By Carter B. Horsley
Jackson Pollock is the most provocative and
legendary, though perhaps not the greatest, American artist of
the 20th Century.
In his excellent, fascinating and interesting
essay, "Comet: Jackson Pollock's Life and Work," in
the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Kirk Varnedoe writes
that "hard-drinking tough guy though he was, Pollock harbored
- in addition to genuine psychological difficulties - a soft spot
for mumbo jumbo."
In the years before he reached his "signature"
style, Pollock, Varnedoe continued, "the would-be sculptor
seems to have found himself (in the literal and corny sense) around
1940 in the material life of his surfaces and his oils, and in
the basic making mud-pies sense of being a painter. But it was
not, at first, a pretty sight. He used a lot of color without
any eye for common interactions and balances, so that the palette,
careening from dead grays and gloomy blacks to sickeningly pretty
pinks was consistently crude without ever becoming effectively
expressive. Brushwork, too, had no 'touch.'"
For some, attempts to explain Pollock's swirling
drips often seems like so much "mumbo jumbo" and his
enormous paintings merely messy "mud-pies."
Varnedoe's essay and more importantly this
retrospective on Pollock, the first in three decades, go a long
way to quieting the demurrers and making a strong case for Pollock's
stature as a fine and probably very important artist.
"Jackson Pollock is one of the prime generative
forces in modern art of the last half-century. With the 'drip'
or 'poured' paintings he made from 1947 through 1950, he ruptured
traditions of art-making, giving new permissions to subsequent
generations of artists in all mediums and gaining international
notoriety. These radically innovative pictures and his troubled
life - marked by alcoholism and emotional turmoil and cut short
by a violent death in an automobile accident at the age of forty-four
- have made Pollock a figure of myth," Varnedoe proclaimed
in a wall panel at the exhibition.
The exhibition affords a great opportunity
to put Pollock in perspective and the verdict is clear that his
uneven oeuvre did include some masterpieces that are very impressive
but that their influence and importance have been hugely blown
out of proportion. The fiction that they are revolutionary and
greatly significant, however, has a real life of its own and Pollock's
rank among the world's greatest artists of all time is likely
to be debated for a long time. His influence was substantial,
not in terms of style and the content of his work, but in terms
of its debate and posturing. His oeuvre, indeed, is post-Modern
and one can argue that Post-Modernism begins if not with him,
then with his aura, the anthology of aesthetic criticism that
inflated him to mythic proportions, which is OK, but more importantly
made the attribution of a STATEMENT more important than the art
itself. The problem with most Post-Modern critics is that they
believe they are more important than the artists themselves, which
is, of course, nonsense.
For those new to art, Picasso and Jackson Pollock
are probably the two toughest and most notorious nuts to crack.
Picasso, in retrospect, is much easier to grasp
and unquestionably is the greater artist, and not because he is
"easier to grasp."
Pollock is widely perceived as a "romantic,"
"action" hero, but his merits as an artist have not
been always clear-cut.
The fall of 1998 in New York City was been
a remarkable one for fabulous museum shows. Simultaneously, while
Pollock is on display at MOMA, the Whitney has a major Mark Rothko
Exhibition (see The City Review article),
the Metropolitan has a fabulous survey of early Renaissance paintings
from the Netherlands, and the Jewish Museum has an important show
on Ben Shahn. One wishes it would possible to combine all these
shows into one gigantic exhibition with all these works dramatically
juxtaposed as it would not only be jarring, but startling.
The great religious, portrait and genre paintings
by such masters as Hugo Van der Goes, Hans Memling and Jan Van
Eyck at the Met are riveting, intense, jewel-like and memorable.
Ben Shahn’s dashing illustrations are the epitome of style,
reverberant compositions with bold linearity and a limited palette:
succinct, sometimes searing, sometimes sweet, always unambiguous.
The Renaissance paintings and Shahn’s
focus on reality.
Rothko’s and Pollock’s, on the other
hand, do not, although their mature works were preceded by voyages
through surrealism and mythology. Their works are emotional abstractions.
In Rothko’s case, they are evanescent, but compartmentalized.
In Pollock’s case, they are energetic, but often chaotic
and fractal-like whirlpools.
