New York

Robert Arneson

Frumkin/Adams Gallery

For the last decade, master of funk Robert Arneson has been obsessed with Jackson Pollock. In drawings, in paintings, and above all in some extraordinary ceramic busts, Arneson has rendered Pollock’s head, presenting him as a kind of triumphant victim, both of himself and of the world. These works were initiated following Arneson’s life-threatening bout with cancer, and he clearly identifies with Pollock’s suffering and self-destructiveness. For Arneson, Pollock is a symbol of authenticity—an artist whose work plumbs the depths of his own psyche—and Arneson has long attempted to do the same in his self-portraits. The new Pollock busts foreground the parallel between the two artists, begging a question: has Arneson, in his own ironical and comic way, lived up to his ego ideal?

Now, in a raucous, eloquently irreverent tour de force, Arneson has transcribed Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret, 1943, into sculptural form. This is not your standard ironic appropriation, nor is it an act of submissive piety. Arneson adds to the Pollock painting, not simply by re-presenting it in three dimensions but by finishing it; he tells the secret, shows what is behind the scene.Walking around the work, we see Pollock in his tomb, dead with his boots on, his penis still erect. As in Pollock’s work, the surreal, turbulently gestural figures guard Pollock’s sarcophagus. The animated graffiti, extended texts, and bizarre creatures are the psycho-existential equivalent of the death-defying scenes of debauchery on many Roman sarcophagi.

Pollock’s picture is painterly, its parts dissolve and merge in the fluid chaos he realized fully in the late ’40s. Arneson’s sculpture captures something of Pollock’s inchoate flow but ultimately tends toward stasis; it overemphasizes the pictorial aspect of Pollock’s work. Arneson pictures Pollock’s animal symbols more clearly than Pollock did, and differentiates the parts of his picture more sharply. Even compared to Arneson’s own earlier grand constructions, the current piece is more cluttered than integrated. But Pollock’s unity was also brittle—frail for all its fierceness. Indeed, he hid his inability to realize unity behind fluidity.

Thus, Arneson’s seeming technical failure mirrors the psychodynamic point of Pollock; it bespeaks his severe fragmentation of self. Pollock was divided against himself to the point of no return, and Arneson has captured this brilliantly by emphasizing the parts as opposed to contriving a unity. Pollock never came to terms with the unrelenting conflict between the life and death instincts in his psyche, and the allover paintings record his final disintegration; they are characterized by the almost complete loss of control and structure that comes with the collapse of self.

Arneson differs from Pollock in that he maintains pictorial control—to make a picture is to compose a structure, regulating the relationship between the parts—as Pollock was unable to. If Arneson is competing with Pollock as well as apotheosizing him, then the psychological victory is his, for Arneson’s work shows that he was able to pull his life back from the edge of disaster, as Pollock was not. Of his own work, Arneson writes that the figures on top of the draped coffin are “personages of deliverance.” They rescued Arneson—the misfit Bear-Man—from his alcoholism, as he acknowledges, but they did not save Pollock. In offering us an allegory of the demons that haunted Pollock’s inner life, Arneson has given us an allegory of his own. Arneson lets us know that he outlived his suffering, while Pollock succumbed to his. Both painting and sculpture raise the age-old issue of the relationship of the artist’s art to his inner life. Is it necessary to be seriously disturbed—to have a catastrophic, unhappy life—to produce great art, or can one do so out of health? The New Masters seem to believe the former, the Old Masters the latter.

Donald Kuspit