New York

Jackson Pollock

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On April 30, 1961, The New York Times Magazine published five letters to the editor regarding an article by Clement Greenberg that had appeared in its pages two weeks earlier, entitled (against the author’s will) “The Jackson Pollock Market Soars.” Among the illustrations for his piece, Greenberg had used an early Pollock drawing after one of Michelangelo’s Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, which two of the writers thought was a cheap trick. Indeed, even though this particular drawing was not discussed, the text—an attack against the stereotype of Pollock as an artiste maudit—made its function perfectly clear. The image was there to show that Pollock had paid his dues: he had studied the classics (Greenberg even lengthened Pollock’s apprenticeship, stating that “he did not finish it until he was 30,” which would be in 1942); and he knew how to draw. This last argument is usually a quite effective defense (it is often made on behalf of Mondrian and generally accounts for the success of the recent early Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). One of the protesting letter-writers (Libby Tannenbaum) asked that the Michelangelo image be published next to Pollock’s drawing (a request to which Greenberg complied in his response), then added: “The Pollock sketch surely displays a powerful and dramatic knotting of line and form which is relevant to his subsequent style. That it is evidence of expertness in drawing the human figure must, just as surely, be questioned.” The tone of the second writer (B.H. Friedman, who would later author a biography of Pollock) was angrier: “This sketch is clumsy by Renaissance standards. The right leg might be a log; the muscle of the lower leg a bump on it; the pectoral muscles appear more like breasts. Pollock does not ’draw well’ until he finds his own means of expression, as, for example, in ’Autumn Rhythm’ (1950) and ’Number Fourteen’ (1951), which you reproduce.”

To this, Greenberg responded: “I agree the drawing contains distortions. But it is quite obvious that these are not of a kind due to ineptitude. Notice that there arc no errors of proportion or positioning. The distortions are matters of emphasis. I do not see anything grossly inaccurate in the rendering of the torso, and the calf ’jumps’ only when you focus on it to the exclusion of everything else; otherwise, it seems a necessary accent.” Greenberg’s answer is disingenuous, and he knew it (which is why he made no attempt to explain in what sense the excrescent calf was a necessity). But the exchange takes us to the heart of the matter: What does it mean to say, as his beloved teacher Thomas Hart Benton and many after him had done, that Pollock could not draw? And does it make any sense to say that Pollock “drew well” in mature works like Autumn Rhythm? It certainly does, but only once it has been recognized that most traditional rules governing the practice of drawing have been overturned—with Pollock’s major achievement on that score, as proposed by Michael Fried long ago, being that his drip method liberated the line from its function of defining contour. But then should this later accomplishment not lead us to be more circumspect regarding Pollock’s “incapacity to draw” in his youth?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York obviously agrees that we should: not only did the institution acquire three early Pollock sketchbooks, it has recently published them in a splendid facsimile edition, the best of its kind I have ever seen. Furthermore, the publication of this luxurious volume, which comprises essays by Nan Rosenthal, Katharine Bactjer, and Lisa Mintz Messinger (the box is in itself a work of high craft), is marked by an elegant exhibition that gives everyone the opportunity to discover this little—known corpus. Along with the sketches themselves, which are shown unmounted and individually framed, arc displayed some twenty-seven drawings dating from ca. 1934–37 and ca. 1939–42, among the forty bequested to the museum by Lee Krasner in 1982. The drawing after Michelangelo accompanying Greenberg’s article was taken from Sketchbook II (p. 25) and is one of seven sheets devoted to the Sistine Chapel.

The first two sketchbooks are large, roughly of the same size (18 by 12 inches and 13 7/8 by 16 7/8 inches), and mainly (though not exclusively) devoted to the works of old masters (the sources are identified and elucidated by Baetjer). There has long been speculation about their date, but Rosenthal convinctngly argues that the drawings were executed no earlier than late 1937 and no later than 1939. The third sketchbook is smaller than the others (14 by 10 inches), and the drawings it contains are similar in kind to those made by Pollock for his therapist in 1939–40. They draw heavily from the art of the Mexican muralists (Orozco in particular), the Surrealists, and Picasso, as Messinger discusses in her essay.

