Jackson Pollock

Gagosian Gallery

Although Jackson Pollock has been dead for more than 30 years, we still have not succeeded in packaging his contribution and delivering it up to the confines of art history. Is Pollock’s work better accommodated by Clement Greenberg’s ’50s-style art about art approach, or the autobiographical perspective Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith propose in their cumbersome 1989 biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga? Pollock’s strongest work is simultaneously intimate and impersonal, yet we have tended to stress one aspect or the other, the romantic shaman or the formalist innovator.

Subtitled “Black Enamel Paintings,” this exhibition focused on the work Pollock made as he began to receive attention for his “poured” paintings but before he finished his epic Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952. The pieces were divided into three groups: black enamel paintings from 1951 and ’52; sketchbook drawings from 1933 through ’43; and works in black ink on paper from 1950 and ’51. The works on paper were used to support the argument that Pollock employed his method of pouring to reinvestigate earlier motifs—the mythic creatures and Picassoid forms he used during the late ’30s and ’40s. Though this comparative categorizing makes a certain amount of sense, it doesn’t do much to illuminate the paintings.

By 1950, Pollock’s vocabulary had been reduced to his signature unpredictable physical line that seemed to carry itself through and across space. His development was always characterized by periods of expansion and contraction, and the poured paintings were done in a moment of contraction; it was precisely his concentrated effort and single-mindedness that enabled him to create something altogether new.

To those around Pollock (his enemies and supporters), the figurative aspects of his black enamel paintings signaled a retreat from the abstraction of the “poured” paintings. Everyone was so deeply invested in their own agendas that they failed to recognize that Pollock was trying to discover what else his line could do. Could it support figurative form and remain itself simultaneously? He hadn’t lowered his sights, he had redirected his ambition. Having arrived at the unadulterated gesture, he was restless and wanted to see how much else he could embrace; he wanted to give the line a breathing room it didn’t have in the tangled webs and encrusted surfaces of the “poured” paintings.

In the best black enamel paintings, Pollock integrates the paint with the canvas ground, and the evocative semifigurative elements emerge from the impenetrable tangle of splatters. Unfortunately, none of the other paintings in this show are as striking as Echo: Number 25, 1951, and where the space is more conventionally abstract, the enamel paintings seem to hark back to a moment Pollock had left behind.

The problem with this exhibition was that it didn’t accomplish its noteworthy goal of revising the status of the black enamel paintings. The catalogue essay by Ben Heller, a well-known collector and supporter of Pollock, who was on the scene during the ’40s and ’50s, amounts to little more than an extended sigh of wonderment. At the same time, the exhibition didn’t manage to assemble enough of the most convincing canvases from this period; in short, while the impulse behind this exhibit was laudable, it ultimately was not rigorous enough to prove its thesis.

John Yau