While it is de rigueur to concentrate on the
"signature" works that define an artist’s "style,"
it is very important to understand its evolution and both the
Rothko and Pollock shows are excellent and very revealing in this
regard. As contemporaries, both artists came under the strong
European influence of Surrealism and both produced exemplary works
before arriving at their formulaic "signatures."
The Pollock show is accompanied by a voluptuously
illustrated catalogue, funded by the David Geffen Foundation,
which owns several of the works in the show. Many of the fine
color illustrations unfortunately are fold-outs as Pollock frequently
resorted to huge, panoramic, horizontal canvases. Fortunately,
they are many full-page, and very sumptuous, details.
The catalogue also includes many photographs
taken from a famous movie made by Hans Namuth of Pollock painting.
The movie, which is shown at the exhibition, documents the creation
of a large painting by Pollock and helped greatly to fuel the
controversies over the artist, whose methods of dripping, splashing
and hurling paint at his canvases was both belittled as unstructured
and sloppy and inspired for breaking the shackles of conventional
This exhibition, sponsored in large part by
Nationsbank and BankAmerica with support also from The Henry Luce
Foundation, Inc., and its catalogue, "made possible through
the generosity of The David Geffen Foundation," argue with
considerable passion that Pollock was a truly monumental figure
in 20th Century American art and certainly it contains many very
strong works of great vigor that attest to Pollock's talents of
rhythmic composition, painterliness, and dramatic flair. It has
been hard for the public to assess his oeuvre because many important
works are still in private hands and few institutions own more
than one and seeing a less than stellar Pollock in isolation can
lead to assumptioins that denigrate him.
In 1944, MOMA became the first museum to purchase
a painting, "The She-Wolf," from Pollock and in 1967
held a Pollock retrospective. The current exhibition, which reproduces
the interior of his barn in The Springs on Long Island where he
painted many of his larger works, is the most complete show of
his work in all media. A catalogue raisonné prepared by
Eugene V. Thaw and Francis V. O'Connor was issued in 1978 and
is now out of print.
Pollock often frequently the Cedar Tavern,
a not terribly posh bar on University Place between Eighth and
Ninth Streets that eventually moved many years after his death
in a car crash while driving drunk in a Cadillac convertible in
1956 further north on University Place to a more handsome venue.
In the sumptous catalogue, Varnedoe gives a
sweeping cultural history and review of Pollock's life:
"Despite steady dealer stipends, fervent
critical support, and one-man exhibitions in midtown virtually
every year since he was thirty, Pollock - easily the most famous
artist of his generation - only got a step ahead of bare burgher
solidity near the nend of his life....The span from Elvis Presley's
first record in 1954 through Jasper Johns' first show in 1958
formed a key divide in American life, and Pollock's car crash
(like the actor James Dean's the year before) was one of its benchmarks....Stopped
short at forty-four, Pollock permanently straddles a cusp in cultural
history. Though he epitomizes the moment passed, he has been a
fever in art for decades after,and remains an unsettled issue
today....From the moment of Pollock's first maturity, key critics
and artists recognized that his work had a special power and authenticity.
Fail as it might to conform to expectations or to standard criteria,
clearly it mattered; and this basic consensus has only grown.
But intense debate as to why it mattered has also never wanted.
This is not because the work is especially 'difficult' in the
way that, say Marcel Duchamp's is. There are no encrypted riddles
or in-jokes to decipher, no programmatic texts to explain why
it appears as it does....With no recognizable image or conventional
composition, these 'allover' abstractions appear to fuse how and
why, means and end, instrumental method and expressive message....The
'artless,' hand-off way Pollock deployed his medium was too uniquely
a signature style for anyone to adopt directly' but the permissions
it gave have percolated irrepressibly through painting, sculpture,
installation and performance art, and hybrids of all of the above
(not the mention the effect on musicians and writers). ...Pollock's
best work is inhabited by opposites: lyrical and violent, anguished
and ecstatic, cathartic and obsessive, tormented and liberating,
ethereal and base."
It is interesting that Pollock not only could
have been well portrayed by James Dean but also could now be portrayed
by actors Mickey O'Rourke or Bruce Willis whose looks and screen
temperaments are almost perfect matches. (Subsequently to the
exhibition, Ed Harris portrayed Pollock in a major movie.)
