The Grin without the Cat

David Sylvester views Jackson Pollock at the Tate

  • Jackson Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel
    Tate Gallery, 336 pp, £50.00, March 1999, ISBN 1 85437 275 0
  • Interpreting Pollock by Jeremy Lewison
    Tate Gallery, 84 pp, £9.99, March 1999, ISBN 1 85437 289 0

In New York the Museum of Modern Art’s Pollock exhibition was thrilling in the manner of a saga. With exhilarating force it told the incident-packed story of an inspired and inspiring career cut off at 44 by a self-destructive death. It showed what confusion there was in the early development of a young artist of limited talent and uncertain direction. It demonstrated how he found within himself an intuition of the course he had to take, an uncharted course for which he was uniquely suited. It proved that by the time he was in his mid-thirties he had become a major artist who was opening up possibilities for a whole generation of painters, most of them older than himself, and then for a host of artists who came after. It displayed an extraordinary variety of formal invention and mood which nonetheless functioned inside the fairly narrow framework within which his peculiar talents were effective. It recorded a career fired by demonic energy, cosmic imagination, intense integrity, vast ambition and the physical intelligence of a great dancer or athlete. At the same time, it was an exhibition which affected the mind more than the viscera because of the unsuitability of the galleries housing it.

In London the exhibition is thrilling as an aesthetic experience. This was inevitable, given its venue. We are the beneficiaries of a sacrifice made by MoMA in meeting the immediate need for a big Pollock retrospective by assembling it now rather than waiting for the completion of the beautiful new daylit spaces which are being built there. For in the relevant spaces at the Tate we have good daylight and, given reasonable luck with the weather, this will often be unadulterated by electric light, so that the pictures will seem to be breathing organisms, whereas with artificial light they tend to become like reproduction furniture. However, there are times when electricity can be useful, and at MoMA they know how to use it. That important black drip painting, Number 32, 1950, was lit there so that it danced; at the Tate it rather sinks into the wall.

Above all, the spaces used at the Tate have the right height for a Pollock show. The thing about Pollock’s paintings is that they soar; in New York the ceilings were low, and there was no air into which they could soar. Consequently that supreme masterpiece, One: Number 31, 1950, seemed to me almost turgid; at the Tate it’s resplendent. It is not only that the walls are much higher; their structure is special. At a certain height the painted walls become angled inward to form a concrete vault; as you look up you can see beyond this a void containing aluminium louvres and beyond that the sky. The fireworks have somewhere to go. These spaces don’t suit every kind of modern art, but they look as if they had been built for Pollock.

In addition, the hang is airier than in New York, where it was often cramped. This is partly because there are fewer works here. On balance that diminution is a serious loss, because a high proportion of the score of paintings lent to MoMA and refused to the Tate are drip paintings of the key years 1948-50, the core of Pollock’s achievement, so that the London show, while more beautiful, is decidedly less representative. The attempt to cope with this deprivation may account for some of the awkwardnesses in the installation. The felicitous parts tend to come in the galleries which consist of a single nine-metre-square module, such as those containing works on paper and the room presenting medium-sized paintings of 1946-47, among them Shimmering Substance, Eyes in the Heat, Phosphorescence and Full Fathom Five – though this ravishing ensemble is somewhat marred by the presence of Free Form (1946) – and, above all, the gallery containing the figurative black paintings of 1951, including a splendid addition, Number 11, 1951: this room provides a superb showing of a terrific group of works which were rather thrown away in New York. Still more ill-served there were the works of Pollock’s last years, 1952-56, which looked a job lot. Blue Poles (1952) was devalued by the lack of the view from a reasonable distance that we get at the Tate, where it is possible to understand why it used to be rated so highly. Other pieces looked less good there simply because they didn’t have the benefit of daylight. In New York White Light (1954) seemed to me an unworthy reiteration of Shimmering Substance and Eyes in the Heat, here it answers their glowing refulgence with a luminosity that is desperately intense; in New York The Deep (1953) didn’t elicit the serious attention it does here; in New York the Matissean Easter and the Totem (1953) looked like an endearing experiment, here it seems a major statement, because the élan of its brushwork becomes fully manifest.

