The US artist Jackson Pollock has long been controversial. John Molyneux explains why this is so in his review of a new exhibition of his work.
Every reader of Socialist Review with an interest in art should try and visit the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London (11 March to 6 June). Here is a unique chance to see the work of one of the century's most influential and controversial artists. Pollock, for reasons of scale, texture and colour, demands to be seen in the original and most of the time there are only one or two works on view in Britain. In this show there is work from throughout Pollock's career and about a dozen of the great drip paintings on which his reputation and notoriety primarily rest.
None of us judges or even 'sees' without preconceptions, and in the case of Pollock there are at least five 'interpretations' in sufficient circulation to condition our initial responses. The first and predominant interpretation seized on the drip and flick method of applying paint to suggest Pollock's work was just a random mess, an absurd tangle of lines and splodges. 'This is not art--it's a joke in bad taste', as a Reynolds News headline put it in 1959. Doubtless this is a view that still plays well in the columns of the Sun but it is comprehensively refuted by any serious scrutiny of the paintings. A few minutes spent looking in turn at Summertime, Lavender Mist and Blue Poles demonstrates that Pollock achieved strikingly different aesthetic effects in different works and that this was a highly controlled process.
The second, more favourable, interpretation was a kind of inversion of the first. It too focused on the drip method, which it called 'action painting', and celebrated as a wild romantic outpouring of self expression. In this view much was made of Pollock's birth in Cody, Wyoming, and he was depicted as a sort of all-American lonesome cowboy hero. The most sophisticated presentation of this line was by the critic Harold Rosenberg, who spoke of the transformation of painting into an existential drama in which 'what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event', and who wrote, 'The big moment came when it was decided to paint "just to paint". The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value--political, aesthetic, moral.'
The third account, associated with Clement Greenberg, who was the most influential art critic of the 1950s and 1960s, was in sharp opposition to the second. It proclaimed Abstract Expressionism and Pollock in particular as the epitome of aesthetic value. It supported Pollock's work on formalistic grounds as simply the best painting of its day and the culmination of an art tradition going back via Cubism and Cézanne to Monet, in which painting became ever 'purer' and more concentrated in what was 'essential' to it, the making of marks on a flat surface. It was this view which established Pollock's position in the modern art canon and became hegemonic in the art world until the late 1960s.
The 1960s radicalisation, however, gave rise to a fourth interpretation--a left critique--which located Pollock in his political context and attributed his success not to his formal merits but to his ideological usefulness to US imperialism. It was revealed that posthumous exhibitions of Pollock had been covertly sponsored by the CIA, and the argument was made that the US ruling class threw its weight behind this kind of art out of a nationalistic craving for an US avant garde to supplant Paris and a symbol of freedom to counterpose to Soviet insistence on Social Realism. Thus Pollock was promoted as, in the words of Eva Cockcroft, a 'weapon of the Cold War'.
Finally, there is a feminist revaluation of Pollock which looks askance at the machismo of the 'hero in the studio' and tends to see the whole drip and flick performance as the acting out of the phallocentric male fantasy on the symbolically supine canvas.
These political critiques were a salutary corrective to the romantic and nationalist myth making of the US bourgeoisie and the formalism of Greenberg that underwrote it. They disclosed the forces of ideology and material interest that lay behind the supposedly 'disinterested' judgements of the art world. That the Museum of Modern Art, the US's principal tastemaker in this area, was owned and controlled by the Rockefeller family, and that no Chinese wall separated their policy in art from their policy in Latin America and South East Asia, are facts to be reckoned with. Moreover they are precisely the kind of facts that the art establishment--the Tate as well as MOMA--is anxious to marginalise. In his lengthy presentation at the exhibition's press view, Jeremy Lewinson, the Tate's Director of Collections, made no mention of this left critique (though the feminist case was fully acknowledged), and in his book Interpreting Pollock it is dismissed in one line as some kind of paranoid conspiracy theory.
However, the limitation of this critique is that while it may help to explain Pollock's rapid rise to art superstardom, it tells us little of substance about the meaning and merit of his paintings. For if it is a fact that Pollock was used for Cold War purposes, it is no less a fact that he did not paint with that intention.
So what of the paintings themselves? This exhibition confirms that it is the drip paintings of 1947 to 1950 that are the real achievement. Some of the earlier works are surprisingly good, better than reproductions had led one to expect, especially in their colour. But The She-Wolf is the only really outstanding painting of this period, and in general the work does not get 'beyond' Picasso, with whose influence he was struggling.
The drip paintings are qualitatively different. This is where Pollock makes the breakthrough to a new way of painting and a distinct aesthetic vision. Even here there are failures, pictures like Galaxy and Reflection of the Big Dipper which don't work. But there are masterpieces like Full Fathom Five, Number 32, 1950 and Lavender Mist which are among the great paintings of the century. It is a criticism of this show that not enough of these great paintings (eg Autumn Rhythm) are on view compared with the show when it was in New York and relative to the lesser earlier work.
What makes these paintings 'great'? The major paintings possess two qualities which relate to both form and content. First, they create order out of chaos. Without obvious patterning they achieve a total symphonic composition and this speaks of the struggle against alienation, fragmentation and disintegration. Second these compositions 'signify' at many levels--they convey by suggestion a multiplicity of 'meanings', meanings that are social, historical and political in character.
Let us take Lavender Mist as an example. On first seeing a reproduction of this, my eight year old granddaughter said instantly, 'It's like EastEnders!' She is right. It is suggestive of an aerial photograph of a city, but it is a city that has somehow been blasted. Here we must remember that this painting was done from above. It is also suggestive of astronomical photographs of nebulae and galaxies (in Comet, Galaxy and other works this is explicit, and Pollock is known to have been an avid stargazer) while at the same time close up details of this and other paintings resemble microscopic photos of molecular structures.
Add to these visual associations that these works were painted in the aftermath of Hiroshima and at the onset of the Cold War, and note Pollock's own statement that 'modern art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we're living in ... the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.' Also recall again that this technique was to drip, flick and throw the paint onto the canvas from above. Put all this together and I think the connection between the work and the historical advent of the threat of nuclear annihilation is clear.
Of course the relation is not direct--neither Lavender Mist nor in fact any of Jackson's other works is a painting of a nuclear explosion, nor is it anti-war agitprop. Pollock was attempting to paint out of his subconscious, but there is surely reason to believe that the prospect of nuclear holocaust would have been on his mind at this time. Nor is this any more than a partial account of the factors at work--other associations are with the improvisation of bebop and free form jazz and with the young male rebels (Brando, Dean, Kerouac) of the time. Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand Pollock's art, without historically locating him in this way.
This raises the question as to how such art was readily appropriated by the US ruling class. Clearly there were elements in the work that lent themselves to this--the passionate individualism, the absence of overt politics--but there are elements in Blake's Jerusalem which allow that battle cry of freedom to be sung at the Last Night of the Proms. And we are forced to note how often it has been the fate of great radical art from Milton to Van Gogh to be taken up by our rulers. The solution is not to renounce the art but to expropriate our rulers.
This article was published in the April 1999 issue of Socialist Review.