After all these years, I finally saw that Ed Harris movie about Jackson Pollock on the teevee last night. I was impressed.
It was a bleak and unromantic look at a very romantic man undone by his own galloping insecurities and destroyed by the alcoholism that afflicted him most of his life. The long sequence where he falls off the wagon for the last time after 2 years of sobriety (and his most important work) is really painful to watch. It’s also probably close to the truth. The movie paints a very sympathetic portrait of Lee Krasner, his wife, who eagerly follows his rising fame, and who also suffers the brunt of his cruelty, self-absorption, his infidelities, and his alcoholic rages. She finally leaves him for a long trip to Europe to protect herself and her sanity. Lee Krasner took a lot of abuse at the time of Pollock’s death, and for many years after, with many people blaming her (very unjustly) for his untimely death. The movie makes us wonder that she put up with so much from Pollock for as long as she did. The movie very candidly shows Pollock’s very complicated relations with his own large family, his sometimes dissolute and feckless father, and his competitive and resentful four brothers.
The movie also shows Pollock’s difficult relationship with the art world of that time, a tangled mix of high-minded ambition and show biz. He was the very complicated star of an art world dominated by reductivist criticism and thinking (as personified by Clement Greenberg in the movie).
Jackson Pollock loomed very large in the imaginations of art students back in my day, especially among young men. I don’t know if that is still true today (in an age of star video game designers and graphic novelists selling movie rights, I doubt it).
Jackson Pollock himself in his studio in Springs, Long Island in 1950
He was the sad bad James Dean of art; not as pretty as Dean, but more brilliant, more macho, and more troubled. We loved all the old stories about Pollock getting into fist-fights at the Cedar Tavern on 8th street, and pissing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fire place during a party. The movie puts a very different spin on those antics, less the defiant acts of a hero than the acting out of a really bad drunk. Pollock was a troubled brawler all his life. He was expelled from school twice for fighting. He probably began drinking in his early teens, and was already a serious alcoholic under treatment in his twenties. His death in a car crash sealed his lost hero James Dean credentials. Dean’s death was a catastrophic accident at the beginning of a brilliant career. The movie implies, as have many others, that Pollock’s fatal crash (with 2 other women in the car, one, Judith Metzger, died; his mistress, Ruth Kligman, survived) was a murder suicide.
Booze and madness do only one thing for an artist's career, they end it. Pollock had already stopped painting in 1955, the year before his death at age 44.
The Abstract Expressionists were probably the last great romantic painters. They were all misfits and alcoholics. Two of them died by suicide (Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko). Most of them were immigrants or the children of immigrants (deKooning was an illegal immigrant, jumping ship into the USA when he was in his teens). In 1950s America, not fitting in came at a very high price of unofficial alienation and poverty, and official suspicion and legal sanction. The Powers That Be were eager to dampen the expectations for social transformation awakened by the Second World War. Those expectations would stir anyway and finally destroy the thin anxious crust that was the legacy of Victorian America. In that anxious and xenophobic age, the largely Jewish and foreign sounding names of these artists aroused a lot of suspicion. Pollock was not Jewish or foreign with a name that sounded like a hero from a teevee western. What is more, he really was born and raised in the West, from Cody, Wyoming. Instead of the son of Belorussian Jewish tailors (Rothko) or Armenian refugees (Gorky), he was the son of cowboys (actually his father held a variety of odd jobs, including surveying). Pollock himself carefully cultivated that image of the cowboy from out West riding into New York to show them all how it’s done.
Jackson Pollock in southern California, circa 1927
The small nascent modern art world in New York greeted his arrival with relief. Modernism could finally establish all-American creds, and dispel some of the xenophobia and anti-Semitism that surrounded it since the Armory Show in 1913. Pollock’s work, just like the work of the rest of the artists in that group, came out of the sometimes friendly encounters, and sometimes hostile clashes, between American artists and the large community of European artists driven out of Europe by Hitler. They came together in Greenwich Village. The ideas of the old and new worlds met and clashed in that neighborhood, and out of those conflicts and collaborations would come the American culture that dominated the world until the 1990s. The artists met in each other’s studios, and together in local bars like the now famous Cedar Tavern, the dive where Pollock made himself persona non grata.
