On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

JACKSON POLLOCK 1988

Like many people in the age of Freud and Surrealism, whether artists like Miró or Gorky or just ordinary human beings, Jackson Pollock had a strong faith that the deepest truths about himself and the rest of the world lay far below the constraints of rational experience. Plummeting into the lowest and darkest levels of personal passion and memory might permit not only individual liberations to surface but might even unite the explorer with timeless, universal constants as true for ancient Greeks or North American Indians as they were for New Yorkers in the 1940s and 1950s. The challenge of this descent into what, in modern parlance, might be called anything from id and archetype to instinct and self is one of the major leitmotifs of twentieth-century art; and among its triumphs are the searches and the achievements of Pollock's art. This anthology of paintings and drawings, from 1943 to 1956, the year of his premature death, offers potent glimpses of, among other things, the master's turbulent exploration of these awesome domains and the way in which he disciplined this gigantically unruly territory of churning passions and fugitive images into an art of such intense originality that it could be both private enough to provide a personal catharsis and public enough to communicate to us still today, more than three decades later.

Everything here points to regressions of form and feeling that would cut through to the core of all truths, starting with those of the individual and ending in loftier generalizations about biology, psychology, and myth. The magisterial totems of the large painting of 1946 The Child Proceeds plunge us swiftly into this territory. Reversing evolutionary development, as on the analyst's couch, steadfast adult turns into clumsy, groping child and child into pulsating embryo, a metamorphosis that speaks for the individual, twentieth-century explorer, and for the human race as a whole, here distilled into a pair of humanoid idols, whose polarities of profile versus frontal view, of rigid versus visceral shapes become almost hieroglyphs in a language as yet undeciphered by anthropologists. Indeed, many of these early excursions into primal regions look like magical Rosetta stones, whose concealed messages continue to resist one-to-one interpretation. The long frieze painting of about 1945, with its subliminal suggestions of some narrative legend enacted by crude signs for agitated figures, animals, and celestial bodies, conjures up a drama we feel might be one-part tribal myth and one-part the acting out of Pollock's most deeply rooted personal conflicts.

But one of the marvels of modern art is the way in which Pollock's invented language of private and universal ambitions would, by the late 1940s, dissolve into an abstract picto

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