“Come over here to the drips,” a visitor at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) advised friends. They dutifully made a beeline for the drips, bypassing the earlier work. This vignette epitomizes the “drip-trap” that prevents wider admiration of Jackson Pollock’s work. We’re lucky that Starr Figura didn’t succumb to this reductive impulse when she curated the show now on view, Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954. And, to make good on her wisdom, we need to cultivate a richer relationship with Pollock beyond the drips.
This is the first major overview of Pollock’s paintings and graphic works in New York since the 1998–99 retrospective at MoMA. Granted, this show is smaller. Still, it offers a rare chance to trace Pollock’s arc. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, which safeguards many of Pollock’s key works, the exhibition breaks with the medium monogamy of recent Pollock NYC shows like the Guggenheim’s 2006 works on paper show or the Metropolitan Museum’s 1997 sketchbook show.
Unfortunately, however, critics have framed the current MoMA show as myopically as that visitor. Peter Schjeldahl and Robin Cembalest raved about the drips, which outshine the rest in their estimation. Their reviews echo how Michael Kimmelman disparaged the early Pollocks when he reviewed MoMA’s 1998–99 retrospective. Readers are missing out on a wider appreciation of Pollock’s spectrum, which could lead to a more rewarding encounter with Figura’s hanging. Pollock’s early work doesn’t deserve Schjeldahl’s dismissal as a “thrill ride of quick studies.” We need to revise how we approach Pollock critically.
Challenge yourself to embrace each Pollock on its own terms. While people tend to value the early work to the extent that it foreshadows the drips, or undervalue later work because he stopped dripping, Pollock decided every one of his works was good enough to be finished, probably over a cigarette.
Try not to see the different phases of the artist’s career as a competition, bestowing gold on the winner, while pitying others as bronze. Instead, try moving through the phases like courses in a feast. Let this review be the wine — helping you to enjoy more flavors from each dish. In that spirit, let’s examine Pollock’s stylistic phases, which Starr Figura has hung chronologically, allowing us to unpack the singularities in each of his chapters.
Pollock encountered Jungian ideas early on, at the age of 16, when he enrolled at the Manual Arts School in Los Angeles. He was taught by the theosophist Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky. These early lessons on integrating mythic content and psychic energy into art would shape his entire career. He reinforced these links when he began Jungian analysis at 26 in 1938 for alcoholism and depression.
Carl Jung defined the persona as “a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression on others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” Early Pollocks play up a similar tension: at first, your eyes focus on the symbols, but, with time, as you observe and analyze, the concealed painterly energies begin to emerge. For example, in “Mask” (1941), the eyes first focus on the mask. But soon enough the kaleidoscopic mess distracts and overrides that initial focal point. In “She Wolf” (1943), the eyes first behold a she-wolf, but frenetic, painterly strokes soon divert attention and absorb the gaze.
Early Pollocks exude an unabashed mystical charge. The recent 2009 Pollock exhibition in Paris at the Pinacothèque pushed this shamanistic connection by hanging his paintings beside American indian totems. Pollock made some statements about finding inspiration in mysticism. But the curators got too literal and Parisian critics wrote mixed reviews — the problem is that Pollock projected Jungian ideas onto cultures that he found condescendingly magical and primitive.
Pollock was also drawn to Old Masters, El Greco being his favorite. The 60-plus El Greco drawings beat out 20 Rubens, three Michelangelos, and one Rembrandt. Pollock absorbed many influences, studying under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League and cutting his teeth in the studio of David Alfaro Siqueiros.
But it was in El Greco that Pollock recognized the sinuous energetic lines, milky swaths of color, jagged shapes, and mythological symbolism as his own. Comparing Pollock’s “The Flame” (1934–38) with El Greco’s “St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist” (1605–1610) at Toledo’s Museo de Santa Cruz, it is striking how closely the red cloak resembles Pollock’s crackling flames.
