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Looking Beyond Pollock’s Drip Paintings

Abstract Expressionist New York shines a bright and bold light on Jackson Pollock. Although the selection on view is obviously not as extensive as MoMA’s major retrospective in 1998-99, the show is still a rare and precious opportunity to see many of Pollock’s paintings under one roof.

His paintings are often crudely divided into two categories. On the hand, there are the mighty drip paintings — where splatters and splotches of paint dance across the picture plane. Then, there is everything else.

Pausing in the show’s back room, it is easy to see why many people place the signature “drip” paintings in a league of their own. There is usually a crowd in front of these canvases. Excited chatter in various language turns into a cacophony — an apt vocalization of Pollock’s mesmerizing visual chaos.

Jackson Pollock, "Number 1A 1948)" (1948), Oil and enamel paint on canvas 68" x 8' 8" (172.7 x 264.2 cm) Purchase è 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (click to enlarge)

At first glance, “Number 1A” (1948), is a misty cloud of black and white with hints of lavender and pink. Looking closely, the various paint splotches start to resemble little solar systems. Small speckles orbit unevenly like planets around larger suns of splatter. Streams of paint stretch out like the creamy mist of the Milky Way. Pollock was aware of this celestial resemblance and even named another one of the pictures in this series galaxy.

With so many little solar systems competing with each other for attention, the gaze always ends up zooming in on one small area. But then comes the tug of the rest of the picture that’s being ignored. The eyes feel pulled by how much more there is to observe and relish. This tug is one of the keys to this drip style’s charisma. No matter how long you look, you are never satisfied.

The earlier works also have their charm. But one has to be up for a different Pollock that is wilder, brasher, and funkier with its hints of figuration. One of the particular strengths of the show is the chance to see these younger works beside works of the era’s other artists. For example, the violent energy that distinguished Pollock early on from his peers reveals itself against the calmer works of Hans Hoffman.

Jackson Pollock, "The She-Wolf" (1943), Oil, gouache, and plaster on canvas 41 7/8 x 67" (106.4 x 170.2 cm) Purchase è 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (click to enlarge)

A work like “The She-Wolf” from 1943 epitomizes Pollock’s earlier, more violent and energetic style. It can be hard to get into if one expects the more subdued elegance of the drips. There is a lot more visual discordance and tension.

The wolf’s thick silhouette is almost entirely obscured by a chaotic and irregular jumble of painterly marks and splotches. The chromatic mishmash within the wolf resembles the clutter outside it, so that the figure/ground relationship feels under attack. The edges are blanketed with gray on three sides, which makes the color more vibrant in the rest of the picture. But many holes puncture this gray blanket and colorful painterly “smoke” seeps through.

“The She-Wolf”‘s tension is similar to one of those diagrams that could either be a vase or two people kissing. The perception bounces back and forth between seeing it one way or the other. Sometimes you see the wolf, and sometimes you can only see the chaos. Reproduction renders the wolf clearer and more apparent than it is in the flesh. And so this effect doesn’t really carry over.

In an age of electronic reproduction, works like the drips that are easy to reproduce get more exposure and start to feel more famous. Early works, like “The She-Wolf,” languish in the digital age.

Sitting in the library and reading through the various reviews of Jackson Pollock over the years, it was disheartening to observe how appreciation for the early style has deteriorated from the glowing words of the 1940s to the dismissive words of the 1990s.

Writing in the catalogue of Pollock’s first major one-man show in the fall of 1943 at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery, where The She-Wolf was exhibited, James Johnson Sweeney’s essay declared that Pollock’s “talent is volcanic. It has fire. It is unpredictable. It spills itself out in a mineral prodigality not yet crystallized. It is lavish, explosive, untidy.” Clement Greenberg wrote, “He is the first painter I know of to have got something positive from the muddiness of color that so profoundly characterizes a great deal of American paining.” They were blown away by these early works – a period when the drips were still unfathomable.

Fifty-five years later, critics at MoMA’s 1998-1999 retrospective complained about how much the early works pale in comparison to the drips. Looking at earlier works like “The She-Wolf” felt like a tedious art historical duty. As Paul Richards wrote about the drip style in the Washington Post, “You had to climb through the mud and flames and thorns of Pollock’s urgent early visions to get here.”

Michael Kimmelman opened his review in the New York Times by declaring, “I should therefore begin by deflating the Pollock balloon: pointing out how bad his early works are; mulling over their tortured symbolism and clotted surfaces; stressing how brief the breakthrough period was … ”

After praising the drips, Kimmelman recast the artist’s early sucess “Almost from the start, Pollock had powerful advocates who saw in his early work not a hodgepodge of Surrealist tics and sub-Picasso figuration but a new and distinctly American sensibility. Mondrian, no less, admired ”Stenographic Figure,’ which looks to us merely derivative. Pollock was recognized as America’s most original painter even before he became America’s most original painter. ”

Pollock, "Mask" (1941) (via MoMA.org)

Kimmelman is right in the sense that the shear originality of the drip paintings certainly overshadow the earlier works that reveal Pollock’s influences. But they have their own verve and derivative is not always a kiss of death. For example, that little “Mask” (1941) may rhapsodize on a dear theme to Picasso. But Pollock makes it his own with that electric twinkle in the mask’s eye and the rich clutter of color that surrounds the object. Pollock’s early works are not the drips everyone knows and glorifies. They are a funky jumble. There is an old saying I’ve heard, “you can’t go to the hardware store looking for oranges.” Likewise, you can’t go to these early works expecting the zen of the drips. They offer something else that the drips can’t.

When meeting this other, earlier, less familiar side of Pollock, we could all learn from the open mindedness of artists (and future Pollock spouse) Lee Krasner. Although, the couple danced together once at a party in the late thirties, their first real encounter took place in 1941. Both artists were showing in an upcoming group show but Pollock was the one name on the list that Krasner didn’t recognize. So she looked him up, knocked on his apartment door, introduced herself, and asked to see what he was painting. She was curious about a nobody. And it’s a far cry from today’s fame oriented art world. As she explained in an interview recounting this first encounter with Pollock, “I saw all those marvelous paintings, I felt as if the floor was sinking when I saw those paintings.” As viewers of art, all of us should aspire to be as open as Krasner to being blown away by the unfamiliar and the not-so-famous.

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture is on view at the Museum of Modern Art until April 25, 2011.

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