Jackson Pollack
Jackson Pollack; drawing by David Levine

America loves an emblematic life, and the Pollock show at the Museum of Modern Art is arranged to tell a tale of long struggle, high triumph, and swift fall. The category of “the heroic,” no longer applicable to political figures (mendacious bean-counters) and soldiers (dull tools of wicked warmongers) and athletes (at those salaries!), can still be applied to artists, especially Abstract Expressionists. They worked on a heroic scale, and made heroic breakthroughs into sublime simplifications-Rothko’s hovering rectangles of color, Kline’s sweeping bars of black, De Kooning’s infernos of flickering, flashing strokes, and above all Pollock’s epic drips.

Happily, Pollock, though a terrible abuser of his body with alcohol, was mostly on the wagon and in fine trim in the years 1948 to 1950, when the eyes of the publicity machine turned upon him. The photographic images, captured by Martha Holmes for an August 1949 article in Life and by Hans Namuth in 1950 for Harper’s Bazaar, of a handsome, intent, hard-bodied man, in blue jeans and T-shirt, with a bald pate, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and a dimple in the center of his chin, prowlingly, dancingly dripping and splashing paint upon a canvas on the floor of his studio, defined “action painting” and planted an icon, to be jeered or cheered, in the national imagination. His sudden death by automobile, at the age of forty-four, the year after James Dean’s fatal crash, cemented the romantic fable: a beautiful, reckless rebel perished of-what? Of success and the attendant self-disgust.

According to the biographical chronology at the back of curator Kirk Varnedoe’s sumptuous and instructive (but indexless) catalog, Pollock took his first drink in two years the Saturday that Namuth, who made movies of the painter at work as well as stills, had at last ceased his filming. The weather had turned cold, this outdoor exercise in publicity had turned uncomfortable, and Pollock, ever angrily alert to the possibility of phoniness, poured himself a belt, and then another. It was a quick skid downward thereafter.

But this gets us ahead of the story, to the last, sad room in the show. The first galleries show struggle, the struggle of a stubborn artistic vocation with a brooding, tangled temperament and a largely hidden talent. “Pollock, though he lacked any evident talent, fixed early on his vocation,” the wall placard tells us. He was the youngest of five sons of a peripatetic, poverty-prone family who moved around the West, from Wyoming to Arizona and California, under the guidance of a depressive, alcoholic, and, finally, absentee father. Yet this hardscrabble household produced three artists—Charles, the eldest, and Sande, the brother closest to Jackson. They, and the art teacher at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, “a fatherly and theatrical eccentric” with the flamboyant name of Frederic John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky, offered the young Pollock most of the little tutelage he received. Jackson, who was always perhaps more interested in being an artist than in practicing art, took up theosophy, communism, and long hair, and in 1930 he came to New York. For a dozen years he remained thoroughly obscure. Varnedoe sums it up:

A perpetual student, he lived from hand to mouth, mostly in shared or borrowed apartments, and shuttled from one forgiving support system to another. While New York and the nation staggered through the Depression toward the onset of global war, Pollock waged a losing battle against alcoholism and failed to make much headway as an artist.

He said that Albert Pinkham Ryder was the only American master who interested him. He studied under Thomas Hart Benton, and admired both the work and the leftist politics of the Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. When war came, he was classified as 4-F on psychological grounds. His psychiatrist at the time, Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo, personally believed that “the army would be good for Jackson, that it would make a man of him,” but at Pollock’s panicky urging she wrote the draft board that her patient was “a shut in and inarticulate personality of good intelligence, but with a great deal of emotional instability” and that “there is a certain schizoid disposition underlying the instability.” The kindest interpretation of this episode is that it was not battle that Pollock dreaded but military discipline.

