In the late ’40s, early ’50s, avant-garde American art took the torch away from Europe – thanks to painter Jackson Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists with their splattered and paint-soaked canvases. A major new show opening Friday at the Dallas Museum of Art looks at Pollock when the artist was supposedly past his prime. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s only the third major retrospective on Pollock in America, ever, and it aims to up-end some previous assumptions about our most influential artist.
In 1951, Jackson Pollock – the ground-breaking ‘action’ painter, the king of the Abstract Expressionists – was a sad case. His marriage was rocky, he’d fallen back hard into drinking. For four years, Pollock had electrified the art world with his now-famous drip paintings, paintings that fascinate or confuse people with their multi-colored webs of lines and splashes.
“New needs need new techniques,” Pollock said in a 1950 radio interview, explaining why he didn’t use traditional methods. “And the modern artist has found new ways and new means of making his statement. The modern painter cannot express this age in the old forms of the Renaissance. Each age finds its own technique.”
Pollock’s fame could be seen that year in a bit of nose-thumbing at New York critics by ‘Life’ magazine, when he was featured under the somewhat incredulous headline, “Is this the greatest living painter in America?” But his paintings still didn’t sell. Then in November 1951, he opened a new show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan. At the heart of the DMA’s landmark new exhibition is a reproduction of that show. DMA curator Gavin Delahunty even used photos from the period to help him determine how far apart the paintings were hung, how high up on the wall — all to conjure up a New York art gallery from the ’50s.
Delahunty sits in one of the period-popular, black-leather, Corbusier chairs in the middle of the gallery. “We’re sitting in a room,” he says, “that down to the paint color and the trim and the carpet is a recreation of a more domestic visual experience that pre-dates the white-cube experience we have now in galleries.” This was back when New York galleries were converted apartments or old-school storefronts, not the vast Chelsea warehouses of today. “It’s time travel. It’s allowing people to travel back to 1951 New York and experience the largest collection of the ‘black paintings’ ever assembled – in a way that was originally meant to be.”
Pollock’s new works had none of the dense dance of colors in his previous paintings. The new ones were just black enamel on raw canvas. But they had hints of faces and figures – precisely the kind of traditional imagery he’d rejected. Pollock knew they were a drastic change.
“He was terrified,” says Delahunty. “So he said to Betty, ‘OK, let’s make a portfolio of six prints of the black paintings. And let’s sell the portfolio for $500 because all I want is $500.’ He was that desperate.”
It didn’t help. The show was a disaster. Later, Parson reportedly sold a single painting — for half-price. Collectors and critics had only recently gotten their heads around Pollock’s revolutionary splatters and his new ‘performative’ aspect of painting where a viewer could sense where Pollock flung paint, where he let it dribble, where he poured it straight from the can. His paintings were like film stock from a particle accelerator (an “atom smasher”) where all we can trace were the tracks and spirals of movement, not the solid particle itself.
So now this destabilizing pioneer was going back to painting more conventional figures? It felt like a betrayal of basic principles.
In the years following the Parsons show, Pollock switched galleries, he returned to using color, he began working in sculpture. And then he was dead at 44 — in a car wreck in 1956. His death sealed his fame — as a kind of classic American artist-type, a blend of James Dean (car wreck, 1955) and Ernest Hemingway (depression-and-drink fueled suicide, 1961). Ever since, his ‘black paintings’ have mostly been viewed as evidence of his reckless, alcoholic decline.
But with ‘Blind Spots’ at the DMA, Delahunty has assembled some 70 works by Pollock that trace his use of black. They show him as not simply pouring or flinging paint but struggling to find a new path, a way beyond what had seemed to be the absolute visual truth of Abstract Expressionism.
‘My child could paint that!’ — that’s the old, ignorant dismissal of Pollock’s work. It’s not true, not really, not unless your child is particularly gifted. It’s extremely hard to paint a large canvas freehand and give it no discernible center, no obvious shapes or patterns. The human mind wants a focal point, the human eye finds patterns even where there are none (consider the gods and animals we’ve picked out of the night sky for eons). That’s one reason Pollock painted his canvases on the floor, walking around them from every angle. He wanted them to look balanced, as if they floated. One of his great innovations wasn’t simply tossing paint; it was creating this different sense of space on a canvas. Conservators, working on some of his first experiments in painting like this, have found he very consciously used grids and other aids to help him achieve that ‘all-over,’ weightless effect.
As Pollock once angrily replied to one write-up about the chaos his work represented: “No chaos, dammit.”
Delahunty says, “I love the line where he says, ‘I want to make a body of work to have the youngsters understand how it’s not easy to splash out a Jackson Pollock.’”
In Pollock’s great canvases from the late ‘40s-early ’50s — like the DMA’s own ‘Cathedral’ (above) — the black paint is like a barely-hidden skeleton or armature, holding all the swirls and lines together. But Pollock’s use of black became more explicit over time.
And, Delahunty emphasizes, we mustn’t discount the simple, alpha-male competitiveness in all this. Other ambitious Abstract Expressionists, like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, were already experimenting with black as a major component. With these new works, Pollock beat them to the punch, as it were, and painted the first canvases in America to use only black. (Kazimir Malevich was ahead of everyone in 1915 with his ‘Black Square’ — but his ‘non-objective’ painting is pure, flat geometry not like Pollock’s swirls and dabs. And given the Soviet Union’s deliberate neglect of ‘Black Square’ for decades, keeping it hidden away in archives, there’s little evidence the Americans knew of ‘Black Square’ as anything more than a legend.)
But this monochromatic approach also meant Pollock could no longer hide behind his intricate, improvised layers and mapped-out webs of color. As a result, his black paintings feel astonishingly direct, naked, even anguished.
So if Pollock was in such a bad place — estranged from his painter-wife Lee Krasner, nearly at the end of his rope — why aren’t his ‘semi-figurative’ black paintings a step backward, a retreat from the ‘purity’ of abstraction?
They’re not a retreat, Delahunty argues; in fact, he sees them as Pollock at his most open and confident on canvas — even because of his anguish. Pollock couldn’t have painted them unless he’d worked through his drip paintings first. It’s not an uncommon event with artists (consider Eugene O’Neill creating ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ as his health cratered) — to produce their boldest, most expressive works when they’re most miserable, feeling trapped.
“He is showing us,” Delahunty declares, “he has worked out a way of applying black paint to canvas that is dexterous and generous and audacious and powerful.”
It took guts for Pollock to turn away from the Abstract Expressionist revolution he’d led, says Delahunty, and take these first steps into a future he had no idea would ever come. It wasn’t until 20-30 years later that Neo-Expressionist painters like Anselm Kiefer (below) would pick up the challenge to fuse figures and landscapes with abstraction and vigorous brushwork into a swirling whole.