Basel

Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942, oil on linen, 40 × 56". © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942, oil on linen, 40 × 56". © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“The Figurative Pollock”

Kunstmuseum Basel

Jackson Pollock, Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942, oil on linen, 40 × 56". © Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“The Figurative Pollock,” organized by Nina Zimmer, was a pleasant surprise. For one thing, the large selection of early drawings and paintings on view would have made for a highly informative show in its own right; the exhibition featured major early paintings such as Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942; The Moon Woman, 1942; Guardians of the Secret, 1943; The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle, 1943; Totem Lesson 1, 1944; and Totem Lesson 2, 1945. All were effectively hung and looking amazingly fresh. Then there was a group of works from 1946–47 that culminated with the allover Constellation, 1946; Something of the Past, 1946; and Galaxy, 1947, which brought the exhibition to the verge of the great dripped and poured abstractions of the anni mirabiles 1947–50. Galaxy was especially interesting in this regard: Its surface is liberally spattered with individual flecks of cream-colored pigment, which as one approached the canvas revealed themselves to be excessive, a source of distraction rather than an integral part of the painting as an aesthetic whole. Pollock seems to have taken the point; the allover canvases of 1947–50 never fall into the same trap.

The allover pictures themselves were absent, of course, although their lack itself gave the exhibition a distinctive weight and feel. More precisely, the absence of the classic “drip” canvases gave particular emphasis to five black pour-and-stain paintings from around 1951, only one of which had been shown in the superb recent exhibition of such pictures, “Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots,” at the Dallas Museum of Art (first presented at Tate Liverpool). These were Number 8, 1951, “Black Flowing”; Brown and Silver 1, ca. 1951; Brown and Silver II, 1951; Number 21, 1951; and the eleven-plus-foot-wide (also black and brown) Number 11, 1951, a tour de force of part-by-part intensity somehow holding together to make a single commanding statement. The figurative character of these works is variable, with the two brown-and-silver canvases having the slenderest claim on such a designation, but even they could meaningfully be seen in a figurative context.

Also in the exhibition was one of the most famous of all Pollocks, Cut Out, 1948–56/1958, from the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan, along with another “cut-out” work, Rhythmical Dance, 1948, from a private collection. It was fascinating to have a chance to stand before a picture that had been so important to my early reading of Pollock as wishing at times to preserve figuration within an allover “logic” that militated against precisely that, but what would have been even more thrilling would have been if the tremendous Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949 could have been borrowed from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart––for whatever reason, it wasn’t.

The exhibition drew to a close with three works that unmistakably indicated Pollock’s artistic decline: Ocean Greyness, Unformed Figure, and Easter and the Totem, all 1953. Nothing in the realm of art could be more depressing than the abruptness with which, following the outpouring of the extraordinarily original black pictures, Pollock seems to have come to the end of his inspiration, and probably to the end of his self-belief. The sense of loss is made all the more tangible by an earlier work that I don’t recall ever seeing before: Untitled, ca. 1949, a small, largely drip picture executed in enamel and aluminum paint on paper mounted on Masonite (from the collection of the Fondation Beyeler, Basel). On close looking one perceives to one’s surprise that this work too involves cut-out shapes, but the thinness of the paper together with the handling of the paint minimizes one’s awareness of their limits, in part because much of the pigment has been applied in the thinnest of looping lines, in part because of the continuity of the paint across the cuts themselves. Coloristically, Untitled is ravishing, with blacks, whites, greens, aluminum, oranges, and several telling patches of red all working intensively to evoke a single whirling, pulsing space. Inch for inch, it is beyond question one of the masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism.

Michael Fried