although a number of important pieces had to be left behind because of sheer size, and so as not to make the assembly overcrowded. This is an exceptionally sensitive and diverse collection. It is worth seeing because it contains works that are atypical but of developmental significance and, as well, because some of the works are so sympathetically selected that one may gain insight even into artists whose work ordinarily does not appeal.

A painting of high order in the first category is Jackson Pollock’s Cotton Pickers, 1935. We know that Pollock was a student of Thomas Hart Benton, and that seems almost funny, except that we have read and reread the generalizations in the history books that strain to make something meaningful about the relationship. But we rarely get a chance to see anything by Pollock that looks at all like his teacher’s work. Cotton Pickers, Grapes-of-Wrath in theme and in a general way reminiscent of Millet’s farm workers, is an amazingly solid picture and by no means only a youthful work. In fact, it is, if anything, maybe a grander and more contemplative version of what Benton was into than paintings by that admirable and distinguished artist himself. Pollock’s Elegant Lady, of 1951, is more what we expect—loose, Miróesque, and highly calligraphic—and yet also unexpected in the light it throws on the relation of Pollock’s art to that of figures like Adolf Gottlieb (represented by a very lyric, coloristic painting, Pictograph, from 1946). The stylistic characteristics shared in common by the various Abstract Expressionists are not always easy for younger observers to grasp. Most of us tuned in on this art at a point at, if not beyond, its apex. And it is still confusing, when we carry around formulas extrapolated from the mature works of the main protagonists, to encounter a de Kooning like Night Square, 1950–51, with forms that resemble Marca-Relli’s strapworklike motifs, as though thin and leathery and cut with a band saw. Similarly, it is educational now to see a person with the means and access of Martha Jackson singling out a work as seemingly crude and surreal as the clumsy relief by Arshile Gorky called Image in Xhorkom Summer, 1936: now we can see why observers who loved the brute power business inexplicably minimized the wonderful virtuoso civility of that lyrical genius; they were onto something determined by their own needs, as we are, and the wonder is that Gorky is capable of pleasing us all.

The benefits of this exhibition derive from Martha Jackson’s intelligent and aware observation at close range of the golden age as it began to unfold. The close-range feature is central here, and that accounts for what seem from our perspective to be curiously permissive inclusions—approaches that maybe didn’t pan out. In 1953—the date of Tête Bleu—Karel Appel may have seemed as potentially vital as anybody else, perhaps even a new Rouault in the delicacy of his toughness, despite the fact that Appel turned out to be even more limited in range and articulateness than Rouault. Well, when we stand before Tête Bleu it is harder for a moment to see Martha Jackson as backing a heavy, hammy, imitation American.

Some of the American painters who have been reduced to small potatoes by the press of time and of succeeding masters and styles appear in these hospitable circumstances to be more worthwhile than we knew. Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, 1959, is a case in point, but James Brooks’ Harmagh, from 1967, succeeds in fanning the old embers.

I admire the openness, or at least the preparedness, with which such a committed and understanding enthusiast of Abstract Expressionism as Martha Jackson took to Pop art. She took most readily to painterly Pop—to Oldenburg and to the mock-Expressionism in Dine, and, naturally to the straddling style of Rivers. But that’s fine as far as it goes: the reason why something is wrong is more important than the reason why something is right. The only trouble is that as the ’60s passed from dawn to noon, errors of inclusion began to multiply. As we move through the last decade we bump into a number of relatively undistinguished works. It is just conceivable that these may one day prove just as acute intuitions as Martha Jackson’s earlier insights, but that does seem unlikely in view of widening of an experienced audience since. It would be wrong to single out such later artists because this is not a group show in that sense. It is instead an affectionate homage to a woman of taste and action.

Joseph Masheck