What works survived the Thirties make a spotty, unpleasant impression. His untitled self-portrait (1931-1935?) looks like a lost soul from the nether portions of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and his little excursions into American Scene landscape have a Ryderesque nighttime feeling; black is the ground note. Harbor and Lighthouse (circa 1934-1938) shows the wriggling restlessness of line present in his teacher Benton. Pollock later saw Benton’s influence as entirely negative (Benton’s anti-abstract Regionalism + Pollock = anti-realistic abstraction), but critics since have noted many points of affinity, from the hard-drinking, braggart manner both men affected to the way Benton diagrammed a representation’s underlying armature of pattern and rhythm. Benton could have been anticipating the mature Pollock when he wrote that “the creative process is a sort of flowering, unfolding process where actual ends, not intentions but ends arrived at, cannot be foreseen. Method involving matter develops, whether the artist wills it or not, a behavior of its own.” Pollock’s paint begins to develop its own behavior in such clumsy but gloomily expressive works as The Flame (circa 1934-1938) and, from the same murky years, an Untitled which fills the canvas evenly with thick wriggles of white, black, red, and yellow, describing nothing but themselves.


By 1942, Pollock at last made a mark on the art scene. Birth (circa 1941) attracted attention in a show at McMillen Inc., on 55th Street, organized by Pollock’s new mentor, John Graham. Via Graham, Pollock’s sights were lifted from Mexican murals and WPA patronage to Picasso, Miró, the European Surrealists, primitive art, and the society of rich New York collectors. Birth still makes a forceful impression; it is as if Picasso’s Girl Before the Mirror were further fractured and made to writhe in pain. Another, slightly earlier work, an Untitled that portrays a naked man with a globular owlish head, seems less derivative in its tortured effect; the flesh is rendered with a scrabbling brushwork, cream and brown, that shows the painter forgetting himself almost happily in the application of paint.

Picasso became the great rival in Pollock’s mind. Even a relatively airy work like Stenographic Figure (circa 1942), which aroused the interest of the exiled Piet Mondrian when displayed at Peggy Guggenheim’s “Spring Salon” in 1943, owes much to the great Spaniard in his sketchier, ceramic mode. We have here, the catalog points out, “the dissociation of line from the task of binding,” but line had already been thus dissociated by Miró, Masson, Klee, and the Surrealist theory of automatism, and Pollock was not yet ready to pursue this direction. The most ambitious canvases of this period-The Moon Woman (1942), Male and Female (1942), and Guardians of the Secret (1943)-are ferociously ugly, the cluttered amalgams of a man putting brush to canvas in wild hopes that a picture will emerge. The She-Wolf (1943), presciently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for $650, is the most coherent of the lot, though it looks more like a cow than a wolf. In this wartime period Pollock attracted the attention of Clement Greenberg, who would tout him; of Peggy Guggenheim, who would display and patronize him; and of Lee Krasner, who would marry him, promote him, tame him a bit, and move him, in 1945, away from the bars and overstimulation of New York to bucolic East Hampton.

His course was set. The epical moment when he would begin to drip in pure earnest was still two years away, but in 1943 he had already done three drip paintings, acting on a earlier hint from Siqueiros. In the huge Mural (1943-1944) that he hastily executed for Guggenheim and in such lesser canvases as Night Mist (circa 1944- 1945), Gothic (1944), and There Were Seven in Eight (circa 1945), he had gravitated away from his totemic images to an overall abstraction, covering the canvas in rhythmic arabesques and dimly demarcated panels, executed with a hard-driving freedom that includes some smears and spills of paint. A gouache like Painting (circa 1944) represents something (an apple?), and the engravings of 1944-1945 are Picassoesque in their entwining, bulbous flow, but not even Pollock’s delight in Long Island’s open-air scenery, which prompted the colorful and ebullient “Accabonac Creek Series” of 1946, can distract him from his destiny. That same year’s “Sounds in the Grass Series,” painted in part with paint being squeezed from the tube, has his full gestural vocabulary, without the drips.

The curators of the show have done a cute thing by including an exact replica of the rather small “barn,” more accurately a shed, in which Pollock began to work with canvas tacked to the floor. To stand in the space, which lacks for fidelity only paint-bespattered floorboards and icy winds through the walls (the space was unheated), is to remind ourselves of what humble circumstances, physically and financially, cradled the giants of Abstract Expressionism in the late Forties and early Fifties. The curators have done another cute thing by providing, on the tape one can rent as companion, some of the jazz and swing numbers that Pollock used to play to himself, on black wax 78s, while he swooped and dabbled at his canvases.