Where the Tate installation tends to be ill-judged is in the spaces comprising two modules and thus measuring nine metres by 18. The airiness becomes excessive and disadvantageous. The temporary architecture seems too loose. And the paintings often look unanchored or in the wrong place or at the wrong height. Thus the work which was perhaps the biggest watershed in Pollock’s career, Mural (1943-44), overwhelming in New York, doesn’t gather us up so forcefully here, while that masterpiece, Number 1A, 1948, looks as if it is floating as helplessly as Lillian Gish towards the rapids. And in the space whose contents are the works in which Pollock’s art reached its pinnacle, the big drip paintings of 1950, the cardinal sin is committed of hanging pictures so that each is capable of being fitted into the next like a Russian doll. Even so, One: Number 31, 1950, and Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 are breathtaking.

MoMA’s catalogue for the exhibition contains long essays by its curator, Kirk Varnedoe, and his associate, Pepe Karmel. The Tate shares this catalogue while issuing its own publication in a smaller format with a text by the curator of the London showing, Jeremy Lewison. I’m not clear whether it has been published to serve as a supplement to the actual catalogue or as a cheaper alternative. Perhaps the latter, since it’s full of colour illustrations and is very much easier to handle than the bigger book, which has awkward pull-out plates of an unwieldy width. Lewison’s text consists of five thoughtful essays on problematic areas of the subject, such as ‘Picasso, Jung and the “Primitive”’ and ‘The Memory of Figure’, which include clear expositions of rival theories. I especially enjoyed a well-researched and highly entertaining chapter on ‘The Politics of Gender’, treating of Pollock’s tiresome machismo. While feeling that ‘it is too speculative to conclude’ that Pollock was possessed by ‘a latent bisexuality’, Lewison is positive that he ‘does seem to have encouraged the use of an excessively masculine image to camouflage femininity, of his painting at the very least’. Certainly, it is a very characteristic feature of much of Pollock’s work that it asserts and fuses masculine and feminine qualities as consummately as Correggio’s or Fragonard’s.

But I’m afraid that readers could do with the weightier book for the sake of its weightier texts, or one of them. Varnedoe’s essay, ‘Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work’, is a splendidly intelligent, informative, well-organised and readable introduction to the subject. What I like so much about Varnedoe’s writing is the enjoyment, the relish, he palpably has in producing it, in all its aspects: in looking at and into the work, in making discoveries about its background, in thinking about its theoretical content and critical reception and interpretation, in analysing its form and meaning, in investigating the relationship between the disasters of an artist’s life and the triumphs of his art, in putting all this into compelling prose, elaborate in syntax, vivid in image.

Karmel’s essay, ‘Pollock at Work: The Films and Photographs of Hans Namuth’, is excessive in length and sloppy in exposition. It says of Mural, for example, that ‘the regular diagonal accents that the composition now shows anticipate the rhythmic diagonals of Blue Poles,’ whereas the logical way to put it would have been that in 1952, when Pollock was painting Blue Poles, he sought to give it a sustaining beat by reverting to giant sloping verticals similar to those he had used in Mural. (Incidentally, I think that among further possible models for the march of the blue poles – which do something unusual in Pollock’s work in that they don’t stay on the picture-plane but recede and advance as if in a perspectival space – are the pennanted staffs in The Battle of San Romano by Uccello, who in 1952 was still one of the two or three most fashionable Old Masters for Modernist painters.)

What is seriously unacceptable is Karmel’s obsessional pursuit, for page after page, of imagery in the drip paintings. He is able to show, with the aid of the Namuth documents, that quite a bit of figuration was present in the early stages of the paintings’ realisation. But Pollock generally tended to veil or obliterate such figuration as he worked, and in the finished products we are rarely if ever conscious of its persistence, even as a vestigial trace, when we are looking at them as works of art rather than treating them like the puzzle-pictures in children’s annuals which ask us to look for profiles of the family pets in the recesses of the forest. In this regard it is interesting to read comments on Pollock by two contemporary figurative painters in the current issue of Tate magazine (where they are juxtaposed with One, inadvertently printed upside-down). Martin Maloney says: ‘He put himself in his painting through his inventive gesture. It’s funny how we visualise his making method when looking at a work, which we don’t do with any other artist.’ And Julian Schnabel says: ‘Looking at Pollock’s paintings we think about mark making and energy and some kind of transference from the rhythm of the world to the gesture of your body, and how to capture something that is expressive and simultaneously seems like it’s not composed.’

