New York

Jackson Pollock

Though hardly earth-shattering, this exhibition of newly discovered, authentic works by Jackson Pollock—which included drawings, paintings, and a sculpture—was of more than academic interest. That is, were it not for Pollock’s allover paintings of 1946 and 1947–50 and the early ’40s works that preceded them with which we are already familiar, the works shown here would lead us to label him a naive abstractionist full of labored Sturm und Drang signifying very little indeed. The path from the early Family Scene, ca. 1934–36, à la Thomas Hart Benton to Number 24, 1950, is certainly a twisted one, forged from Pollock’s desire to “be abstract.” Throughout the period bracketed by these two pieces, we see Pollock busily assimilating automatism, ostensibly in search of his unconscious, but succeeding only in establishing a clichéd, false equation of his art with himself. In the search for his own “signature,” Pollock seems to have become bogged down in the mythology of painting as a representation of the self from which he only extricated himself by fragmenting the “picture” with ever greater violence; it is this process of “dismemberment” that holds our interest.

Perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition, from the point of view of Pollock’s psyche and in terms of his early crude abstraction, was The Mask, 1944. This work on paper makes ironically clear the reason for Pollock’s status as the touchstone of Abstract Expressionism-not to mention of the American avant-garde as it was coming of age. The Mask ostensibly signals the struggle between Pollock’s abstract and representational tendencies, in particular his wish to be a primitivist painter and to construct an explanatory narrative of his own life. What this work strongly suggests, however, is that there was no real story to tell, and that Pollock never truly understood the desire of abstract art to achieve an absolute esthetics, that, in effect, for him abstraction was little more than a vehicle for his own consuming drive. Even the famous allover paintings are strangely empty, though this emptiness is often taken as esthetic purity. Paradoxically, it is this abyss within the painterly energy that fascinates, pointing as it does to the lack of selfhood in his paintings—the “selflessness” of disorganized, uncontainable energy, feeding off itself, creating a space in which the viewer can invest his or her own being.

Donald Kuspit