Artists in the Cedar Tavern in 1953
Pollock was not the first artist in the history of the world to fling paint. Max Ernst and Andre Masson dribbled and flung paint while Pollock was getting expelled from school in Wyoming. Artists in China and Japan spattered paint for centuries. And yet, Pollock seemed to live out Ruskin’s accusation leveled at Whistler, that he flung a pot of paint into the face of the public. The public was predictably outraged and fascinated.
Pollock didn’t begin splattering paint until late in his career, not until 1947. By then, he had been painting for almost 20 years. His work already had a kind of cult following long before he dripped his first drip.
It took me a long time to warm to Pollock’s drip paintings, but I felt no such reservations about his earlier work from the 1940s.
Pollock, The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle, 1943
Pollock, The She Wolf, 1943
Pollock, Mural, 1943, one of Pollock's first essays in centerless over-all composition
Almost every modern painter in New York (not a large group) was doing a form of late surrealism heavily informed by the writings of Jung, especially his ideas of a shared unconscious. The whole point of surrealism was to tap the creative power of the unconscious, of the primordial id. The American version of that was less Freudian and more Jungian, less interested in sex and more interested in myth. At the end of World War II, there was a desire to begin history again, similar to the desire that drove the modern movements that came out of the First World War. Only now, the driving emotion was more sorrow than anger. The exiled European Surrealists in New York, and the American artists, wanted to somehow go back to the primordial beginnings of all creativity and begin again.
Pollock, like all the artists in these groups, made paintings based on a combination of automatism (putting one’s conscious mind in neutral and letting the unconscious take over as one drew, a much more serious form of doodling) and Jungian ideas of collective symbolism. All of these artists were influenced by the work of Picasso and Miro. Pollock added the sense of scale and the dramatic grandeur of the great Mexican muralists that he admired. He turned his own doubts and frustrations as a painter into virtues, making his struggle to realize the image part of its drama. The result is the busy, crowded, and very grand paintings he made around the end of the War. To my eye, these are much more aggressive paintings than his later drip canvases, with their sharp forms and constantly edited out, and edited back in passages of painting.
Pollock, like a lot of artists since Kandinsky on the eve of the First World War, wanted to make painting itself carry all the expressive and narrative weight of art. He wanted painting to be its own tragic story, to make it speak directly to the emotions the way music does without narrative and without imagery. This played right into the expectations of modernist critics like Clement Greenberg who championed a Hegelian idea of reductivism, that all painting was destined by History to be refined down to its most basic essences, and ultimately to become pure expression unhindered by the social constraints of imagery and story telling. I’m not quite sure that’s quite what Pollock wanted. DeKooning insisted (rightfully I think) that all painting tells a story, whether it’s about the Fall of Troy or about Green and Red. He said that all painting is ultimately an image, no matter how abstract, and that all imagery is ultimately an abstraction no matter how realistic. Like deKooning, I’ve always thought that the old abstract vs. realist conflict was a red herring. I suspect that Pollock may have felt the same way. His desire to create an art of pure expression was possibly not about getting rid of imagery and story telling so much as taking them to another level, about re-inventing them.
I think it’s that search for a way to re-invent painting that led Pollock to the drip in 1949.
Pollock, Shimmering Substance (Sounds in the Grass), 1946, an all-over field of nuances applied with the brush. I've always been fond of this painting.
Pollock, Cathedral, 1947, one of Pollock's earliest drip paintings
The movie makes his drip paintings look like a serendipitous discovery. I suspect that it was not. It’s not hard (in retrospect) to draw a straight line from Surrealist automatic drawing to flinging paint.