Varnedoe quotes critic Leo Steinberg's observation
that "Questions as to the validy of Pollock's work, though
they remain perfectly good in theory, are simply blasted out of
revelance by these manifestations of Herculean effort, this evidence
of mortal struggle between the man and his art." In recalling
that Pollock's work was viewed by some contemporaries as barbaric
and ferocious, Varnedoe notes that it does not now seem so "scandalous."
"Writers on Pollock ritually lament his
myth, and with reason: puffery here has been hot and thick....Pollock
often gets cast as the last action hero, a 'natural' beat bohemian
and a bastion of tortured purity and authenticity. True to his
cusp position, though, his story is actuallyless once-upon-a-time
and more tainted with the now, specifically as regards media hype....Pollock
was not simply a cheapened victim of philistine publicity, but
instead (or also) its accomplice. Whatever self-recriminations
he may have felt, a significant part of him wanted celebrity,
and he collaborated with its mechanisms....it seems clear that
Pollock achieved what he did, not by any inborn gift of conventional
facility or by fated destiny, but by a combination of strongly
willed self-inventions and a small cohort's dedicated promotion.
From his early fixation on being an artist through his experiments
with spiritualism, politics, psychological and homeopathic therapies,
and so on, Pollock - the Westerner, the drunk, the country boy,
the tweedy man of the city - repeatedly tried to reinvent himself,
and often with more than a little help from his friends."
In discussing Pollock's "soft spot for
mumbo jumbo," Varnedoe maintained that "while he may
well have talked up shamanism or alchemy, and even nurtured some
superstitions about ritual and healing, he never once suggested
that this kind of thing shaped the way his paintings were made
or should be understood. (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and others
of the New York School, on the other hand, constantly made a point
of evoking the authority of spiritual content for their art.)...Autonomy
and self-reliance were Pollock's Holy Grail, in his head and in
his career. Since he experienced such misery trying to submit
to disciplines of learning for which he had no aptitude, the godsend,
liberating idea for him was the one he got simultaneously from
looking at modern art and listening to his therapists: the principel
that art could ultimately depend not on acquired talents but on
inner resources, no matter how disturbed that inner life was."
Born in Wyoming, Pollock went to high school
in Los Angeles and in 1930 decided to join his older brother,
Charles, in New York where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton
at the Art Students League. Benton, according to Varnedoe, "was
a swaggering blowhard who curried an image as a no-nonsense son
of the soil, and under his aegis Pollock changed from longhair
California swami into Manhattan cowboy, complete with boots and
Stetson, conjuring roots that never were. More damagingly, the
novice also tried to pace his elder's strut as a big drinker and
a misogynist man's man....Benton's antielitism and suspicion of
abstract art had given Benton tenuous bonds with the political
left, but as the Depression deepened, and internationalism became
more of a cause, his reactionary chauvinism isolated him from
the New York community....He left his few remaining disciples
at the League disastrously unarmed for cafeteria debates with
painters like Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, who had been keeping
a close eye on Matisse, Picasso, Leger, et al....Pollock had become
an admirer of the Mexican mural movement - dominated by Rivera,
Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros - before he came to Benton.
Friends of his youth, most notably...(...Philip Guston), actually
worked on walls in Mexico City in the 1930s; and his brother Sande
worked briefly with Siqueiros in Los Angeles. Like them, Pollock
saw himself staunchly on the left, and was doubtless drawn to
the promise of art as a reformer's tool, uncorrupted by the capitalist
market for easel-sized work....Benton had refined the religious
spectacles of Rubens, El Greco, and Tintoretto into a serpentine
secular mannerism. But in picturing oppression and martyrdom the
Mexicans had come closer to the heart of the Counter-Reformation,
in their often brutish and sadomasochistic adaptations of Christian
iconography as a vivid theater of sensual suffering. Like the
Vatican before them, these Marxists understood that metaphysical
ideas might best be grounded, for broadest effect, in indelibly
physical expressions....Pollock saw Orozco's Prometheus
(see a reproduction of a version of this painting in The
City Review article on the Sotheby's Fall 2003 Latin American
Art auction) in Pomona in June 1930...and for years after
cited this grappling nude behemoth as the greatest painting in
With the coming of war in Europe, "a lot
of formerly ardent leftists cooled on the prospects for mechanistic
social engineering" and their faith "was displaced by
a chastened respect for the irrational component in human nature,
and for the potency of mental states over material facts. In that
climate, the jargon of psychology infiltrated the spaces left
by a waning infatuation with Marxist accounts of art and culture,"
Varnedoe wrote. Pollock, whom Varnedoe suggests may have had an
affair with Benton's wife, would begin Jungian psychotherapy in
1937 and get a mental-illness deferment from military service
in 1941, the year he met Lee Krasner, the artist who would become
his wife (see The City Review article on
a Krasner exhibition). In 1939, Pollock would be impressed
with Picasso's Guernica, shown at MOMA, and began to be
influenced by John Graham, another artist. "From Russian
origins and a military background kept exotically murky, Graham
had apparently passed through all the right cafés and studios
in Paris, and he brought with him an intimidatingly idiosyncratic
vision of modern art, ballasted on the one side by arcane theoretical
systems and on the other by anecdotal familiarity with the players.
