"Jackson Pollock: Early Sketchbooks and Drawings." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)

By Bois, Yve-Alain | Artforum International, February 1998 | Go to article overview

"Jackson Pollock: Early Sketchbooks and Drawings." (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)


Bois, Yve-Alain, Artforum International


On April 30, 1961, The New York Times Magazine published five letters to the editor regarding an article by Clement Greenberg that had appeared in its pages two weeks earlier, entitled (against the author's will) "The Jackson Pollock Market Soars." Among the illustrations for his piece, Greenberg had used an early Pollock drawing after one of Michelangelo's Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, which two of the writers thought was a cheap trick. Indeed, even though this particular drawing was not discussed, the text - an attack against the stereotype of Pollock as an artiste maudit - made its function perfectly clear. The image was there to show that Pollock had paid his dues: he had studied the classics (Greenberg even lengthened Pollock's apprenticeship, stating that "he did not finish it until he was 30," which would be in 1942); and he knew how to draw. This last argument is usually a quite effective defense (it is often made on behalf of Mondrian and generally accounts for the success of the recent early Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). One of the protesting letter-writers (Libby Tannenbaum) asked that the Michelangelo image be published next to Pollock's drawing (a request to which Greenberg complied in his response), then added: "The Pollock sketch surely displays a powerful and dramatic knotting of line and form which is relevant to his subsequent style. That it is evidence of expertness in drawing the human figure must, just as surely, be questioned." The tone of the second writer (B.H. Friedman, who would later author a biography of Pollock) was angrier: "This sketch is clumsy by Renaissance standards. The fight leg might be a log; the muscle of the lower leg a bump on it; the pectoral muscles appear more like breasts. Pollock does not 'draw well' until he finds his own means of expression, as, for example, in 'Autumn Rhythm' (1950) and 'Number Fourteen' (1951), which you reproduce."

To this, Greenberg responded: "I agree the drawing contains distortions. But it is quite obvious that these are not of a kind due to ineptitude. Notice that there are no errors of proportion or positioning. The distortions are matters of emphasis. I do not see anything grossly inaccurate in the rendering of the torso, and the calf 'jumps' only when you focus on it to the exclusion of everything else; otherwise, it seems a necessary accent." Greenberg's answer is disingenuous, and he knew it (which is why he made no attempt to explain in what sense the excrescent calf was a necessity). But the exchange takes us to the heart of the matter: What does it mean to say, as his beloved teacher Thomas Hart Benton and many after him had done, that Pollock could not draw? And does it make any sense to say that Pollock "drew well" in mature works like Autumn Rhythm? It certainly does, but only once it has been recognized that most traditional rules governing the practice of drawing have been overturned - with Pollock's major achievement on that score, as proposed by Michael Fried long ago, being that his drip method liberated the line from its function of defining contour. But then should this later accomplishment not lead us to be more circumspect regarding Pollock's "incapacity to draw" in his youth?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York obviously agrees that we should: not only did the institution acquire three early Pollock sketchbooks, it has recently published them in a splendid facsimile edition, the best of its kind I have ever seen. Furthermore, the publication of this luxurious volume, which comprises essays by Nan Rosenthal, Katharine Baetjer, and Lisa Mintz Messinger (the box is in itself a work of high craft), is marked by an elegant exhibition that gives everyone the opportunity to discover this little-known corpus. Along with the sketches themselves, which are shown unmounted and individually framed, are displayed some twenty-seven drawings dating from ca. …

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