A total stranger to me had insisted I wear one of these auditory devices,if only to hear the wise-girl voice of Lee Krasner reminiscing, and I somehow garbled its controls so that it rewound and went back to beginning. As I tried to get myself on track again, I wandered from canvas to canvas in the pre-drip galleries, as disoriented as Pollock himself in this period, while curatorial voices smoothly intoned appreciative phrases: “…totemic meaning burst the bonds of traditional brushwork…larger and more dynamic… kind of congested intensity…liquid enamel housepaint… aluminum paint….” Then an even more majestic voice impersonated that of Pollock himself, intoning, “I deny the accident…. The result is the thing.” By the time I got the tape back in sync with what I was seeing, the drips had begun and beauty had dawned.


Beauty: how strange to come upon it, after all that mannered, heavy, clotted wrestle with the wraiths of Ryder and Picasso and Orozco. Galaxy (1947) was as much brushed as dripped, and mostly with aluminum paint, and Full Fathom Five (1947) embodies nails, buttons, matches, and coins, as if indeed dropped to the bottom of the sea. In the kindred Sea Change (1947) pebbles are mixed with the paint; Pollock’s process is still tied to collage, in a kind of earthy transference. But Cathedral (1947), one of the taller of these generally vertical early drip paintings, has taken off into air, its topmost lines, on the layered surfaces of paint, as fine as pen strokes, or those curving lines that trace on a sensitive plate the flight of atomic particles. The first large horizontal, Lucifer (1947), arrays the full web of filaments, with still a reliance on aluminum as a ground note and a dominance of heavy, blobby black threads. Pollock often, even in these magical three years, withdrew his faith in an unalloyed, utterly nonpictorial drip method: Alchemy (1947) incorporates white daubs like the blackboard numbers of his Surrealist period, and the white diagonal of Comet (1947) feels, once we have been introduced to the bliss of pure dripping, like a cheap representational shot.

Several modest works hung in the small gallery that used to be the head of the stairs from the first floor seemed notably lovely in their scrawled and spattered radiance: Number 30, 1949:Birds of Paradise” spins its black to the density of a star’s heart, and the proximate Number 31, 1949 deploys an unusual palette of cool green, green-blue, rust-red, and bright yellow-all bought ready-mixed, we assume, at the local hardware store. I liked, too, the relatively minimalist and distinctly calligraphic Number 12A, 1948: Yellow, Gray, Black (see illustration on page 11) and Number 17, 1949; my Chinese impression related, perhaps, to a recent trip to China, where the startlingly free brushwork of such painters as Xu Wei (Ming dynasty) and calligraphers as Huai Su (Tang dynasty) demonstrated the antiquity of gestural expressionism.

The gallery beyond the old stairhead gathered many of the big canvases of 1950, and the voice in my ear urged me to tread with reverence. We are invited to regard the three largest—One: Number 31, 1950; Number 32, 1950; and Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950-as “monumental,” Pollock’s combination of Sistine Chapel and Lascaux Cave, but only the first seemed to me to earn its size. Autumn Rhythm looked coagulated and Number 32 glutinous; the latter, in black on canvas, creepily approaches the figural with a spidery dance of elongated concentrations reminiscent of the small oil-and-enamel works on paper of 1946, in which Pollock shakily attempted to drip-draw Calderesque human forms. Only One: Number 31, 1950, the centerpiece of MoMA’s Pollock collection, gave me, with its swirl upon swirl of black, white, brown, and gray, a sense of infinite activity spread evenly across a field of timeless stillness-an image, in dots and lines and little curdled clouds of dull color, of the cosmos. As good if not even better, though smaller, is Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950. Finespun, shot through with blurs of salmon and nebulae of gray mist, it was the only painting that sold (for a meager $1,500) out of the Betty Parsons Gallery show which offered to the art buyers of the late 1950s walls crowded with the great canvases, now worth millions, of Pollock at his peak.

