Optical Allusions

Article excerpt

One strong impression left by the Jackson Pollock exhibition at MOMA is just how specific his gift was. Put brutally, he couldn't draw, had no deep feeling for color, and (as Clement Greenberg noted a long time ago) never developed a painter's touch in the usual sense of the term. What was going for him, then? Above all a drive to realize pictorial intensity at any price. Psychologically, this seems to have involved a need to suffuse every square millimeter of the surfaces on which he worked with a maximum amount of almost bodily energy: What he wanted was a painting that would everywhere bear witness to the all-or-nothing urgency of his desire, that even at the risk of appearing choked and clotted and incoherent (or simply ugly, an epithet Greenberg applied to his art in 1946) would refuse to sacrifice one part of the picture to another, that in the end would leave the viewer with no choice other than to accept or reject it in its entirety - a painting in which, to recycle a phrase I first used apropos of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons, both of whom look back to Pollock in this regard, every bit of the surface "competes for presentness" with every other (in Pollock's case the competition is to tile death). The precedents for this go back to Courbet, Manet, and Impressionism, which is to say that Pollock's vision was grounded in one of the guiding ideals of pictorial modernism. But he gave that ideal an aggressive, uncompromising, powerfully physical interpretation that was something new under the sun.

The work that resulted turned out to be exceptionally difficult to describe, and - a truly astonishing fact - has remained so to this day. It has become fashionable to deprecate Greenberg's writings on Pollock for their supposed failure to deal adequately with the works themselves, and it is true that until the early '50s Greenberg's brief accounts of what Pollock was up to, while hailing him as a master, largely avoid all but the most cursory formal analysis (e.g., "beneath the apparent monotony of [Number One's] surface composition it reveals a sumptuous variety of design and incident, and as a whole it is as wall contained in its canvas as anything by a Quattrocento master" [The Nation, Feb. 19, 1949]). Moreover, Greenberg's best-known contribution to Pollock commentary, the characterization of the drip paintings in terms of alloverness, isn't wholly fortunate. The key text is the 1948 essay "The Crisis of the Easel Picture," in which Pollock is mentioned only once but is everywhere present, that announces the advent of "the 'decentralized,"polyphonic,' all-over picture which, with a surface knit together of a multiplicity of identical or similar elements, repeats itself without strong variation from one end of the canvas to the other and dispenses, apparently, with beginning, middle, and ending." As a way of talking about the 1947-50 canvases this has its uses, but it presents as a compositional principle what was in fact an existential demand, and it also stresses lateral organization over the layered impactedness, mobile intensiveness, and experiential density of the painted surface, which in Pollock's case were the ultimate point of his "allover" attack. Later in the same text, Greenberg characterizes the uniformity that alloverness tends to produce in terms of a "dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation [emphasis added]," which almost as an afterthought introduces an experiential note.

Subsequent writings by Greenberg analogize the 1947-50 drip paintings to high Analytical Cubist works by Picasso and Braque, in my view a brilliant but misleading comparison. But I'm impressed rather than put off by Greenberg's willingness throughout the '40s to single Pollock out as the leading painter of his generation while implicitly acknowledging the extent to which the paintings baffled formal description. And then there is the brief but suggestive passage in tile 1952 art chronicle originally entitled "Feeling Is All" on Pollock's 1951 paintings in thinned black duco enamel that marked an unexpected break with the drip pictures of the previous years. …