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Issue 38, May 1999

Not for the faint-arted

Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, up until 6 June 1999.
Reviewed by Manny Thain

WHO HASN'T heard of Jackson Pollock? He's the American artist (in)famous for pouring, dripping, and throwing paint, sand, glass and small, assorted household objects onto canvas on the floor. As he walked onto, into and out of the design, rhythmic arcs of paint would rain down leaving trails, traces and splashes, and cigarette ends and ash would be trampled into his intricately woven webs.

The Tate's exhibition - the first major showing of Pollock's work in Britain for more than 40 years - reveals a dynamic, uneasy and troubled process.

The so-called 'drip paintings' are Pollock at the peak of his powers, the most impressive works painted in a condensed period between 1947-52. This retrospective look at Pollock's work illustrates his rise and fall. His early work shows Pablo Picasso's influence above all - clearly evident in Naked Man with Knife (painted around 1938) - and post-cubists, such as Joan Miró. And the appearance of obscure symbols and numbers in Guardians of the Secret (1943) and Male and Female (1942) betray mystical influences. The first part of the exhibition shows Pollock struggling to find his own style. It takes time and experimentation. The 20 foot Mural, painted in 1943 for gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim (he pulled down a wall in his flat to enable him to stretch the canvas) is a defining step along the way.

Ten years of painting part-time, doing a series of odd jobs which he could never hold down for long due to chronic, long-term alcohol abuse, culminated in a contract with Guggenheim's gallery, Art of This Century. Pollock could now paint full-time. Mural marks a giant step in Pollock's development, but it was still painted upright. The next leap forward comes when Pollock starts painting on the floor.

Pollock explained: 'On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting… I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools'.

  In May 1944, the Museum of Modern Art buys one of Pollock's paintings, The She-Wolf, for $650. It is the first Pollock to be bought by a museum. Later that year he marries Lee Krasner, an artist he met a couple of year's previously at an exhibition they both had work in. They move to Long Island, near New York City. Pollock was entering his most creative period.

Some of the canvases are huge, anything from ten feet to 20 feet across. And the effect is awesome. It's almost as if you're been sucked in. You feel compelled to inspect this or that point of light, a particular colour or effect. You want to run your hands over the surface to experience the wide textural variety. Spirals of repetitive colour and form sweep across the canvas. It's a physical presence that you can't ignore. It's in your face. There is no fixed perspective, but the use of various materials, the sheer volume and radical extremes of paint density gives these pictures real depth and scale.

In 1950 Pollock commented: 'Most of the paint I use is a liquid, flowing kind of paint. The brushes I use are used more as sticks rather than brushes - the brush doesn't touch the surface of the canvas, it's just above… I do have a general notion of what I'm about and what the results will be… The result is the thing and it doesn't make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said'.

Running alongside the exhibition is a film by Hans Namuth of Pollock painting in 1950. This film exposes the falsity of the notion of random chaos. Pollock said he was trying to paint out of his subconscious and what you see is an intense energy as he worked his way across the canvas, in rhythmic movements, interweaving pattern and colour. The speed at which he worked when in full flow, the repetition of colour and form shows the building up of intricate patterns and emotive forms. This is what became known as 'action painting'. But, although there was plenty of frenetic activity, it was far from a random process. The composition of the paintings reveal a more complicated reality.

  The cubists had broken with the idea of having a single, fixed perspective point. Pollock takes that further. He was linked to Abstract Expressionism which claimed a lineage from Monet to Cézanne to Picasso to Pollock & Co.

However, not everyone in the art establishment was impressed. One reviewer in 1949 found that the paintings reminded her of 'a mop of tangled hair I have an irrestible urge to comb out', but enough of knee-jerk reactions and the fear of something new.

By 1955, as Krasner is beginning to be recognised as an artist in her own right with her first solo exhibition, Pollock is finding it harder and harder to paint. In July, Krasner goes to Europe for a break. The relationship with Pollock has steadily deteriorated as his drinking, depression and violent moods intensify. Ruth Kligman, a young artist, moves in with Pollock during Krasner's absence. Drunk on 11 August at 10.15pm Pollock smashes his Oldsmobile into a tree. Kligman survives but her friend, Edith Metzger, and Pollock are killed.

A whole mythology surrounds Jackson Pollock. He was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming - named after Wild Bill Cody (Buffalo Bill) - and this contributes to the idea of the artist as the all-American pioneer - an image Pollock seemed content to cultivate. This theme was expanded upon during the Cold War. It was used to promote the idea that America was, indeed, the land of the free where individual expression was encouraged in contrast to the monolithic Soviet bloc. Posthumous exhibitions were covertly funded by the CIA to further this aim.

There is a contradiction here, though. American abstract artists were used as a propaganda tool by US imperialism. Their art, however, was not so easily restricted. Abstract art provokes debate, arouses emotions and promotes a questioning of the world we see and experience - an unpredictable ally for the capitalist ruling class.

  A feminist critique has also been developed, attacking the macho posturing of the artist in his studio: Pollock's technique of standing over a passive, prostrate canvas, dripping and flicking liquid paint represents a phallocentric male fantasy. The connection is made to the verbal and physical abuse endured by Krasner.

Whatever motivated Pollock, and however outrageous his behaviour, he is someone who has made a mark on art history. Once he stopped trying to compete with European artists on their own terms and discovered his own way of expression he broke into unchartered territory. As early as February 1944 Pollock said, 'I don't see why the problems of modern painting can't be solved as well here as elsewhere'. And he certainly made a major contribution to shifting the centre of modern art from Europe to America.

The only downer on visiting the Tate is the entrance fee: £7 unless you can claim a concessionary ticket which costs £5. Art should be fully subsidised by the state. Art should be freely accessible to everyone who wants to experience it. Having said that, this may be a unique opportunity to see the work, and trace the development, of one of the most important artists of this century. These paintings are extremely fragile. It has taken 40 years to get them to Britain and there's no guarantee they will all survive another 40 years. It's therefore an opportunity that should not be missed.

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