Surely those remarks embody what really matters in Pollock’s paintings. The aspect of life to which Pollock’s art at its best most often returns us is human gesture. Where the paintings seem to allude to life, they can remind us somewhat of landscape, but what they evoke with real acuity and poignancy are gestures of the human body – not at all bodies gesturing, but disembodied gestures, the grin without the cat.

This is, I think, why Pollock has realised more than any other abstract painter the dream of creating a visual music which has haunted abstract artists, a dream of which the germ was Pater’s aphorism, ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ There is, indeed, a particular music I have in mind as analogous to Pollock’s visual music. It is a kind of jazz, not surprisingly. For one thing, Pollock is known to have loved jazz and to have had it playing while he was painting. For another, he functioned, like jazz, through improvisation, although that is not something to get too excited about, because neither of them is all that improvisatory. When a jazz musician improvises on a chord progression on which he has been improvising for years, thousands upon thousands of times, how far can his extemporisation be truly spontaneous? He is going to have built up a repertory of harmonic variations on favoured tunes on which he’ll make small melodic variations each time, but is only rarely going to improvise something radically inventive. As to Pollock, he may have worked with a good deal of spontaneity, but the outcome, when successful, looks as structured and, however surprising, as inevitable as a Baroque painting. He may have taken clever advantage of the lucky accidents that can happen when slinging oil paint around, but the last thing his paintings are in effect, when they work, is chancy. They are tensile, they are wrought.

The kind of jazz I have in mind is that of Charlie Parker. Going through the histories of all the arts it would be difficult to find a closer correspondence between two major artists working at the same time in different forms than that between Pollock and Parker. And the least important factor in that correspondence is the extraordinary likeness in their personal lives and myths; that Pollock was the white Parker and Parker the black Pollock; that these two were the great American cultural heroes of their epoch; that, working in the same city at the same time, these two men out of the West renewed the arts they practised through their originality and daring, transforming them, despite heavy opposition, very rapidly; that as human beings they were infantile, brutal, vulnerable and tragically addictive; that they both died young, as they were clearly doomed to do, through a form of suicide, and were both immediately canonised.

None of this is needed to validate the comparison, however. What matters is that the resemblance between their works, in their rhythms and configurations, is uncanny. There are the same rapturously soaring ascents, the same downward swoops, the same rapid alternations between curved and jagged lines, long relaxed curves and nervously interrupted ones, the same knots, the same releases, the same chiaroscuro, the same iridescent cascades. Personally, Pollock didn’t care for Parker’s art. His tastes in jazz were conservative. And pretty corny, given that his idea of a good Ellington recording was ‘Solitude’ or ‘Delta Serenade’ (the Ellington choices on the CD issued by MoMA of jazz that he collected).

Discussion of how purely musical, how free of figuration, the drip paintings are is often complicated by citation of things that Pollock said or is said to have said at various times: for example, in 1950, ‘Abstract painting is abstract,’ and, in 1956, ‘Recognisable images are always there in the end.’ But the opinions artists express publicly about their own art sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt, and looking at the works themselves tends to be a surer guide. When Pollock reverted to figuration in the poured black paintings of 1951, he made his intentions perfectly clear in the results. When we see faces in these pictures, it’s part of the point.