In the mid-1940s, his abstract forms — instead of hiding within the flames or competing with the mask, she-wolf, and other symbols — would take centerstage. The maze in particular is a recurring motif in this first abstract period. Works like “Gothic” (1944) and “Untitled” (1945) invite the gaze to twist through a labyrinth. Because this abstract turn could be interpreted in hindsight as a harbinger of the drips, this period is often referred to as “transitional” in the Pollock literature. MoMA employs this label too. But it’s too teleological — Pollock wasn’t rushing to get somewhere! He was painting exactly what felt right that year.
Following the mazes, came the drips. Do they need any introduction?
The painterly energy that swirled around the mask, crackled in the flame, and winded through the maze now expands out galactically. Pollock embraced this milky way analogy by naming works like “Galaxy” (1947).
And now let’s tackle one of the biggest questions in modern art: What caused Pollock’s breakthrough? The most obvious answer is that he stopped drinking. His longest stint of sobriety from 1948–1950 corresponds with the drips.
But with a clear and sober mind, what switched on the lightbulb? Irving Sandler recorded many hypotheses that circulated during Pollock’s time in The Triumph of American Painting (1970), including: Did the psychic automatism of the Surrealists drive him to unleash his unconscious and splatter? Did his experiments with spray guns and airbrushes in Siqueiros’s workshop in 1936 plant seeds? Perhaps Pollock deemed his studio’s paint-splattered floor art-worthy, or the Navajo artists he observed, who spilled colored earth to create designs, left an impression. Or did early paint-dripping exercises during art school give him ideas? Was he influenced by “drippy” works by Hans Hoffman and Max Ernst, the cosmic constellations of Joan Miró, the white writing of Mark Tobey, or the fields of lines of Janet Sobel? Or was it all just a simple accident, like knocking over a can of paint?
Who knows? The truth is that Pollock had the sobriety to synthesize insights from several sources, influences, experiences, and serendipities.
Jackson Pollock, “Number 1A, 1948” (1948) (image courtesy of MoMA, © 2016 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York)
While the drip period may be considered a hard act to follow, Pollock’s black period has a powerful, brooding intensity. Where black played a supporting role in earlier works, it became dominant in this next monochromatic phase during the early ’50s. Many of Pollocks supporters questioned his darker direction. The drip paintings were getting popular, especially after a 1949 LIFE headline pondered: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
Pollock resumed drinking in the summer of 1950. After Hans Namuth filmed Pollock dripping paint over glass, the artist became agitated and, after the filming, drank some bourbon to calm down. He never regained sobriety. The bleakness of these black works may well have mirrored his return to depressive drinking.
Today, there is renewed interest in this black period. Tate Liverpool devoted an exhibition to it last year, which is now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art. At MoMA, some black screenprints are on view near the second-floor escalator. In the galleries, “Untitled” (c. 1950) reveals Pollock’s shapes and textures without color’s distractions.
After devoting himself to black, the pendulum swung back towards color and Pollock’s final phase was focused on reimagining the legendary colorist Henri Matisse. “Easter and Totem” (1953) reworks Matisse’s flatness and color. However, Pollock created just 10 paintings between 1953 and 1956, making this phase limited.
Emulation is not a dirty word. In 1957, Picasso reworked “Las Meninas” in 58 paintings. Pollock is likewise entitled to reimagine Matisse in works that glow with frustrated vibrancy. That Picasso outpainted Pollock in the mid 1950s, despite their 31 year age difference, betrays Pollock’s alcoholic relapse. He drove drunk and died in a car crash in 1956.
There is this great German word, “Gesamtüberblick,” which critic Sacha Verna used to sum up MoMA’s current Pollock show in Deutchlandfunk. That word translates as either “comprehensive overview” or “big picture.” So far, art criticism in English has fixated on elevating the drips instead of examining the takeaways from surveying the big picture. Pollock’s different chapters offer us glimpses into the crackles of Jungian energy, the twists of the maze, the cosmos of the drips, the gravitas of black, and the vivacity of Matisse. By having this overview, we can unlock the full potential of Pollock’s career. Energy — and the various ways to unleash it — was a theme in every chapter and painting Pollock created.
Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 1.