Materiality Is the Message

Article excerpt

Materiality Is thE Message

Jeanne Siegel

Jackson Pollock. Exh. cat. New York: The Museum of Modern Art"gg8. Distr. Harry N. Abrams. Essays by Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel. 336 pp., 277 color ills., 198 duotone. $75, $35 paper.

Exh. schedule: The Museum of Modern Art, November 1,1998-February 2, 1999; Tate Gallery, London, March ii June 6, 1999.

One of Kirk Varnedoe's primary curatorial aims in the recent Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was to reexamine the significance of the artist's work and to confront doubts about it that have lingered since the artist's death fortythree years ago. The curator sought "to cut through the reputation to the force of the art itself. "

Did he succeed? Skeptics claim that the exhibition did not sufficiently depart from the hagiography that has kept Pollock one of our evergreen American icons of artistic and romantic self-destruction. Instead, Varnedoe's efforts-not to mention the museum's ceaseless marketing of the exhibition, which featured those brooding Namuth portraits of the artist did little to challenge Pollock's mythic celebrity. Almost everything about the exhibition reinforced, via the traditional monographic manner MoMA has perfected, his status as American culture hero.

Still, it is my opinion that the exhibition succeeded in reclaiming the power of Pollock's art in a number of splendid ways. In part its success was due to its sheer size: the exhibition of approximately zzS of Pollock's works included 90 oils on canvas, enamels on fiberboard, watercolors, gouaches, screenprints, engravings, ink on Japanese paper, pencils.

This is not the first time MoMA has pulled out the stops for Pollock. In 1967, William Rubin, then MoMA's curator of painting and sculpture, mounted a retrospective that included approximately fifty-eight oils now also in the current exhibition. Nor is it the first time there have been oppositional views of Pollock's achievement. In the April 1967 issue of Arts Magazine, Donald Judd, then in his salad days, concluded that Pollock was "a greater artist than anyone working at the time or since." However, Mel Bochner, reviewing the exhibition a month later, declared that the paintings in the MoMA exhibition revealed Pollock's clumsiness and superficiality, though he went on to attest to their innovationstheir wholeness, materialism, and rejection of illusionism. 1 Yet even in the late 196os, most people still hardly knew what to make of this work. Undoubtedly, as the popularity of the 1998 exhibition demonstrates, more members of the public have come to share Judd's more positive conclusion about Pollock. Thirty years later, after recurrent critical attacks on the viability of painting itself, the lay audience has less trouble with abstraction. What once shocked no longer does. What looked violent now looks lyrical. At the same time, the best of Pollock's work still transmits its singular energy and embodies a fierceness that absolves it from becoming merely decorative.

A good number of the paintings and drawings had been seen in Rubin's 1967 exhibition thirty-two years-or more than a generation-ago, which had a total of 166 works. In the recent exhibition the curators included a full display of the Untitled (Cut-Out) figure paintings (1948-50), as well as The Wooden Horse, Number 10A, 1948, all excluded from the earlier exhibition. These works exemplify Pollock's continuing search for a way to combine abstraction with figural presence just at the moment when his drip paintings were to peak. Admittedly, we all have our favorite Pollocks-mine include Meremsha Harbor (1936) and Vortex (1947), which were in the earlier exhibition but not in the present one. There are valid reasons for missing works.2 I was told that in planning the 1998-99 exhibition the curators saw many paintings that they thought were dense, perhaps resulting in a choice of more "open" drip paintings.3 Since Pollock produced approximately 1,200 works, there still remains a great deal to be seen. …