Magazine article The Spectator

Flying Colours

Magazine article The Spectator

Flying Colours

Article excerpt

While visiting the Venice Biennale in 1948, the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi - who spent most of his life refining austerely beautiful arrangements of bottles and jugs - encountered his first Jackson Pollock. He had been a little doubtful about the other new American artists on view, De Kooning and Gorky among them, but he was knocked off his feet by Pollock. `Now this is new,' he announced. `Such vitality, such energy!' Fifty-one years later, Jackson Pollock's art still feels like that: fresh, new, overwhelmingly full of life and energy, as can be experienced at the magnificent Tate Gallery retrospective (supported by the Guardian in association with American Airlines). This is an exhibition not on any account to miss.

Jackson Pollock is not an easy artist to see in England, or indeed outside the United States. The Tate has a few, just enough, presumably, to entitle them to host this show (which is a coup for Millbank). But the great ones, by and large, are in America - in New York, Washington and Iowa. And to see them together like this is a thrilling experience, a display of visual inventiveness and force which few other artists this century could match. It also underlines what a varied and various painter Pollock was.

You might think you know what a Pollock looks like - dribbles and splashes of paint flung across a canvas from sticks and brushes and chicken-basters - the kind of pictures that drew the `Jack the Dripper' taunt that Pollock hated, and is still beloved of knockers today. But, as is evident from this exhibition, Pollock painted in many other idioms, figurative, abstract, abstract/figurative, both before and after the classic drip phase, which lasted from the mid-Forties until 1950.

The black paintings of 1951, produced after the great drip paintings, look, as the critic Bill Packer pointed out as we walked round the exhibition, like a grim, sepulchral version of the kind of thing British neo-Romantics such as Graham Sutherland and Ceri Richards were doing at the time. The reason for this resemblance is that both Pollock and the others were obsessed by Picasso. Pollock's wife once found him fuming in bed, having flung a book about Picasso across the room. `Goddam it,' he complained, `that guy has done everything. There's nothing left.'

But Pollock did succeed in moving on from Picasso. But not before he had absorbed and internalised the Spaniard's work. Pollock's innovation - the invention of the drip painting - was not wild or random, novelty for novelty's sake. It was grounded in modern art, and the western tradition. One can count the influences as one walks round the early rooms of this exhibition. There are paintings that look like fierce, congested Picassos, others very close to Miro and the l9th-century American landscapist Albert Pinkham Ryder, copies after late Renaissance painters including El Greco.

But the high points of the exhibition, the places where the visitor is tempted to sit down and look for a long, long time, are the big drip paintings, `One: Number 31', `Number 32' and `Lavender Mist', completed in 1950 (the only Pollock masterpiece missing is `Autumn Rhythm' which the Metropolitan Museum was unable to lend). These are extraordinary: very big, especially the first two, which are on the scale of a grand Rubens or Tintoretto.

They are tremendously dynamic and absolutely balanced (for all the apparent casualness of Pollock's technique, his work was structured with great care, as an outstanding jazz improvisation can be). …

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