The Subversion of Gravity in Jackson Pollock's Abstractions

By Cernuschi, Claude; Herczynski, Andrzej | The Art Bulletin, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Subversion of Gravity in Jackson Pollock's Abstractions


Cernuschi, Claude, Herczynski, Andrzej, The Art Bulletin


While implementing the Surrealist directive of eliciting the unconscious, and intent on generating an extensive vocabulary of unbroken, free-flowing lines, Jackson Pollock felt his ambitions frustrated by two constraints endemic to conventional easel painting: the interruption of the creative act caused by the inconvenient need to reload the brush and the drag on his hand as he spread pigment along the canvas surface. Initially, Pollock tried to circumvent these impedimenLs by squeezing paint directly from the tube. This adjustment allowed him to dispense larger amounts of pigment than could otherwise be held on-and eliminated the necessity to reload-the brush. But forcing paint out of the tube while simultaneously ensuring that it is applied with élan is a tricky proposition; so is avoiding the increased friction caused by the tube's rubbing against the canvas. To extend the duration of his gestures and enhance the fluidity of his strokes. Pollock needed a practical way of carrying more pigment and dispensing it without touching the image. When Paul Brach asked him why he started pouring, Pollock replied, "Someone tried to talk me into using a dagger striper but the sucker didn't hold the paint long enough. I just wanted a longer line. ... I wanted to keep it going."1 As is well known, he achieved both objectives by laying the canvas on the floor (Fig. 1). Retaining more paint on sticks and trowels, he worked with fewer interruptions, and pouring pigment in the air-effectively enlisting gravity as a participant in the process-he eliminated the deleterious effects of friction altogether. Not surprisingly, critics have counted the implementation of the poured technique and the reorientation of artistic activity from the wall to the floor as Pollock's most original and influential contributions to the history of art.

The Question of Orientation

Informed by the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Georges Bataille, Rosalind Krauss struck a different chord. In her view, Pollock's dejDloyment of "horizontality as a medium" represented a radical regression from the intellectual, disembodied, optical way of perceiving the world that stems from humanity's erect (vertical) posture. By stressing the horizontal as opposed to the vertical, Pollock, she argued, foregrounded the corporeal, even abject, characteristics of urination and defecation, an implication of the poured technique maintained in, say, Andy Warhol's later Oxidation Paintings and Linda Benglis's sculptures.2

By itself, though, "horizontality" does not capture the crux of Pollock's contribution. The artist conceded as much himself. When asked about painting on the floor, he replied, "That's not unusual. The Orientals did that."'1 This remark is perfectly apposite; laying the canvas horizontally, after all, hardly precludes dispensing pigment in a traditional manner.4 No doubt, the horizontal orientation of the canvas proved ideal for Pollock's deployment of the poured technique-allowing for maximum control and making the paint accelerate directly toward the canvas in the shortest possible time.5 Nonetheless, it will be proposed here that the effects of rhythmic energy for which the artist is best known are, perforce, contingent on the vertical reorientation of the canvas on the wall for contemplation.

On its face, this claim should hardly be controversial. As Leo Steinberg already stressed, Pollock intended all of his abstractions to be exhibited vertically.6 As early as 1962, he reasoned that Pollock

indeed poured and dripped his pigment upon canvas laid on the ground, but this was an expethent. After the first color skeins had gone down, he would tack the canvas on to a wall-to get acquainted with it, he used to say, to see where it wanted to go. He lived with the painting in its upright state, as with a world confronting its human posture.7

More recently, T.J. Clark observed that although the "picture was put on the floor to be worked on .

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