Picturing Pollock: Photography's Challenge to the Historiography of Abstract Expressionism

By Kalb, Peter R. | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Picturing Pollock: Photography's Challenge to the Historiography of Abstract Expressionism


Kalb, Peter R., Journal of Art Historiography


Painting in Crisis

As Jackson Pollock prepared for his 1950 winter exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, the show that would introduce what have become the iconic drip paintings: Lavender Mist: Number 1,1950 (1950), Autumn Rhythm: Number 31, 1950 (1950), One: Number 31,1950 (1950), he was acutely aware that even with paintings in six exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and a traveling solo exhibition in Europe produced by Peggy Guggenhiem, his critical reputation and financial situation were far from secure.1 Less than two weeks before the Parsons show opened, Time Magazine announced with evident pleasure that his work in Venice 'Stump[ed] experts as well as laymen.'2 The magazine further asserted, incorrectly, that the artist had spent the summer in Italy being brushed off by the European art world. Though incorrectly dramatized, Pollock had stayed home 'working like a demon all summer', Parsons reported, the European ambivalence to which the Time article alluded was real.3 Guggenheim complained throughout 1949 and 1950 of the great difficulty of getting his work shown or sold, decrying the indifference toward Pollock especially in Paris and deep discounts being demanded of her. It was this frustration that led her to put on the exhibition herself, though Pollock's periodic silences during and after the show almost turn her against him as well. In early October 1950, Parsons wrote to Guggenheim explaining that the winter show was requiring much energy and implored her 'Don't be too hard on the Pollocks.'4 In New York, the lead up to the winter show was also fraught. Clement Greenberg was vocal in his support, proclaiming that Pollock outshined all contemporary painters and stood his ground against any Quattrocento masters as well, and the winter show of the previous year had met with positive reviews. Many critics, however, were still publicly flummoxed by the drip paintings and far from certain about the consequences of Pollock's efforts to the history of contemporary art.5 While Life Magazine was trafficking in the kind of sensationalism that sells magazines when it excitedly stoked controversy by asking if Pollock was the nation's greatest artist, comments such as art historian Sam Hunter's that Pollock 'reflects an advanced stage of the disintegration of the modern painting', testify to a deep-seated ambivalence regarding the past and future of art.6 It was in this unsettled terrain that Hans Namuth and Rudy Burckhardt offered photography as means of apprehending the new art and approaching the complexity with which it was embroiled in contemporary life.

The U.S. pavilion of the 25th Venice Biennale provides a window into the conflicted state of affairs of U.S. contemporary art in the summer of 1950. The pavilion featured a John Marin retrospective that lay claim to an American tradition of Modern painting extending across the century, but it was the secondary exhibition, a group show of younger U.S. painters curated by U.S Commissioner for the Biennale and editor and publisher of ARTNews Alfred M. Frankfurter and Museum of Modern Art curator Alfred H. Barr Jr. that reveals the art world fault lines.7 Frankfurter chose Hyman Bloom, Lee Gatch and Rico Lebrun, for what he felt was their characteristically US commitment to both abstraction and representation. Barr staked a contrary claim for abstraction alone, selecting Archile Gorky, Willem DeKooning and the 'rhythmic variegated labyrinth[s]' of Jackson Pollock.8 The pavilion, caught between contradicting agendas regarding American art and abstraction, left a correspondingly ambivalent impression on biennial viewers. Several critics found the American painting to be a betrayal of either common sense or national character.9 British art historian Douglas Cooper rehearsed the expected outburst of confusion declaring Pollock's efforts 'an elaborate if meaningless tangle of cordage and smears.'10 In a more considered vein, critic David Sylvester, also British, found the new painting to be evidence of a sea change in US art. …

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