He also offered Pollock a new and highly instructive model of
the artist's life in New York, involving circulation in high society
and an adviser's role with rich collectors, far from the world
of grimy garrets and the WPA," Varnedoe wrote.
In 1941, Pollock also went several times to
a MOMA show on Indian Art of the United States and Varnedoe points
out that in the exhibition "Native Americans created an image
on the ground by 'painting' with colored sands dropped from their
fists. Krasner, whose own art is similar but more disciplined
than Pollock's, was four years his senior. "At the expense
of her own work, Krasner, who had been a student of Hans Hofmann,
poured her energy and intelligence into furthering Pollock's efforts,"
Varnedoe wrote. Varnedoe recounts the story that in reply to a
query from Hofmann why he did not work more from nature, Pollock
is said to have replied, "I am nature."
In 1943, Robert Motherwell introduced Pollock
to Peggy Guggenheim, the collector and heiress who was about to
open her gallery called Art of This Century. Pollock's work began
to change and Varnedoe theorized that perhaps more important than
the Native American show was a Joan Miró retrospective
at MOMA: "his phantasms offered an imagery of the erotic
and the grotesque that was bizarrely removed from the hearty corporeality
of Picasso's anatomies, with a freedom of shape and a wiry linear
component that appealed. For Guggenheim's spring show, Pollock
submitted Stenographic Figure, show below. "Banishing
any thickened surface paste, Stenographic Figure shows
different ways of working overlaid one on the other, as if the
picture were built up from off-register gels. A flat lay-in of
shapes, angular and curved, has superimposed on it a bold alphabet
of broad lines that either follow existing edges or create their
own forms. Then the whole surface is covered with a teeming swarm
of fine-line calligraphy in yellow, black, white, and orange,
sometimes picking up existing vectors, sometimes detailing fingers
or the back of a head, often suggesting writing or numerology,
and generally setting the picture abuzz with a frantic, infestation
of spidery tics disconnected from the heavings underneath....The
willed confusions of this eccentric, ugly-pretty, picture introduce
ways of visual thinking that will reappear, in different guises,
for years to come...."
This picture "launched" his career
and the following November he had his own exhibition at Guggenheim's
gallery. Pollock, according to Varnedoe, "had already returned
to the experiments with pouring, dripping, and spattering to which
he had been exposed at the time of Siqueiros's workshop....By
1943, the concept of making art by 'automatic' gestures - trying
to abandon conscious control in order to allow unconscious areas
of the mind to guide the hand - was very much in the air in New
York. 'Pure psychic automatism' was the royal road to fresh creativity
espoused by André Breton and his Surrealist followers beginning
in the 1920s....In the circle of new acquaintances that Pollock
and Krasner were meeting in the early 1940s, it was principally
Motherwell and the Chilean artist Robert Matta who espoused such
contact, and proselytized for Surrealist ideas....At the point
where it would be most relevant to his use of fluid paint, Surrealist
automatism involved the idea of 'discovering' a figure in tangles
of random, 'mindless' doodling; but Pollock's first poured works
seem to have been applied over existing figures, in elaboration
or partial camouflage."
Pollock, who greatly admired the great American
mystic painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder, was also interested, Varnedoe
wrote, "in the kind of liquefied figuration employed by the
Frenchman André Masson, partially through 'automatic' techniques
of spilling ink and sand."
