There is only a little more than a week left to see the wrenching, overhung emotional roller-coaster ride that is “No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper.” In addition to several drawings made in the mid 1940s that predict Pollock’s painterly quantum leap, you’ll behold one of the greatest acts of aesthetic desperation in all art. Pollock may have had less conventional talent than any great artist who ever lived; he is an example of someone who so had to “make it new” that he willed himself to greatness.
Fifty years and one month ago, after a day and sleepless night of intense binge drinking followed by another full day of gin, Pollock drove his green 1950 Oldsmobile 88 convertible off Springs-Fireplace Road, near his home in the Springs, Long Island. Two people were in the car with him. One, Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress and the former lover of Willem de Kooning, survived. Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger—a 25-year-old who with her family escaped Nazi Germany and who had once met Herman Göring—was killed. Pollock met Metzger that same morning with Kligman at the East Hampton train station. Later, she begged him not to drive because he was so drunk. Her final act was standing in the backseat of the convertible, screaming until the last second of her life that she wanted to “get out of the car.” Metzger was crushed to death as the Oldsmobile flipped end over end. Pollock died the instant his body slammed into a tree. Pollock obviously made Pollock, and Pollock killed Pollock.
Pollack’s paintings from 1947 to 1950 stand alone. These works, good or bad, are among the most immediate, visually tangible symphonic paintings ever made. It is not possible to look at great Pollock drip painting and not know how it was made. Pollock’s drip is instantaneously apparent; it is crystalline information, a carrier and the thing carried. It is versatile, complete unto itself, but also a detail. The drip has no history, yet it’s been there all along. There is absolutely nothing personal about Pollock’s drip paintings despite how much of himself he put there. These paintings rewire your retinas as space forms, flattens, goes centerless, turns stringy, then becomes layered, amorphous, and indefinite before your eyes. Nebulae form, then fleeting patterns. One color comes forward, another goes back; all you see are tans and chalky whites; then everything is silver rain.
Pollock stretched the diverse strands of cubism and surrealism beyond recognition. He pulled apart the Mexican muralists, pulled in the dribbling techniques of Navajo sand painting, and gave various ersatz mystical tendencies of his day an unprecedented optical force and psychic 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 paint and canvas. By way of comparison, when the 25-year-old Picasso made Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he initially thought it might be a “bad painting.” When the 35-year-old Pollock finished Lucifer in 1947 he had to ask his wife, painter Lee Krasner, “Is this a painting?” Lucifer is a green, black, and pearly discharge, a phosphorescent radioactive snapshot of what America looked, felt, and sounded like in 1947.
Before Pollock made Lucifer all seemed lost for him. I love his early work, but much of it is labored, muddy, and glutted. Pollock is in hell. Then it happens. He picks up on the drips in those early drawings. People hate Pollock for the drip; young artists spoof the drip paintings. But Pollock didn’t turn into the Jim Dine of the drip. He didn’t just crank out drip paintings for the rest of his life. Pollock only used the drip for around 48 months, from about 1947 to 1950.
An August 8, 1949 four-page spread on Pollock in Life magazine posed the question “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The article made Pollock. It also broke him. It is virtually impossible to think of Pollock’s paintings without also thinking of the Hans Namuth photographs of the artist in his studio that accompanied the Life feature. Around Thanksgiving 1950, Namuth cajoled a then sober, reluctant Pollock to “do it again, Jackson . . . pose for the camera.” Pollock did; then he unraveled.
In the months that followed Pollock bravely did what few artists are willing to do when they’re at the very top of their game. He willingly went back to hell. He left off the drip and began experimenting. But he couldn’t handle the hell again. You know the rest. Pollock’s best paintings deliver an almost mystical jolt. For me, the most miraculous thing about them is that they give off more energy than it took to make them. They are a manifestation of an idea that has been with us since the Burning Bush: the fire that does not consume. Pollock’s paintings show the difference that one person can make. They bear witness to an artist reaching into fundamentally sacred precincts of existence.
A Bit Sick
Welcome Drink, one of Stuart Hawkins’s photographic scenarios of herself (she’s female, despite the first name) in Nepal, is such a perfect metaphor for America’s current adventures around the world that it should be made into a billboard and displayed outside all of our embassies. This sign would signal that we know we’re klutzy, reckless, rude, helpless nitwits who think we’re helping the world but actually making almost everyone supremely uncomfortable and irritated, not to mention afraid.
Welcome Drink features the 37-year-old New Yorker, who has been living half the year in Nepal for 15 years, from behind, bending over, perhaps to pick something up or tie her shoe. Watching her is a Nepali waiter carrying a drink. Hawkins is America; the waiter is the rest of the world. As he looks down at her, her dorky striped underpants are plainly visible through her sheer, white, cotton trousers. It’s a scene of unthinking insult, pure slapstick, unaware enticement, utter naïveté, and unmitigated gall. It’s also a hoot.
“Customs,” Hawkins’s quick-witted, whimsical, excruciating New York solo exhibition, includes several large-scale photographs as well as Souvenir, a 20-minute video of the artist making her way through Nepal, having encounters, doing ditzy things, apparently searching for some kind of guru or Shangri-la. Whatever she’s after, Hawkins is a funny, ironic, under-the-radar artist with a great sense of burlesque. She deserves more attention, if only to make you experience a dark empathetic dose of what many around the world must feel when an American walks in the room—a bit sick.