Museums

Jackson Pollock’s Renaissance Connection

by Joseph Nechvatal on July 8, 2014

Jackson Pollock, “Earth Worms” (1946)

Jackson Pollock, “Earth Worms” (1946) (Tel Aviv Museum of Art Collection, gift of Peggy Guggenheim, Venice through the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, 1954, © Jackson Pollock, by SIAE 2014)

FLORENCE, Italy — The city of Florence is paying homage to Jackson Pollock, well-known for his all-over syncretistic paintings, by connecting his work to that of Michelangelo’s. This unusual pairing was conceived and curated by Sergio Risaliti and Francesca Campana Comparini under the organization of the Opera Laboratori Fiorentini.

The site chosen to exhibit sixteen small to medium-sized works by Pollock — the best being “Earth Worms” (1946) and “Square Composition with Horse” (1937–38) — is the top floor of the majestic Palazzo Vecchio. Therein lies the curiosity.

The exhibition’s title, The Figure of the Fury, refers to Pollock in the act of painting as he moved around his canvases, while simultaneously alluding to the expression, “fury of the figure” by the 16th-century art theorist and painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1584). Lomazzo pointed out that what bestowed furious qualities to a figure is a sensed motion similar to that of a flame; the same swirling motion that Michelangelo gave to his figures that is here assigned to Pollock. (Even though Pollock only become acquainted with Michelangelo through book reproductions during his studies under Thomas Hart Benton.)

Jackson Pollock, “Untitled” (1937-1939), Colored pencil

Jackson Pollock, “Untitled” (1937–1939), Colored pencil and graphite on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (© Jackson Pollock, by SIAE 2014)

Usually when we encounter large classic Pollock drip paintings of some figural depth, we are pummelled and overwhelmed by their immersive connectivity — and by the extent to which the immediacy of the field is foregrounded. The resulting radicalization, as regards the distribution of the optical field, manifests an omniperspectivalism that is exemplary of omnidirectionality.

As evidence of this ambient trend’s beginnings, Pollock famously painted the engulfing “Mural” (1943) for Peggy Guggenheim, where he transformed the canvas into a whole wall instead of the usual small object of contemplation visually and physically dominated by the viewer. “Mural” set the precedent for the scale of Pollock’s celebrated all-over drip-paintings (with their even distribution of compositional interest across an entire large surface), encouraged by a February 1947 review by Clement Greenberg in The Nation, where he wrote: “Pollock points a way beyond the easel, beyond the mobile, framed picture, to the mural.”

Pollock’s ensuing appeal for mural commissions increased, and in a 1949 letter to his dealer, Betty Parsons, he wrote, “I want to mention that I am going to try to get some mural commissions through an agent. I feel it is important for me to broaden my possibilities in this line of development.” The same year Pollock told an interviewer, “The direction that painting seems to be taking is away from the easel, into some sort of wall painting. Some of my canvases are an impractical size … 9 by 18 feet! But I enjoy working big and whenever I have a chance I do it whether it’s practical or not.”

Jackson-Pollock-portrait-from-Wilfred-Zogbaum-in-the-atelier-of-Fireplace-road-1947

Jackson Pollock portrait from Wilfred Zogbaum in the atelier of Fireplace road, 1947 (image courtesy Palazzo Vecchio)

Pollock sought to create a spatial continuousness that no longer distinguished between the pictorial space and the area in which the viewer stood. As such, Pollock’s imposing paintings demand that the observer relinquish intellectual control (as the beholder is now torn free of unyielding, Renaissance perspective) and dive into the energetic color/movement (through the eye being drawn into the excessive aspect of the painting) and therein dissolve into the dazzling chaos of the individual lines which are also, at the same time, creating a uniformly structured whole-field.

In contrast with the devices of European Renaissance perspective, Pollock sought to draw the viewer into the canvas, not by establishing a distant vanishing-point, but by conceptually eliminating the frame so as to permit the eye to follow the curvilinear patterns beyond the canvas and into the implied surrounding space.

Relevant to these concerns are the semi-pejorative statements made by Aldous Huxley concerning Pollock’s painting “Cathedral” from a 1948 Parsons exhibition. Huxley made these remarks as a participant in the “Roundtable on Modern Art,” a panel discussion held at the Museum of Modern Art from which excerpts were reproduced in Life magazine’s issue of October 11, 1948. In it, Huxley points out the lack of focus in “Cathedral” due to its all-over compositional approach, saying “It raises the question of why it stops when it does. The artist could go on forever. [Laughter] I don’t know. It seems like a panel for a wallpaper which is repeated indefinitely around the wall.”