The sketches after the old masters are of two kinds. We could characterize the first as “studies in modeling” (the drawings after Michelangelo are of this sort, but we can also find studies after Giotto, Rubens, El Greco, or Signorelli), with which we might include, on the basis of common stylistic characteristics, a series of anatomic nude drawings from either life models or photographs (male or female), and three portraits: a self—portrait (the only one Pollock made as an adult, according to Rosenthal), a female face drawn after a cover of Life magazine, and one whose source has not been identified. Besides the not-so-surprising mixing of high and low, what is perhaps most striking in these drawings is the use of color—especially since most were based on black-and-white photographs (as Baetjer notes, even though the Met owned several El Grecos, for example, Pollock never bothered to draw them in situ: he relied on his small store of art books). Very few sheets are monochromatic, even though the colors of the pencils Pollock used are almost always close in hue (different browns, yellow, red, and black). This translation of sheer differences in value (or light contrast) into color unsettles the seamless continuity of a volume’s surface that traditional modeling is made to emphasize, and engenders a layering of distinct coloristic units that do not quite mesh, giving the drawings a strangely acid quality (despite the soft grain of the paper that is revealed by the rubbing of the pencils) that save them from being merely academic. It also tells us something, I think, about Pollock’s unique handling of color to come later in his career.

The second type of sketch after the old masters, by far the most numerous, is the Benton-like “analysis,” whereby the figures of a Rubens or a Greco are progressively geometricized, first transformed into cubic men (one thinks of the little schematic mannequins in Dürer’s studies of proportion), then into abstract, regular volumes (the cones, spheres, and cylinders of nineteenth—century academic teaching), then into a forest of arcs. The contrast between the cartoonish shapes of cubic men and the pathos of their gestures is striking, and there is something rather comic in seeing the saints kneeling beneath a crucified Christ by El Greco transformed into crystal-like solids drawn in turquoise and adorned with brown arrows (Sketchbook II, p. 7), or a multi-figure history or religious painting by any of the above (add Tintoretto) transformed into a Boccioni (or, to stay in America, a Stanton Macdonald-Wright) composition. What is perhaps most surprising is that Pollock engaged in this little game long after Benton, who left the Art Students League in 1932, had ceased to be his teacher. Why? It is my contention that Pollock, like Picasso and Braque in 1911 or Mondrian shortly after, was in search of a unitary mode of notation that would be able to transcode anything. Baetjer remarks that the diagrammatic simplification of the figures accentuates the similarity of their poses (they are the same in drawings after two paintings by Rubens, for example, and in one after Signorelli). But one should also note Pollock’s fascination with drapery—those leftovers through which painters from the Renaissance up to Manet have traditionally been prone to show off their skill—and with interstitial spaces. Once it has been demonstrated that everything can be reduced to a similar diagram, the challenge will then be to take similarity (or unity) as a starting point, and get rid of the diagram—which is exactly what Pollock will later do with his allover compositions.

Pollock wouldn’t be through with the figure for quite a while, though, as is shown by the third sketchbook, but here too its status undergoes a gnawing erosion. His tactic is different from that in the Benton-like sketches. What we get are psychedelic “fantasy doodles” (figments of skeletons eating figments of snakes strangling figments of birds; copulating insects that arc also war machines; O’Keeffe–like art nouveau floral arrangements as a mesh of sexual organs, etc.). The game is that of an endless combination of grafts within a general silhouette, each enclosed shape acting as a ground for smaller ones, until the paper is filled (though there are sometimes untouched areas in the corners or margins, these play no active role). The jazzy overfill is just as efficient in debunking the figure as the geometric trimming down. What results is a dynamic field more or less uniformly activated. Pollock’s next move would be the allover proper, which begins to appear in several doodle drawings from a largely lost sketchbook of ca. 1939–42, some of which belong to the Met and arc dutifully presented at the exhibition (these extraordinary sheets, well known and often reproduced, recall Miró’s contemporary “Constellations,” which Pollock could not have known at the time).

Combining the early sketchbooks and the additions just mentioned, the Met exhibition provides all the evidence one needs to follow Pollock’s formation to the threshold of his mature style. It provides all the necessary evidence, that is, to find out that it is precisely because Pollock “did not know how to draw” that he was led to his magisterial invention of the drip, which dealt a radical blow against drawing as it had previously been known.

Yve-Alain Bois