New York

Congo, 22nd Painting Session, 1957, oil and pastel on paper, 10 1/2 × 15 1/2".

Congo, 22nd Painting Session, 1957, oil and pastel on paper, 10 1/2 × 15 1/2".

Congo and Jackson Pollock

In 1975, Joseph Beuys declared that “every person is an artist.” If the paintings created by Congo—a male chimpanzee who began his career in 1956, the year Jackson Pollock died—are works of art, then it seems that every living creature can be an artist . . . or at the very least a painter.

English zoologist (and Surrealist painter) Desmond Morris wrote that he used Congo as a tool for research into “the origins of aesthetics,” which proved that “the chimpanzee brain is capable of creating abstract patterns that are under visual control.” A fanlike arrangement of strokes and/or lines was Congo’s preferred subject, which he produced over and over again in a variety of intricate—dare one say ingenious?—compositions, suggesting that he had an experimental and inquisitive mind, not too unlike that of your typical modern artist. Or was Congo’s notoriety merely a function of novelty? If it was, such an assessment didn’t bother Congo’s collectors, who included William Copley, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso. “Maestro,” an exhibition of works on paper by Congo and Pollock at Shin Gallery, made clear that the precocious primate respected the flat plane of the surface upon which he painted—his often sweeping gestures have a palpably physical presence. And while his images may not conjure up the richly orchestrated polyphony of a Pollock, they do have the intimate radiance of, say, chamber music. See, for instance, the complex interplay of chocolaty crimson, deep ebony, and shimmering lavender in the oil 36th Painting Session, 1958, or the luscious blobs of sunflower yellow and pale green in the oil-and-pastel 22nd Painting Session, 1957. One wonders if Congo’s hues had the psychological charge for him that Kandinsky said color unavoidably possesses.

Did Morris’s presence in Congo’s life make a difference? I think it did. Morris was, in effect, the ape’s father. Congo was working for him and likely wanted to please Morris as well as himself. Despite his supposed scientific neutrality and detachment, Morris obviously was empathically attached to Congo. Man and ape comprised a team, reminding us of the so-called Hawthorne effect, a phenomenon in which a person’s behavior changes due to an awareness that he or she is being observed. In short, Morris’s observation of Congo made the chimpanzee an arguably phenomenal painter. Artists are always working for someone other than themselves, and without some form of recognition, critical or otherwise, they are incomplete. This attention, as psychoanalyst Michael Balint argues, is the desideratum for self-respect and growth. Although Pollock desperately sought approval for his efforts, I think he primarily labored for himself. And for him, alas, this was tragic, as is the fate of all others who seek salvation in art.

Whatever else it accomplished, Morris’s project showed that artmaking is not the prerogative of a few special human beings, but a commonplace fact of creative nature. Kandinsky once wrote that the art of children far surpassed the art of adults. Yet it seems to me that the works of animals are often better than those crafted by kids. Certainly Congo’s paintings looked more aesthetically sophisticated, resolved. The exhibition was long on Congos (ten of the ape’s paintings were on display) and short on Pollocks (the artist was represented by a single ink drawing of negligible quality from 1951). The imbalance symbolized a missed opportunity, as the show could have been a worthwhile paragone between two notable makers of midcentury abstraction. Instead, it was merely a weak joke on Pollock.