But the many influences on the artist were,
in Varnedoe's words, "slow burns":
"The somber mien, the conjuring of atavistic
myths, and the intimations of unknowable hieroglyphs all belonged
to the climate of a period shadowed by war, and to an artistic
milieu searching for an 'abstract' subject matter evoicative of
matters of universal importance. totems, lost languages, secret
runes - all forms of cultural marking that 'spoke' without naturalistic
representation, and that appeared elementally chose to ultimate
human mysteries - wee in favor with artists of the day who were
looking for a way into an abstraction that seemed to keep a grip
on significant content, as a hedge against accusations of arbitrary
solipism," Varnedoe wrote, brilliantly.
Pollock received an important commission to
do a mural for Guggenheim's apartment and the huge work was painted
very rapidly with scrolling arabesques. Varnedoe likes the work.
"It is one of the least known of the artist's greatest works,
and is insufficiently recognized for its extreme audacity and
originality. It should properly stand with de Kooning's Excavation
of 1950 as one of the most salient works of fusion between
the figure and abstraction in American painting; its uncoiling,
leaping relentlessness rivals and complements the densely packed
angularity of that picture. Telling in terms of their future work,
de Kooning compresses a Picassoid vocubulary of the body down
to a humid flesh-pit of volumes and joints, while Pollock agitates
a less heatedly carnal tarantella of stick-figure vectors."
It's a terrible, unattractive picture of lurid
colors. It is, however, large.
From 1947 to 1950, Pollock blossomed, producing
a very impressive number of large "drip" paintings that
would be heralded by critics such as Clement Greenberg and would
propel the artist to great heights of celebrity including a large
feature in Life magazine. Greenberg once wrote that "For
all its Gothic quality, Pollock's art is still an attempt to cope
with urban life; it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate
sensations, impulse, and notions, therefore is positivist, concrete."
Greenberg also observed that Pollock and artists such as Mark
Tobey and Jean Dubuffet explored "all-over" compositions:
"This very uniformity, this dissolution of the picture into
sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar
units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary
Pollock, Varnedoe, argued, "had profoundly
altered or even obliterated the concept of painting handed down
within the Western tradition, reinvented it as a different kind
of activity and object...From the first display of the new paintings,
in January, 1948, a sense of the unorthodox way in which they
were made - the apparent lack of 'touch,' the entertainment of
chance, the spatter that seemed to indicate recklessness - captured
the public imagination. And after 1950, when photographs and films
of Pollock painting were widely disseminated, imagery and process
became inseparable from considerations of the final product."
The drips were not original with Pollock. "Max
Ernst [the great painter who was a husband for a while of Peggy
Guggenheim], thought Pollock had stolen it from him, and, as [William]
Rubin has detailed, poured paintings by a host of major and minor
atists associated with Surrealism could claim priority....In any
event, the plethora of possible sources makes any one of them
less critical, and the particular ways Pollock used fluid paint
- the orchestrations of quanitities, speeds, rhythms, and densities
that constitute everything in his expression - look like nothing
Pollock was known to have urinated on some
his works and Varnedoe notes that Steven Naifeh and Gregory White
Smith, Pollock biographers, "amassing anecdotal evidence
that Pollock was prone to make an issue of urination, argue that
the drip method essentially formalized what would be called in
vernacular a 'pissing contest' with the memory of his father,
LeRoy, who had shown his young son how to draw designs in urine
on a rock."
In 1949, Pollock worked on an unrealized project
with architect Peter Blake to create a museum of his work without
walls where the "drip" paintings would be the wall dividers.
After 1950, Pollock's output declined sharply,
although he would create some quite interesting works later.
There are many surprises in the exhibition
including some pencil drawings, particularly an untitled one form
1939-41 of two people in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum
of Art that was a gift of his widow in 1982, and a fabulous small
bone sculpture from 1940-3 in the collection of the Museum of
Fine Ats in Houston.
After Stenographic Figure, the first major
paintings of merit are The Moon Woman, in the Peggy Guggenheim
Collection in Venice, and Male and Female, in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art. Both works date from 1942 and are very strong,
bold and dynamic. These are fine preludes to the very striking
Guardians of the Secret, a 1943 work, in the Albert M. Bender
Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
He experimented with a variety of different
styles for a while and then in 1946 created Croaking Movement
(Sounds in the Grass Series), a marvelously rich canvas of white,
angular delineations against a red, yellow and green background.