Pollock long had a fascination with Navajo sand painting.
Navajo Sand Painting
A shaman or medicine man would dribble out colored sand while chanting an incantation, making an elaborate design on the ground. He would then place the patient on top of the painting, inevitably destroying it. The healing power of the image comes in the act of making it. Its power can only be released when the image is destroyed. I think this gave Pollock his idea for his drip paintings. The act of painting became as important as the finished work.
He always painted on the floor of his studio, but now he took off the stretchers. He unrolled a bolt of canvas and began walking around it with buckets of fluid paint (usually cheap house paints that have given conservators nightmares ever since) using his brushes as sticks to fling the paint. Sometimes he poured it out or splashed it out of smaller cans.
Pollock at work in his studio at Springs, Long Island, 1950
These paintings made Pollock immediately famous, and got him a feature article in Life magazine in the August 8, 1949 issue. The press dubbed him "Jack the Dripper."
The Life magazine spread on Pollock in the August 8, 1949 issue.
This changed his life. He started out as a very marginal figure with a cult following borrowing money for rent, groceries, and booze. Now, he was off the booze, taking interviews, and thinking about purchasing land out in eastern Long Island.
The public reaction to his work is best summed up in Norman Rockwell’s gentle satire originally titled Abstract and Concrete, but today mostly known as The Connoisseur.
Norman Rockwell, Abstract and Concrete (The Connoisseur), 1962
Rockwell does his own version of a Pollock painting. Rockwell sees Pollock’s work as a chaos of colors and a flurry of uncontrolled paint.
Pollock insisted that there were no accidents in his work, that his methods were very controlled and precise. When we compare the painting within Rockwell’s painting to an actual Pollock painting, we can see what he meant. Pollock’s colors were not random. Pollock chose his colors carefully, emphasizing some while letting others play a secondary role. Blacks and grays dominate Lucifer livened up by ropes of green and spots of orange and red.
Pollock, Lucifer, 1947
Pollock, Lucifer, detail
Black, white, and tan dominate Autumn Rhythm, set off with small spots of turquoise blue. The more we study a Pollock drip painting, the less random it looks.
Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950
Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, detail
Something else appears in the Rockwell that we never see in Pollock’s work, runs. Arshile Gorky and Willem deKooning loved runs and let their paint run all the time. Pollock hated runs because they brought an unwanted reference to gravity into what were supposed to be centerless directionless fields of what seem to be electric sparks.
Pollock’s drip paintings, like Monet’s huge water-lily paintings, are vast uncentered fields of nuance. Pollock’s nuances are charged and electric, busy and anxious, compared to Monet’s consoling calm strokes of color. Unlike Monet, Pollock’s nuances have nothing to do with light or with any observed experience. They are their own thing, their own separate world, a new creation; something Leonardo 5 centuries earlier said that every painting should be.
The public was outraged, but the reaction from other artists was more complicated. Pollock’s old teacher, the Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton always supported Pollock even as he bashed New York modernism. I sometimes wonder if Benton’s anti-modernism really came out of conviction (he began as a Cubist painter in Paris), or out of his own bitterness and anti-Semitism. The artist Robert Beverly Hale, now best known as the author of a number of books on drawing technique and anatomy for artists, was a champion of Classical figurative art in the very powerful position of curator of American painting at the Metropolitan Museum. And yet, it was Hale who made the case for purchasing Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm to a very hostile Metropolitan Museum board of directors. I think the textbooks once again oversimplify things when talking about the controversies of this era.
Autumn Rhythm today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
Here is Hans Namuth's 1950 film of Pollock at work.
Lee Krasner was much more than Pollock’s long-suffering widow. She was quite an artist in her own right. Pollock, to his credit, always encouraged her work. If anything, her work is a lot tougher and more aggressive than his with its jarring colors and sharp forms. I've always loved her work.
Krasner, Sun Woman II
Krasner, Gothic Landscape, 1961
Krasner, Left Bird, Right