Bartolomeo Ammannati, stucco work, Leonardo Ricciarelli, Giovanni Boscoli & Mariotto di Francesco (1556-1558) detail

Bartolomeo Ammannati, stucco work, Leonardo Ricciarelli, Giovanni Boscoli & Mariotto di Francesco (1556-1558) detail (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Taking this “wallpaper […] repeated indefinitely around the wall” aspect seriously, the architect Peter Blake, in planning the architectural strategy for what was proposed to be the Jackson Pollock Museum, had the idea (with Pollock) to extend the paintings indefinitely around the space. In an article concerned with the project named “Unframed Space: A Museum for Jackson Pollock’s Paintings” in Interiors magazine, Arthur Drexler wrote that Pollock’s paintings “seem as though they might very well be extended indefinitely, and it is precisely this quality that has been emphasized in the central unit of the plan.” About the continuous rhythms of Pollock’s paintings, Drexler goes on to describe how, in the model of the museum, “a painting 17 feet long constitutes an entire wall. It is terminated on both ends not by a frame or a solid partition, but by mirrors. The painting is thus extended into miles of reflected space, and leaves no doubt in the observer’s mind as to this particular aspect of Pollock’s work.”

Bartolomeo-Ammannati-stucco-work-Leonardo-Ricciarelli-Giovanni-Boscoli-Mariotto-di-Francesco-1556-1558

Bartolomeo Ammannati, stucco work, Leonardo Ricciarelli, Giovanni Boscoli & Mariotto di Francesco (1556-1558) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This immersive Pollock effect is here radically reversed — as we encounter his modest-in-scale work after a lengthy, massively engulfing walk through the Palazzo Vecchio itself, with its extravagant connected room after room of Mannerist Grotesque murals, ceiling paintings and stucco. Most notably here was the Room of Lorenzo the Magnificent, covered, as it is, in immersive stucco murals (1556–1558) by Leonardo Ricciarelli, Giovanni Boscoli and Mariotto di Francesco based, supposedly, on drawings by the architect Bartolomeo Ammannati.

Even after consuming only one glass of wine and a plate of spaghetti, this room made my head spin softly — the way a great Pollock does with its all-over connectivity, full of dynamism.

These great stucco rooms are deliberately immersive, often including elaborate depictions of multiple figures bound together in tendrils. The Grotesque (in Italian Grottesco) became an arabesque style of all-over decoration based on a linked mêlée of fantastic, diminutive figures deriving from Roman mural and vault decoration which had been unearthed during the Renaissance (such as at the Golden House of Nero); mural decorations which themselves suggested ancient expressions of religio-sexual inter-penetrability — fanciful imagery mixing animal, human, and plant forms together. First revived in the Renaissance by the school of Raphael, the Grotesque came into fashion in 16th-century Italy and subsequently became popular throughout Europe.

Hence, while I found this modest show fairly uninteresting in terms of the Pollock-Michelangelo connection, I was flattened by the reversal of all-overness that we associate with Pollock. For that alone, I found this exhibition to be absolutely fascinating.

The Figure of the Fury continues at the Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria 1, Florence) through July 27. 

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  • nesw

    “Mural” set the precedent for the scale of Pollock’s celebrated all-over drip-paintings (with their even distribution of compositional interest across an entire large surface), largely inspired by a February 1947 review by Clement Greenberg in The Nation, where he wrote: “Pollock points a way beyond the easel, beyond the mobile, framed picture, to the mural.”

    Wait, what?

    “Mural,” the painting from 1943, was “largely inspired by a February 1947 review”?

    Am I parsing this incorrectly, or is that just nonsense? Because it reads like nonsense.

    • M. Heddaya

      Joseph has replied to your criticism below, but I wanted to note that we’ve changed the word in the text from “inspired” to “encouraged,” to better reflect the intended meaning. Though “Mural” (1943) was obviously not inspired by a review from 1947, Joseph has provided the source for the claim that Pollock was directly affected by the Greenberg review:

      Landau, E. 1989. Jackson Pollock. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc.

      Wherein Landau suggests Pollock’s 1947 Guggenheim grant application formulation seems to be inspired by Clement Greenberg’s review in the Nation’s art column of February 1, 1947 of Pollock’s previous show at Art of This Century.

  • Joseph Nechvatal

    “the scale” was largely inspired by a February 1947 review by Clement Greenberg

  • Joseph Nechvatal

    “Mural” was a one off private commission. As you can see in the studio photo above from 1947, Pollock’s gallery paintings were still rather modest in scale, by later standards. Take Pollock’s painting “The Key” (1946) 59×82″ for example. Or “Circumcision” (1946) 56×66″ that was from the Art of This Century show Greenberg was praising. If we swap “inspired” with “encouraged” – I think you might be able to accept my point. Greenberg encouraged him. Haven’t you seen the movie “Pollock” (2000) that was directed by Ed Harris?

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