It was a high peak, but a perilously narrow one, sharply falling off on every side. The advantages of the drip technique for Pollock were manifold: the absence of brushwork eliminated any expectation of figuration, surreal or otherwise; his clumsiness and muddiness as a painter were wiped away in bursts of muscular action and pure industrial color. But, being so subjective a way of working, with hardly any guidelines to be found in the history of art, drip-painting leaves the viewer with his own subjectivity. In my case, I seem to prefer the scratchy to the goopy, the quiet palette to the garish. And whenever Pollock, fearing self-repetition, varies the drips with some other technique, such as the canvas cut-outs of Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949 or the attached wire lathe mesh of Number 29, 1950, the work feels violated and intolerably watered down. Having invented dripping (or pouring, or splatting-he used various tools including a turkey baster) and secured a critical if not financial triumph with it, Pollock was penned into it. He lacked the serenity and discipline of, say, Rothko patiently varying his soft rectangles or Barnett Newman turning out his vertical “zips.” Pollock-also in the grip of alcoholism and a brain chemistry that might have benefited from the neuroleptic drugs developed since 1950-fell into a depression and a nonproductivity as spectacular, in their way, as his brief but prolific prime.

The show’s last galleries rehearse the groping of the earlier ones. Small blotty inks and prints. Big black furry doodles on unsized canvas like enlargements of inky Picasso scrawls. The hideous (though much-studied) attempt to revive the drip mode, Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952. This intensely awkward canvas, with its unhappy discovery of orange paint, found its way to Canberra, Australia, whence its harsh expanse will come but rarely to trouble American museum-goers. Not only the leaning poles of blue-tinged black that subdivide the canvas but the uncharacteristically rectilinear grid of drips suggest that Pollock is groping for a restraining order, the unifying principle that his flashing instinct provided a few years earlier.

The last room of all, holding virtually all the canvases Pollock finished between 1953 and his death in 1956, contains some good paintings, though, as the wall panel points out, each seems “a separate experiment.” The largest, Portrait and a Dream (1953), enlarges and colors in a head such as schoolgirls draw. The scrubbily brushed Ocean Greyness (1953) is a creditable abstraction, remembering the concentric, cabbagelike orb that forms the head of the untitled naked man. The Deep (1953) offers an interesting exercise in erasure, as white, both brushed and poured, encroaches upon all but a core of black. Easter and the Totem (1953) reconjures, with an elegance suggestive of Tanguy, Motherwell, and Matisse, the primal symbolism of his Surrealist days. White Light (1954) covers the canvas with a desperate outpour of paint, gobs of white sucking up the color, and in Untitled (Scent) (circa 1953-1955) the density has the wormy, dabbled texture of a Soutine or later Monet. The last painting, Search (1955), seems unfinished and, weakly dripping paint on blobs like oil spills, takes us back to the choked, half-formed look of his apprenticeship. The search was over.

Pollock now receives old-master treatment. Not only has MoMA reconstructed his exiguous studio, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art has issued, in a poshly boxed limited edition, exquisitely faithful facsimiles of his unremarkable art-student notebooks. Varnedoe in the catalog extols him as the creator of performance art, the father of earthworks artists and of all who make art of piling up, of splashing down, of knotting and wrinkling, of repeating patterns out of xuberance or protest. Such posthumous glorification aptly rewards the California dreamer who wanted to be an artist before he had a clue to the creative process and its craftsmanship.

He is a heroic American, no doubt, in creating himself from scratch; what this inclusive show makes clear is how close he came to leaving just scratch behind. But perhaps in the limp humanism of this day and age the works themselves are the least of it. Who cares which number drip-painting looks better or worse than another? The artist is the thing; the works are just the shadow he casts to signify that he is in the room. “Along with Walt Whitman and a few others, though, Pollock stands…as someone powerfully understood, at home and abroad and for better and worse in his grandeur and in his misery, to represent the core of what America is,” claims Varnedoe. Is-ness is all. There is an American tendency to see art as a spiritual feat, a moment of amazing grace. Pollock’s emblematic career tells us, with perverse reassurance, how brief and hazardous the visitations of grace can be.

This Issue

December 3, 1998