SOMETIMES THE SMALLEST things create the most arresting aesthetic experiences--an observation resoundingly reconfirmed for me at "No Limits, Just Edges," the Jackson Pollock works-on-paper exhibition recently on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (and before that at the Guggenheim Foundation's outposts in Berlin and Venice). As I walked through the show's expansive last room, my eyes gravitated, almost magnetically, to the lower right-hand corner of an untitled 1951 drawing, where, beneath the slashing arrows and scrawled numerals soaked into the fibers of the absorbent Japanese paper Pollock favored that year, lay one of the artist's most remarkable, if diminutive, passages: the letters P-o-l-l-o-c-k fashioned out of his trademark drips. I have long had a special interest in post-1950 Pollock, and although I was familiar with this particular work, the crystal-clear logic with which the artist applied his signature style to his signature itself remained striking. Indeed, the dripped signature, strangely, seemed less the result of an artist's simply working within his own given mode than an act of self-conscious appropriation. That is, the way Pollock used his painterly mark to play on the technique he made famous looked almost like one artist parodying another's style. Here, at the crucial juncture of his career, when he was moving beyond the dripped abstractions so indelibly associated with his name, Pollock seemed to step outside himself, to begin to address issues of artistic authorship and individual style with an amazing acuity and critical distance. This sly gesture, which is, in fact, typical of Pollock in these years and yet very much at odds with the popularly accepted image of him as an unintellectual, intuitive shaman, reminded me again of how unexplored the artist's late works are, even now, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death.
The reasons why half a century of art history has virtually ignored late Pollock are myriad, but undoubtedly stem in part from the works' eclecticism. Indeed, the paintings and drawings Pollock made between 1951 and his violent and premature death, at age forty-four, in August 1956 not only look very different from what is understood to be "typical" Pollock, but are themselves tremendously varied. Those who remember the Museum of Modern Art's 1998 Pollock retrospective may have shared my impression that the room of late works there looked more like a group exhibition than a section of a monographic show. How could paintings as apparently dissimilar as The Deep (a strange, brooding abstraction painted primarily with viscous white enamel) and Easter and the Totem (a garish figurative riff on Matisse done in solvent-rich oil that looks almost like watercolor), both dated 1953, have been made by the same artist in the same year? Scale shifts, variations in paint handling, and a restless shuttling between abstraction and figuration characterize the works from this period, in which Pollock brought all the elements of his artistic arsenal to bear. This stylistic staccato makes for extreme variations among paintings, and oftentimes creates disjunctions within individual works as well.
Take for example 1953's Portrait and a Dream, a huge painting in which the dripped "portrait"--an oversize head filled with alternating patches of soaked-in orange pigment and choking gun-barrel gray impasto--gazes across the work's surface at an area of shiny, dripped enamel. Here, in a single canvas, as figuration teeters uneasily beside abstraction, and Pollock's looping, lyrical paint application contrasts with tight rendering, we see an artist self-consciously dismantle the stylistic coherence that seemed to define his very artistic identity. Indeed, is it too much to read this painting, which has been interpreted as a self-portrait, as a picture of Pollock's own process of self-examination--as a "portrait" of the artist regarding the "dream" of his dripped production from a safe distance? …