New York

Charles Pollock

Visiting Charles Pollock’s exhibition at Jason McCoy, Inc. one felt strangely intimidated in the presence of works that seemed to return us to a not-so-distant past that now feels completely foreign. Or maybe it is the other way around: Maybe it is the works themselves that are in exile today. They seem to belong to an art world that had not yet been swept up in concepts like the “art star,” to a time when grandstanding and networking were not yet mandatory for the making of an artist’s career. But maybe the modesty of these works, their reserve, was the artist’s reluctant response to the first signs of the heroism that was beginning to take hold of American art. Pollock had good reason to retreat: He had seen the agony caused by the demands of the emerging art world on his little brother Jackson. Yet retreat was still possible then; it was still possible to want to produce an antiheroic art, an art that one would call “minor” if not for the word’s necessarily negative connotations. Indeed, such was the program of, say, Ad Reinhardt in those years, just as it had been, a generation earlier, for Sophie Taeuber-Arp or even Paul Klee. This is an art whose foremost honor lies in the patient delight of its exquisite craftsmanship.

The show included five paintings and seven drawings, all from the 1955–56 “Chapala” series, which was realized during the artist’s solitary sojourn in a small village on the banks of a Mexican lake of that name. All are somewhat calligraphic in nature, but without any pathos or any tribute paid to “spontaneity.” Nothing alla prima here. To the contrary, each canvas is constructed as a superposition of independent and interdependent layers. Independent, because in most of the paintings each layer, which forms a loose but distinct pattern contrasting curvilinear and blocky elements, is assigned only one color; interdependent, because these superimposed layers interact like the successive printing of the various colored inks of a lithograph. In his sensitive monograph devoted to Pollock, Terence Maloon calls these works polyphonous: Each color, each layer, acts as a different voice, and the result is a strangely unified and democratic field in which no element gets more attention than any other. Most striking is their matteness (Pollock was using a mix of tempera and oil), which recalls Vuillard’s early pochades of the 1890s—a quality akin to blotting paper for the eye, an invitation to slow down, to come close. Unlike Vuillard’s works, however, whose flatness was a deliberate violence against representation, these paintings allow some illusion, some play of transparency (in itself a counterintuitive feat of technique when working with tempera).

The drawings enhance the print metaphor, pitting shady areas of fine hatchings similar to those one would find in an old-master etching against broad gestures traced with a wide brush. Again, the gesturality is restrained; nothing sweeping. Pollock’s art is not about spilling one’s guts. Unlike the paintings, though, some of the drawings are patently figurative, erotic even (the symmetry that emerged as if naturally from the pattern of strokes alludes to the female body). But here, too, passion is kept at bay, if not sensuousness.

Yve-Alain Bois