Get ready to have your eyes rewired. For all the artist’s ups and downs, the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is one of the greatest exhibitions of a 20th-century artist to be seen in a New York museum. This show comes at a time when contemporary art stresses language, representation, and social engagement, and younger artists often view Pollock’s work as dated, drained, or irrelevant. It’s good that he’s no longer “our hero,” but now he’s only “Oh, him. . . . ” Compounding the problem is a generation of second-tier abstractionists who use Pollock and his ilk to justify their vapid formalist paintings. Still, the Modern’s show— the first U.S. retrospective of Pollock’s work since MOMA’s own 1967 exhibition—
reminds you what art, and painting in particular, can do in purely formal terms, and how extraordinary its essences are.
Pollock is a painter who virtually willed himself to newness— stretching the diverse strands of Cubism and Surrealism beyond recognition, pulling apart the Mexican muralists, pulling in Navajo sand painting, and giving the various ersatz mystical tendencies of his time an unprecedented force and coherence. “He broke the ice,” as de Kooning so generously put it. By 1950, at the height of his powers, there is nothing old left in Pollock’s art, except maybe art, which is pretty remarkable. By way of comparison, when Picasso made Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he initially thought it might be a bad painting; when Pollock finished Lucifer, he had to ask Lee Krasner, his wife, “Is this a painting?”
Lucifer is an eight-and-a-half-foot-long pisser of a painting: a green, black, and silver discharge or snapshot distillation of what America, in 1947, looked, felt, and sounded like. It’s got the shapeless fear, the electric euphoria, the aspirations, failures, and accidental entirety of it all: Jackie Robinson, Chuck Yeager, Joan Crawford, Miles Davis, Hollywood’s blacklist, and Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose. This guy was in a state of grace.
The show is permeated with this kind of visual horsepower and builds to a shattering crescendo. But Pollock
never proceeds directly or easily. He’s in a never-ending approach-avoidance dance with the elements of his art. Good paintings are often followed by experiments. You will never see a better show with more paintings you won’t love.
An unusual sensibility emerges in the first painting in the show, a labored, intense self-portrait of the artist looking like a young African American. Nearby, see his turgid gears grind in weird,
Ryder-esque landscapes. Then out of nowhere, in an untitled painting dated 193438, something amazing appears. In a gutted, frenetic, apocalyptic mess of crooked white elbow strokes mixed with fire-red flecks, Pollock hits on all-over composition. Does he proceed to explore this centerless, indefinite space? He does not. He immediately returns to Picasso, André Masson, and Miró, but something happened and it happens like this over and over.
Curator Kirk Varnedoe lays a trap and delivers a gift in the next two galleries. Mixed in amongst other works is much of Pollock’s first one-person show. Pretend it’s 1943. Would you get it? Go to Guardians of the Secret (Pollock’s paintings have some of the silliest titles in modern art), a blue, black, and white hodgepodge of worked surface, hieroglyphics, and a sleeping wolf. Critics still write that this, and other paintings of this period, are unresolved, that they’re “moody
Picasso paraphrases,” or that there is “too much missing.” The only thing that’s missing is space. Everything in these paintings is flattened out. Picasso and Mondrian fragmented space, Pollock is eliminating it. Plus he’s not interested in resolution, he’s after sensation. The works in these galleries not only test you, you see Pollock being tested.
Critics and historians often portray Pollock on an inevitable march to the drip. But anything could have happened. He left dozens of doors ajar. He could have pushed the surface, plains of color, teeming marks, thick paint, abstraction— anything but the drip.
The confrontation with the drip paintings of 1947 to 1951 presents one of the most astonishingly complicated experiences in art. You are on your own with these works as with almost no
other works in the history of art. They are totally accessible and implacable. Walking through these galleries really is a moment of personal truth. These are not the greatest paintings ever made, but they are the only paintings ever made that look remotely like this. These works are beyond good and bad, beyond language. Leave the hype behind. Don’t view them as paintings even, but as complete events unto themselves. There is absolutely nothing personal about them, in spite of how much of himself Pollock put there. They are bigger than he is, and, at the same time, about one person going for it.
Notice Pollock’s continuous flirtation with figuration, and how his technique, far from wild, is delicate, deliberate, and methodical. In other words, Pollock is neither an abstract nor an expressionist artist. Abstract Expressionism is a narrow and misleading term describing some artists partly and most not at all. More importantly, while Pollock is a passionate artist, his works are not especially tragic or tormented. The macho, Jack the Dripper stuff is not in the work.
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.
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.