Jackson Pollock's Industrial Expressionism

By Jaffee, Barbara | Art Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Jackson Pollock's Industrial Expressionism


Jaffee, Barbara, Art Journal


In 1957 the art historian Meyer Schapiro suggested that the significance of avant-garde art lay in its positing of an alternative to the technological extremes of corporate capitalism, observing that, within the developmental logic of modernity, the realm of the historically fine arts of painting and sculpture was the last refuge from total instrumentality. Schapiro asserted further that American avant-garde painting, i.e., Abstract Expressionism, addressed this charge more vigorously than had any avant-garde art movement before it, by formulating techniques that seemed to wed intention more closely to expression. Among these, according to Schapiro, were spontaneity and an innovative use of line, exemplified by the allover, linear "signature" of Jackson Pollock's poured canvases of the late 1940s.1 But the question of the relationship between technique and intention turns out not to have been trumped by Schapiro's proximity to the artists. A generation of social historians of art, examining closely the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and power, has concluded that the movement owed its success to its usefulness to the ideological interests of the then ruling class. Even David Craven's recent recovery of a reception of Abstract Expressionism more closely in line with what he, following Schapiro, has argued were the artists' intentions, seems to fall short of the demand of Schapiro's essay.2 Techniques-even those as celebrated for their originality as Pollock's or as reviled for their repetitiveness as American industrialism's-have histories. And Schapiro's claim, that "the consciousness of the personal and spontaneous in the painting and sculpture stimulates the artist to invent devices of handling, processing, surfacing, which confer to the utmost degree the aspect of the freely made," does not preclude the possibility that the social facts of industrialism determine the limits of that invention.3

What Schapiro's essay demands is a thoroughgoing interrogation of the relationship between Abstract Expressionist technique and the techniques of industrial production. In the case of Pollock, that technique or, more precisely, its origins, presents something of a problem to the inquiring mind. Pollock's art studies were uneven at best-most famously with Regionalist realist Thomas Hart Benton in the 1930s. Much art-historical hay has been made over the question of Benton's influence. Pollock himself described it as a negative. But Pollock scholar Francis Y O'Connor argued that Benton's example was crucial to Pollock's development. His May 1967 article "The Genesis of Jackson Pollock: 1912-1943" both rehabilitated Benton's credentials as a modernist (of admittedly complex genealogy) and offered a historically contextualized antidote to then-MoMA director William Rubin's epic formalist cycle "Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition" Parts I-IV (which had linked Pollock to Cubism through retinal evidence alone).4 In the March 1979 issue of Arts, Stephen Polcari and Mark Roskill revisited the question by comparing Pollock's later work to Benton's "Mechanics of Form Organization in Painting," a series of optimistically titled essays on the theory of pictorial composition-complete with diagrammatic illustrations-published by Benton in 1926-27.5 These essays outlined the major tenets of a conceptual structure that the artist was by then employing to secure the formal coherence of his own figurative subjects; Benton addressed them to readers more objectively, however, as a "preliminary effort to develop a system of teaching composition and comparative analysis of structure." As visual evidence, the diagrams are striking: it is as though. Benton's at times luridly sentimental subjects have been "stripped bare" to reveal their modernist heart. No less a figure than Rosalind Krauss accepted the comparison of Pollock's work and Benton's theorizing as orthodoxy when she used it as a visual aid to her 1993 argument about the "unconscious anxieties" at the core of modernism (in general) and Pollock's painted performances (in particular). …

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