It might be wise to admit that there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations. All the more reason to celebrate the masterworks in this difficult genre.
Jackson Pollock was the first superstar of American art, which had always been overshadowed by Europe. After World War II, he became a symbol of the transfer of the world capital of art from Paris to New York, following two centuries of French dominance. Born on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, Pollock seemed to embody the brash independence of the American frontier.
While his family did have pioneer roots -- his mother was born in an Iowa log cabin -- the young Pollock was no paragon of virility. Timid and clumsy, he avoided sports and played with girls. It was only after he moved to Manhattan and fell under the spell of his teacher, the macho muralist Thomas Hart Benton, that Pollock became the iconic cowboy painter.
Originally, Pollock wanted to be a sculptor and dreamed of rivaling Michelangelo. As a student at New York’s Art Students League, Pollock began painting naturalistically but was frustrated and embarrassed by his difficulties with drawing. His large hands shook, and his right index finger was mutilated from a childhood accident with an ax. He experimented with Benton’s social realism, then adopted the theatrical primitivism of Mexican muralist Jose Orozco. But the real revolution for him was Picasso. Pollock had no interest in cubism until he saw Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “Guernica” at a 1939-1940 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. He was galvanized by Picasso’s big, bold forms, shallow cubist space and ambivalent vision of mythic woman, which complemented Pollock’s engagement in therapy with Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology.
Out of his competitive zeal for Picasso came the first works to win Pollock attention -- ominous paintings of shadowy, totemic figures executed in a cryptic, semiabstract style. Pollock’s reputation for violence began early: He had always been a nasty binge drinker (acquaintances said he had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality), but now his pictures veered toward the grotesque. An untitled 1938-40 painting, later called “Naked Man with Knife,” shows a muscle-bound assailant grappling with a contorted victim in what could be a ritual sacrifice; the composition is choked and churning, a writhing mass of blood-brown knots of flesh.
This stunning emotional turbulence was the “expressionism” in Pollock’s new style -- a welling up of anguish from the artist’s tortured inner life. The modern artist works “from within,” Pollock insisted, “expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”
Even as his style became increasingly abstract, Pollock still began every painting with a figure, which he then concealed. “I choose to veil the imagery,” he stated. Traces of those figures receded and eventually disappeared.
The transition can be seen in “Mural,” a gigantic painting (nearly 20 feet long by eight feet high) that he did in 1943 for the New York town house of heiress and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim. A procession of black stick figures can be detected marching amid undulating slashes, which unfriendly critics labeled “glorified wallpaper” and “baked macaroni.”
During the summer of 1947, he invented his signature “drip” style, which would transform contemporary art. Unrolling sheets of coarse sailcloth on the floor of his small barn-studio, he used sticks or hardened brushes to toss and spatter paint at the canvas. He used cheap commercial materials -- house paint, industrial enamels, silver radiator paint -- and no longer touched the canvas at all, except to step on it.
By dramatically expanding the size of his canvases and working on the floor, Pollock freed painting from the easel. Walking around the canvas and improvising from all four sides, Pollock said he could “literally be in the painting,” an experience he compared to “the method of the Indian sand-painter of the West.” He never made final decisions about the direction or positioning of his paintings until he had studied them for weeks.
A sensational 1949 profile in Life magazine made Pollock famous overnight. The mocking headline asked, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Clad in dungarees and dangling a cigarette from his lips, he was photographed with arms pugnaciously folded as he leaned against a squiggly painting that looked preposterously chaotic to most readers. The article helped create the stereotype of the abstract painter as grubby weirdo that would become a scare staple of 1950s American movies and TV.
During the three-year period of his classic drip paintings, Pollock stayed sober. However, in 1950, after being filmed working outside on plate glass, he started drinking again, and the day ended in fiasco and farce: He overturned the dining-room table, spilling 12 roast-beef dinners to the floor.
Restlessly changing his style, Pollock began using turkey-basting syringes to pour black paint on raw white canvas -- the “soak-stain” technique perfected by Helen Frankenthaler. But his once prodigious output pitifully diminished, while his drunken scenes multiplied, often at the rowdy Cedar Tavern, where he manhandled women and tore the toilet door off the wall. Ankle breaks made his weight balloon, and he looked ravaged and paralyzed. Few members of the art world were surprised by his tragic death at age 44.
Pollock the man may have sunk into squalor and disgrace, but he left behind an immense body of stunningly original work, ranging from nightmarish apparitions of suffering and dread to dazzling tableaux of sublime beauty. No one has been able to duplicate the intricate skeins of soaring paint in Pollock’s greatest drip paintings. His whirling lines hover in a strange, unidentifiable zone between his very shallow background and the rough surface, thickly layered with pigment and sometimes embedded with actual objects -- keys, tacks, cigarette butts, bottle caps. Because of this incremental encrustation (each swatch of paint had to dry before the next was applied), Pollock’s textured pictures have the shadowed concreteness of sculpture -- the genre toward which he had first aspired.
A small untitled picture now called “Green Silver,” executed on paper over canvas with enamel and aluminum paint, captures the exhilarating verve of Pollock’s most refined drip style. Its luminous loops, curls and splashes have a charming playfulness. Against an aquamarine background swoop calligraphic spurts of muted color and spidery sky. The picture is a weather system and mental universe, a neurological map crisscrossed by image and impulse. There is no solitude or alienation here. “Green Silver” is an ecstatic jabber of chance spills, bursts and skidding phrases.
Films of Pollock at work in his barn show neither violence nor frenzy in his creative process. He methodically flicked and flung his arcing paint with composure. His dipping and bobbing movements were dancelike, activating his arm, shoulder and torso rather than the painter’s usual wrist and fingers, always his weakest point as a student.
“My concern is with the rhythms of nature,” he declared. These hypnotic pulses, which he said he explicitly invoked like a tribal shaman, brought him a contemplative serenity that can also be felt by the viewer of his best pictures. A visitor to a 1950 Pollock show said that it was like “walking into a meteor shower.” In front of a large Pollock drip painting, we don’t know where to look; there is no story or focal point. The pictures seem alive, like magical, vibrating entities. His paintings are a heaving primal landscape into which humans have not been born, and yet they project the infinite vistas of warp-speed time travel, the new frontier of the space age.
(Camille Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the author of “Sexual Personae,” “Sex, Art and American Culture” and “Vamps & Tramps,” among other books. This is the last in a series of four excerpts from her new book, “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on Oct. 16. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
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