A curious feature of the figuration here is that it owes as much to Picasso as does the figuration in the early work. Pollock is famous for his hatred of Picasso as the ruling monarch he had to overcome. Now, Pollock’s feelings about Picasso were anything but Oedipal, for Oedipus didn’t know that Laius was his father whereas Pollock’s wish to ‘kill Picasso’ was, like that of many other artists of his generation, consciously motivated by anger that his, their father’s, size had left them floundering. It is strange, though, how hot and bothered Pollock became about Picasso, because in reality he dealt with Picasso very well. His first masterpiece was Mural (1943-44), the canvas nearly eight feet high and 20 long which he painted for Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment, and this was a work in which he took on Picasso and managed to go the full 15 rounds. The trouble was that it wasn’t enough for him to do anything less than win the contest by a knock-out, so that it was no consolation to be able to go through life knowing that he could play Picasso at his own game. But it’s enough for us.

Mural contains palpable reminiscences of Benton, of Orozco, of Masson etc, and its serpentine prancing figures have no obvious precedent in Picasso. Nevertheless, they have the unmistakable feel of being additions to the family of Picasso figures that stretches from the Three Musicians of 1921 via the Three Dancers of 1925 and the Woman in an Armchair of 1929 to Guernica, enfolding them in a rhythm that translates their Mannerist language into Baroque. For Mural amazes in the conviction with which it gathers up its components, the human figures in movement, into a mighty overall design without depriving those components of their specifically human energy. Despite the repetitiveness of the design. Pollock here announced his rare ability to invent an all-over composition that is nothing at all like wallpaper.

And the interwoven arabesques of Mural quickly became a bridge to another domain beyond Picasso’s, where figuration was eliminated or obscured, denser and denser webs of contrapuntal colour were spun out, and the canvas came off the wall and onto the floor, demanding the invention of appropriate new techniques, before being hung back on the wall for the world to see. Pollock got better and better at practising this kind of art and when he reached a point in 1950 at which there was surely no possibility of going further, he stopped; he didn’t, as artists usually do, cash in on his hard-won mastery by churning out works exploiting it, only to lose it. In turning to something different, he took a lead from one of the web paintings, Number 32, 1950, a work that was exceptional among them in that there was no contrapuntal colour because for some reason or another he had produced his calligraphy in nothing but black.

Now, black was to become a colour which for the Abstract Expressionists, as I have said elsewhere, was sacred; it was their lapis lazuli, they made a mystique of it, partly perhaps because of its austerity, partly because there was something splendidly macho in being able to produce a good strong black. The first of them to do so was de Kooning, in the late Forties, in a great series of black and white paintings which were followed by a great series of white and black paintings. De Kooning was, of course, Pollock’s Enemy No.2, his sparring partner at the Cedar Tavern, who was almost as maddening as Picasso because he was another fucking European and also had more natural gifts than Pollock.

So in 1951 Pollock produced a series of all-black pictures that were quite a lot more overtly figurative than the de Koonings. And that figuration, as I said, was clearly derivative from Picasso’s. For example, the Tate’s own Number 14, 1951 is a totally Picassoesque reclining figure, a debt that does nothing to lessen its force as a great picture and a great Pollock; indeed, the intimation of Picasso’s presence somehow enhances it. But there is also in these paintings a special quality in the black, a velvety quality, which strongly recalls the series of black and white lithographs which Picasso made in the late Forties. They got a lot of attention at the time and were shown in New York at the Buchholz Gallery in the autumn of 1947.

Now and then a writer on art gives credibility to that profession by publishing a text which alters once and for all the common perception of an area in the field. One such case was Robert Rosenblum’s essay, ‘The Abstract Sublime’, published in 1961. Its conclusion was that, ‘in its heroic search for a private myth to embody the sublime power of the supernatural, the art of Still, Rothko, Pollock and Newman should remind us that the disturbing heritage of the Romantics has not yet been exhausted.’ The recognition of a correspondence between American Abstract Expressionism and ‘a Romantic tradition of the irrational and the awesome as well as with a Romantic vocabulary of boundless energies and limitless spaces’ was not altogether new: Clement Greenberg had six years earlier linked Clyfford Still to Turner. What Rosenblum’s essay did was to suggest in a totally convincing way that the conventional division of the Abstract Expressionist movement into two wings – on the one hand, the ‘colour-field painters’, Still, Rothko and Newman; on the other, the ‘gestural painters’, Pollock, de Kooning and Kline – was of much less consequence than the common pursuit of the Sublime shared by the colour-field painters and Pollock: on the one hand, a sublimity ‘attained by saturating such limitless expanses with a luminous, hushed stillness’, on the other, a sublimity ‘reached inversely by filling this void with a teeming, unleashed power’.

