Jackson Pollock & the New York School, II

By Kramer, Hilton | New Criterion, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Jackson Pollock & the New York School, II


Kramer, Hilton, New Criterion


Somewhere deep in every American heart lies a rebellion against the old parenthood of Europe.

--D. H. Lawrence, 1923.

Until well into the 1940s, Jackson Pollock's painting remained locked in a struggle to master and overcome the influences of the European modernist painters he took as his models--primarily Picasso, Kandinsky, and Mire. That he was not himself an artist in their class was more or less taken for granted even by his most ardent admirers at the time. It is doubtful that Pollock himself believed he was an artist in their class. Yet what he brought to his encounter with these European masters was a fierce determination to produce an art that would somehow carry him beyond the styles and conventions he was wrestling with. Among much else, this meant that traditional easel painting had to be abandoned in favor of something the European masters of modernism had not yet attempted to place at the center of their art--a mode of mural-scale wall painting of a radically subjective character.

Pollock seems to have understood that as an easel painter he would never be able to trump his European masters. Not only did they bring to the tradition of the easel picture a richer and more complex command of experience than any that was within his own reach, but they had effectively transformed the content of the easel picture to conform to the imperatives of that experience. Mural-scale wall painting of a certain persuasion--painting that would be tethered not to the service of some social cause but to the only subject that governed the artist's will: his own troubled psyche--offered a way to circumvent the tradition to which Pollock could not finally make a significant contribution.

It was in the interest of circumventing that tradition that the influence of the Mexican muralists, the public art of Thomas Hart Benton, and Pollock's own response to Picasso's Guernica all played a crucial role in determining his leap into mural-scale wall painting in the late 1940s. It was in the scale and ambition of such painting, not in its ethos or imagery, that Pollock saw the possibility of a radical artistic opportunity. For the social content of 1930s mural painting Pollock felt no affinity whatever. Indifferent to politics and fundamentally antisocial in his personal behavior, Pollock had only one subject that commanded his loyalty: his own appetites, ambitions, and compulsions, which years of Jungian psychoanalysis had elevated in his own mind to the status of a cosmological imperative. (Hence his megalomaniac assertion that "I am nature!") It wasn't until he was able to bring those appetites and ambitions into alignment with a pictorial technique allowing them unfettered expression--unfettered, that is, by the traditional tools and constraints of easel painting--that Pollock was able to achieve an art uniquely his own.

It is for this reason that the "drip" abstractions of the late 1940s and early 1950s are inevitably the central focus in any comprehensive account of Pollock's oeuvre. It is one of the distinctions of the "Jackson Pollock" retrospective which Kirk Varnedoe has organized at the Museum of Modern Art that it assembles a larger number of these abstract paintings than has ever before been seen in a single exhibition.(1) This, in my view, is also one of the principal liabilities of the exhibition, for what has come to be regarded as "classic" Pollock is not, after all, an art of infinite variety. It is maddeningly repetitious in its formal rhythms. It is paltry in its command of color, for classic Pollock is largely based on light-dark contrasts rather than chromatic structure. Classic Pollock also lacks breadth, as even Clement Greenberg acknowledged, in its range of feeling and invention.

Given these limitations, such paintings are best seen in isolation from each other. They actually gain something from being viewed in the company of abstract paintings unlike themselves in method and imagery --which is generally how we do see these Pollocks in museum collections--for the contrasts to be observed in such contexts have the effect of underscoring the element of furious, headlong energy in Pollock. …

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