Let It Drip

Which brings us to the drip. Marshall McLuhan said the electric light bulb was "a perfect invention: pure information." Similarly, Pollock's drip is instantaneously apparent, crystalline information; a carrier and the thing carried. It is versatile, complete unto itself and part of a whole. It has no history yet it's been there all along.

Whatever else you do in the next galleries, stand in the Bermuda Triangle that is formed by Number 32, Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, and One: Number 31, all painted within four months of each other in 1950. Here you can feel what Pollock might have felt: the voltage, the monumental, pulsating energy of his break with history.

Everything in the drip paintings was accomplished without touching tool to surface. Judging from the late work, in the last galleries, he must have missed the feel, sound, and sensuous sight of brush with fluid paint touching canvas. After Blue Poles (1952)— seen here for the first time in 30 years— Pollock moved away from the drip, the thing that made him famous. The drip means more to us than it did to him. He used it for five years and, typically, he wanted to experiment again. Leaving it was no big deal. Finding the next thing was hard, and most people can't handle hard. Clement Greenberg turned on him, and critics like Adam Gopnik still bemoan the "sad" late works. Pollock has received the same reviews for 40 years. The conventional-wisdom, just-the-high-points judgment: a long slog to the summit; after the drip paintings, failure. This is not about looking, it's about positioning.

''Is this a painting?'': Lucifer (1947) at the Museum of Modern Art
Robin Holland
''Is this a painting?'': Lucifer (1947) at the Museum of Modern Art


Jackson Pollock
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through February 2

But people like the "sad" story. It keeps Pollock remote, romantic, and heroic. And this has had a deleterious effect on his work. Eighteen months after Pollock was killed in a car crash in 1956, Jasper Johns appeared on the cover of Art News. A whole generation of artists, who wanted art to be anything other than heroic, huge, or abstract, was about to take the stage; and the phase of art that is only now coming to a close was about to begin. Pollock was history.

This exhibition won't establish him as the big man again; there won't be any more big men. Luckily, things are too spread out and hybrid for that to happen these days. Each of us comes to Pollock, in due time, to decide for ourselves if this is important. Except for the inclusion of the studio replica, this show lets us know Pollock without the myth, one painting at a time. It shows the difference one person can make and presents an artist reaching into the fundamentally sacred precincts of knowledge.

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