The permanent collections of the Tate present opportunities to compare Pollock’s kind of sublimity with that of both his peers and the Romantics. As to the latter, I think there are remarkable resemblances between Pollock, in, say, One, and Constable – resemblances, though, which do not reduce One to a landscape, do not deprive it of its abstractness, its autonomy. One relevant Constable is the full-size sketch for Hadleigh Castle. But nothing currently visible at the Tate is as close as the very late Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge in the Phillips Collection, Washington, with its tangled branches of soaring trees, its flickering white threads of paint, the earthiness of its dirty greens and browns, its spiky undergrowth, the rockiness of its underlying rhythms, its tempestuousness, its specific density, which is to say, its being full of molecules but never solid, always shot through with air, always frothy. Like a Constable, the Pollock is awesome and overwhelming, but neither remote nor numinous.

There is, though, a numinous Pollock in Number 1, 1950, otherwise Lavender Mist, a title that may have helped to make the piece less widely recognised than it should be as perhaps his most profound work. It is a title that was conferred by Greenberg, surprisingly, given his ear (see his early writings on poetry) as well as his eye: perhaps he invented it when he was going commercial and wanted to see the picture placed in a Park Avenue boudoir. It’s a very ill-chosen title for a painting so dense and muscular. On the other hand, its feminine ring (though ‘Lavender Mist’ sounds more like an air-freshener than a woman’s scent) does have a relevance to the work’s wonderful balance between masculine and feminine qualities: it is possibly Pollock’s most perfect synthesis of them, just as it is his most perfect synthesis of the solid and the ethereal.

But it’s that numinous quality that is most remarkable. This work is unique in Pollock’s oeuvre in that within the animation which pervades every inch of the surface there lies an absolute stillness. The stillness creeps up on you. You stand fairly close to the picture facing a concentrated network of lines vibrating with energy. And gradually some silent force takes hold of you as if from behind your back. And while that stillness enfolds you it also faces you. It suspends you in front of it, out of time.

In this it connects to the Tate’s two marvellous examples of the colour-field category of the Abstract Sublime, Barnett Newman’s Eve of 1950 and Adam of 1951. The wild stylistic contrast is given a personal twist by the two artists’ deep mutual admiration, an echo of the fact that Pollock’s first significant admirer had been none other than Mondrian. At the time of Eve and Adam, Newman, the most original painter of his epoch, was regarded by collectors and curators as a nonentity, by his fellow abstract artists as something of a joke; one man who understood him was Pollock.

To give some definition to the differences in their art, I revert to correspondences with music. Bach will do to provide the analogies. The music, polyphonic, of One is like the Concerto for two violins and strings in D Minor, with its soaring lines interweaving as they rise and fall, sometimes in long uninterrupted arabesques, sometimes in curves that hang up there before descending, sometimes in dashing upward shafts, with the lines always discernible as separate, always intricately intermingling. The music, homophonic, of Eve and Adam is like the Sanctus of the B Minor Mass, with its great slabs of plangent sound steadily ringing out. A Pollock affects us through the abundance of its means, a Newman through the sparingness of its means. The slight curve in a band of colour in Adam suffices to evoke a human figure moving. Almost all the surface of Eve is a vermilion rectangle, but this appears to contain so many layers of different hues that it’s as if the range of colours that would be spread out in a Pollock had been compressed into one overall mass of an impenetrable density, a terrible brilliance. And where the divine light of the vermilion gives way at the edge to a strip of aubergine, it is as if the surface of the earth were falling away at our feet.

Having gone round the Pollock show in a state of wonderment at its richness, a colleague joined me in front of Eve. As she slowly took it in she said: ‘Here there’s a lot more to look at.’