This painting is also in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
He then switched to a more curvilinear and
calligraphic mode, perhaps best represented by Number 14, 1948,
shown below, a wonderfully virtuosic dance with double-loaded
Pollock was beginning to hit his stride and produced many dazzling
works including: White Cockatoo: Number 24a, 1948, private
collection; Number 13A, 1948, Arabesque, Yale University Art Gallery;
Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, one of the greatest drips,
Tate Gallery; TheWooden Horse: Number 10A, 1948, which
has a wood hobbyhorse head on the canvas, Moderna Museet, Stockholm;
Untitled (Cut-Out Figure), 1948, private collection in
Canada; Untitled (Shadows: Number 2, 1948), private collection;
Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart,
one of his great masterpieces that uses cut-out sections; Number
2, 1949, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of At in
Utica, New York, one of his supremely poetic works; Number
7, 1950, MOMA, an important work almost as good as Number
2, 1949, but with a less vibrant palette; Number 1, 1952,
private collection, a very powerful and effective work; Blue
Poles: Number 11, 1952, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
shown at the top of the article, one of the best masterworks;
Unformed Figure, 1953, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, shown below,
a startling work for its bold pinks; and Ritual, 1953,
Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, Phoenix, Maryland, a very
fine non-drip work.
Unfortunately many of these, the best works,
are simply too wide to reproduce meaningful on the World Wide
Web, but they are reproduced magnificently in the catalogue, many
with fold-out pages.
In comparing, first, Pollock with American
artists, whose careers begin in the 20th Century, we must consider
such artists as Georgia O'Keefe, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky,
Milton Avery, Hans Hofmann, Joseph Stella, Mark Rothko (see The City Review article), Clyfford Still,
Willem de Kooning (see The City Review article),
Richard Diebenkorn (see The City Review article),
Andy Warhol and Ben Shahn. One could also consider Charles Sheeler,
Edwin Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, which we shall not do here,
and Thomas Hart Benton, which we shall later because he was Pollock's
In sorting out the pantheon of artists, one
is often prompted by emotional sympathies with underdogs and fatigue
with exaggerated hype. Of course, "the test of time"
is supposed to sort out such concerns, but really relies more
on forgetfulness and obituaries.
(My bias is an initial rapture with Italian
Renaissance painters and the fairly clearcut notion of ideal,
Platonic beauty and a secondary love for much 19th Century American
painters where the focus was not so much on innovation but on
perfecture of composition and technique and temperament. A third
fascination is with Van Gogh, the Fauves and the German Expressionists
for their boldness and color. I do not have a specific theory
or set of standards against which I test aesthetic opinions, but
I like lists. I am often awed by an individual work by some "obscure"
master, but I am more deeply admirative of an artist who has not
only created an interesting style but executed in myriad compositions
that leave the viewer still curious to see more variations, or
interpretations. I have a conservative bent against Johnny One-Notes
- I wish them well and want to hear/see more, but it is the mature
artist that I return to again and again - mature not in age, or
established acceptance, but in the authority of the personal vision/style/voice.
One cannot convincingly say, though tempted in bouts of inebriation,
that, for example, any particular Nolde, or Derain, or Vermeer,
or El Greco, or Giorgione, or Crivelli, or Verrochio, or Daumier,
or Quidor, or Ryder, or Rubens, or Monet, is better than every
other painting. You can reasonably place it within the artist's
oeuvre, and within the artist's creative milieu. Similarly, it
can be misleading to take an individual work out of the context
of an artist's career. The juvenalia can be revelatory and the
diversions and experiments tantalizing. Pollock's oeuvre, in fact,
is a good illustration of this as we shall see. These obvious
digressions are needed because Pollock arrives with too much baggage
at the end of the 20th Century and to reassess him one should
peel the critical onion to get back to basics and try to consider
his creations on their merits, shorn of hyperbole and fads and
O'Keefe 's blown-up macro-studies and Matisse-like
flat landscapes are terrific abstractions that were very original,
not derivative and tremendously important in establishing an exaggerated
sense of scale. More importantly, they were, despite their often
lack of painterliness, beautiful and her oeuvre enormous and pretty
Influenced by Cubism, Davis opened up his composition
with a wide sense of space and wonderfully incorporated two great
American cultural institutions, advertising and jazz, into his
work which has superb dynamics.
