Modern Art and the Object: A Century of Changing Attitudes

By Ellen H. Johnson | Go to book overview
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5 'I am Nature'

Jackson Pollock and Nature

Jackson Pollock's retort 'I am nature!' to Hans Hofmann's critical comment 'You do not work from nature' is so appropriate to both the myth and the actuality of the man and his art that a critic might have invented it for him, had he not said it himself. 1 The defensive brusqueness of that remark, and of the others Pollock made that day when Lee Krasner brought Hofmann to see his work ('I'm not interested in your theories. Put up or shut up!' 2), is characteristic of the attitude which helped create the popular image of Pollock as the two-fisted, rough and ready frontiersman. While that legend was undeniably fostered by his truculence, his hard drinking, his then uncommon Western clothes and his battered old Ford, and while it is accurate as a metaphor - Pollock clearly did penetrate into unknown territory and cut a path for others to follow - it obscures and denies many essential facts about the man. Fortunately, by now, the delicacy and privacy of Pollock's feelings (Lee Krasner says he kept his books in drawers because one's choice of reading is such a personal thing 3) and his love of poetry and music need no further defence and clarification than they have finally received from the published statements of his widow, friends and other associates.

A similar blending of fact and fiction pertains to the presentation of Pollock as an existential hero, a view which again finds support in the declaration 'I am nature!' Although Harold Rosenberg now objects to the existentialist interpretation, he himself was primarily responsible for it, through his enormously influential essay, 'The American Action Painters', published in Art News, December 1952. The following are only a few of the numerous passages that could serve as a textbook explication of the artist as existentialist:

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act.... What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event. The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of that encounter ... there is no point to an act if you already know what it contains. 4 ... The act-painting is of the same metaphysical

-110-

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