New Haven

Jackson Pollock

Coinciding with the Yale University Press publication of a four-volume, $250 catalogue raisonné of the works of Jackson Pollock, a group of various paintings, prints and drawings called “new found” were selected by Francis O’Connor for an accompanying show. None of these works is “new found,” if that means that no one knew it existed. Also, all were known to be Pollocks by their owners, and over half of them come from Lee Krasner’s collection. The label “new found” really signifies “never exhibited” or “never photographed.” Francis O’Connor, an art historian, and Eugene Thaw, a dealer, spent six years tracking down the complete works, resulting in a combination of elaborate bibliography and commerce,which gives this enterprise most of its interest.

The exhibition covers every phase of Pollock’s career, from student works to drip paintings (or “pour paintings,” as the catalogue essays prefer, in order to identify Pollock ever more closely with Frankenthaler and Louis). The majority of work here consists of sketches and multiples. There are no big drip paintings, an important fact I will return to later. Old prints that one would think were never meant to see the light of day have been resurrected from plates found discarded in barns, cleaned up and reprinted in editions of 50, authorized by the “artist’s estate.” O’Connor informs us that 31 1/2 percent of Pollock’s work is “retained” by Krasner. For him, this poses a problem for “even the most diligent student of Pollock”; it makes the work impossible to see.

The catalogue thus answers the question of just how to facilitate a widespread knowledge of these works. “An artist such as Pollock cannot be understood from just a sampling of his work . . . the first to recognize this was Lee Pollock herself. For nearly 15 years she pressed Pollock’s dealers and anyone else who would listen with the necessity for a compilation of the complete works . . .” One has to be either extraordinarily naive or overly impressed with every detail of the oeuvre actually to carry out such a program; indeed it has been done, out of art historical enthusiasm perhaps, but with the same question of intention intact.

The works here are interesting without necessarily having to do with art: hammered copper plaques made in 1938 as occupational therapy; painted bowls; an indecipherable mosaic that eloquently expresses Pollock’s life-long problem with outline and drawing; late experiments on matchbook covers and layers of rice paper; and many, many sheets of doodling. One of the things O’Connor wishes his catalogue to do is “find its level of influence on those who still think all Pollock ever did was ‘drip’ paint.” Yet nothing suggests that all the other work was not simply preparation for them, since all other work directs itself from models—Benton, Picasso, Miró, Klee, Hofmann. The “sequential logic and overall unity of a great artist’s work” suggests that Pollock involved himself with the same ideas throughout his career (as Andrea Spaulding Norris says in her essay) as if these were concrete things which could be formulated. This is certainly at odds with the anarchistic and unconscious content in Pollock’s own declared program. I suppose we could not have expected a really critical view, or reevaluation of what Pollock tried to do and what he did in a celebration of this magnitude.

I always have two different things to do while looking at Pollocks, including all the more than one hundred in this exhibition. First: I must suspend my ideas as to what art is or might be, and just look at objects. Second: I attempt to “feel into” what I know Pollock was supposed to be expressing, or doing—finding a pipeline to the unconscious, to Jungian universals, to self-discovery, with willed distortions meant to disturb and shock me. But his representations never do this (the world is so much more troubling), and the drip paintings always seem sufficiently decorative (in whatever sense one wants to use the word) that all that tension and expression of inner torment escapes me. The experiments with texture seem to me most touching, since they are orphans, leading to nothing (and cannot be said to have exerted any influence on later art since they have rarely been seen). The drawings with encaustic, with stones, paintings on rough masonite surfaces, are experimental, not in any sense complete or realized works of art; yet they give one the real sense of an artist dissatisfied with his tools and searching for something else—searching but not finding, not even in the escape of painting for drawing. Thus to say, as Ms. Norris does in summation, that “virtually single-handedly, Jackson Pollock thrust American painting into the forefront of 20th-century art,” is not only an exaggeration, but also deliberately blind to how completely tentative, fragile and unsure Pollock was.

Like his cataloguers and interpreters, Pollock never overcame the problem set up for him involving the difference between strategy and style, between representation and literalism, between intrinsic and extrinsic—between what he did and what he described. It is only in the missing drip paintings that Pollock reduced his style and strategy to clear statements. These works have recourse to the authoritative in style while their strategy is explicitly antiauthoritarian. This contradiction is so bold that any criticism must seize upon one term or the other or risk irrationality, either philosophically or art historically. What appears as an undecidable and uneven fold between style and strategy in all the works except the drip paintings makes this show unsettling, unbalanced and unbalancing. All the works in this exhibition (except the ones under Benton) continue to shift between overturning traditional painting hierarchies and an explosion of drawing outline which disorganizes convention and invades the art’s field, without the certainty that establishes the unity of execution and representation (expression).

If we value Pollock because he seems fundamentally uncertain about what he’s doing, then might that not be understood as a period feeling, anchored in history, and not as some universal truths which produce masterpieces? Isn’t the power of Pollock’s work that it can command and permit—help invent—all the misinterpretations and strange readings which are functions of itself—for instance, the two extremes of a strict Greenbergian formalism of radical abstraction and a Jungian subjectivism of radically deep content? Pollock did not as much discover a new way of drawing as he must have felt the need to rupture shape and form as a tearing, an incision of solid nature.. The line whips out, in exorbitant (out from the center and overflowing) detail, pointing outside itself, declaring itself incomplete, unfit without some reading of another sort, another re-presentation. Whether Pollock is interpreted as having created a space of feeling or as having generated work of unmediated literalness, the effect is somehow undecidable, unstateable—in every work except the drip paintings, where the statement is straightforward and diluted. For every statement about Pollock that does not reveal its own self-conscious uncertainty—any statement of affirmation, in other words—will radically violate Pollock’s art. What an odd position to put a writer into, and what a good way to undermine any self-sufficient analysis of Pollock’s art.

Jeff Perone