While uneven and often bordering on the drab
in terms of palette, Gorky's work represents the best American
renditions of the "automatic," Surrealist scriblings
that are other-wordly and fascinating, but derivative from the
European innovators such as Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Dali, and
others. The alien environments of Yves Tanguy are also influential.
Milton Avery takes Matisse's flat diminensionality
but gives it strange palettes and interesting visual textures.
While derivative, his oeuvre is large, non-formulaic, effective,
interesting and impressive.
Hans Hofmann's work is bold and extremely influential,
especially in his role as a teacher, even if rarely beautiful.
While his oeuvre is difficult and not always appealing, his influence
Joseph Stella was a very fine artist whose
work is consistently overlooked, perhaps because he was so versatile
in different media and because his subject matter varied. His
great series of the Brooklyn Bridge is monumental and memorable.
Like Stella, Warhol did not stand still or
get stuck in a groove and while his work never ascends to greatness,
his persistent productivity and experimentation made him a much
more genuine cultural hero of his age than Pollock. Neither, of
course, had the intellectuality of John Cage and, later, Brian
Eno, musicians whose emphasis on chance is far more important
In many ways, Rothko is the opposite of Pollock.
His work is lean and focused and pure in contrast with Pollock's
overflowing, diffuse and "messy" work. Their early work,
however, shares many affinities for the mythic and the surreal.
Rothko was more grandiose and pretentious while Pollock can be
excused his arrogance because of his adulation. Rothko produced
far more "good" art, but, earlier comments notwithstanding,
quantity is not what counts, and "bad" art, per se,
is not necessarily bad in the end. What the Pollock exhibition
demonstrates is that Pollock was much more uneven in his great
period than Rothko, whose consistency should give him the edge.
Richard Diebenkorn takes off from Rothko's
simplicity and sharpens his blurry edges to create more more complex
compositions. His paintings are considerably more satisfying than
Rothko's, but both are, at the best, dreamy worlds of much beauty.
Willem de Kooning, a contemporary of Pollock's,
on the other hand, did not care much about conventional beauty
and his demonic paintings of women owe much to the slapdash of
Hofmann. de Kooning shares abundant energy with Pollock and his
early work is not dominated by abstraction and his late and quite
beautiful linear paintings are formal enough to stop short of
Clyfford Still is resolutely non-representational
and his work is much deeper, and better, than Pollock's. To enter
a Still is to fall into a liquid space of great, dark mystery
where shreds of illuminating hope are tattered splotches. Still
gives us drama. Rothko gives us equilibrium. Pollock takes us
Benton, wrongly dismissed by some critics as
a minor Regionalist painter, developed a very vigorous and sinuous
signature style that animated all his work. His oeuvre is astoundingly
consistent in its creativity of composition and conformity to
his vision, one that was Populist and American. One can imagine
that he was infused with the majesty of great Renaissance muralists
and the forcefulness of the Mexican muralists of his own time.
His style is manipulative and his subject matter simplistic, but
the message was never unambiguous.
Shahn, of course, takes the prosaic and the
political, not always the same, to poetic heights. His oeuvre
often strikes one as merely the fine work of an excellent, facile
illustrator, but his works are very painterly, his palette intensely
limited and his obliqueness powerful. Shahn's paintings are often
polemnical, but the notion of using art for social purposes is
fine when the art is so good.
One would be tempted then to rank O'Keefe,
Still, and Shahn, at least, above Pollock and possibly Rothko,
Stella and Diebenkorn.
With the exception of O'Keefe, none of these
artists are quite as brilliant as their European counterparts
such as Picasso, Braque, Klee, Miro, Matisse and Kandinsky, and
O'Keefe is still a level or two below them.
Pollock's best totemic paintings deserve more
exposure as they are excellent. The best drip paintings, those
mentioned above, are quite thrilling regardless of theory, but
too many are extravagant exercises that fail to inspire. Had this
been a smaller show consisting only of the above mentioned works,
one could not quarrel with greatness and lust to see more. He
did produce some great paintings, and probably would have produced
more if he had lived longer. His oeuvre does not measure up with
the titans of the past, but his cultural importance, both during
his lifetime and afterwards, does.
His aggressive, excessive energy was powerful
and palpable, even if only rarely poetic.
Andy Warhol would probably have said "POW!"