Half a century ago, on August 11, 1956, an Oldsmobile convertible driven by Jackson Pollock, who was drunk, hit a tree in the Springs, killing the artist and a passenger. It’s a dismal enough anniversary—marked with scant attention by the finest art show in New York this summer, “No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper,” at the Guggenheim—but glamorous, in its way. Pollock, like other doomed artists and martyrs to fame in his era—Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—advanced and, by destroying himself, oddly consecrated America’s postwar cultural ascendancy. Sometimes a new, renegade sensibility really takes hold only when somebody is seen to have died for it.
Tragedy enhanced Pollock’s status as the first American painter, after the corn-belt realist Grant Wood, to achieve general popular renown, as a shining native son. Born in Wyoming, Pollock came to New York, from California, in 1930. He was mentored at the Art Students League by Wood’s American Scene colleague Thomas Hart Benton. He soon found the Expressionist and Surrealist tendencies of the downtown avant-garde more congenial than Benton’s mannered figuration, partly because he was tormented by a belief that he could never draw properly. But a sense of nationalist mandate stayed with him. It’s an undertone in his famous reply to the German painter and pedagogue Hans Hofmann, who had suggested that he try working from nature: “I am nature.” The glowering Westerner who became known as Jack the Dripper seemed to speak not just for the country but as it, in person: the Great American Painter, at a moment that was hot for Great American thises and thats. His helplessly photogenic, clenched features, broadcast by Life in 1949, made him a pinup of seething manhood akin to Marlon Brando. It wasn’t even necessary that Pollock be a great artist, though he was. Unlike Wood, he countered the humiliating authority of European modern art not by rejecting it but by eclipsing it. Abstraction may have still scandalized most Americans, but suddenly it was a homegrown scandal, with nothing sissified about it. The macho pose, an obligatory overcompensation for aestheticism in the nineteen-fifties, ill suited a man whose ruling emotion was fear, which sprung from an anxious childhood in a ragged, nomadic family. But it sold magazines.
Ed Harris’s surprisingly trenchant 2000 bio-pic, “Pollock,” showed why it isn’t possible to separate the artist’s legend from his work. Pollock’s all-or-nothing ambition channelled the hopes of an idealistic, conspiratorial milieu. His wife, the artist Lee Krasner, the critic Clement Greenberg, the collector and dealer Peggy Guggenheim, and other ardent sophisticates—abetted by pressure from competing new masters, chiefly Willem de Kooning—groomed Pollock like a skittish thoroughbred for the big race. Before his myth became a media circus, it was a cottage industry, though conceived in rigorously artistic terms as an overthrow of Cubist and Surrealist conventions in avant-garde painting—of Picasso, in a word. “No Limits, Just Edges” recovers that focus, more through than despite an absence of big canvases. The show’s limitation to works on paper (credibly termed paintings, not drawings, because even when the format is small and the medium is ink Pollock’s practice obviates the distinction) is a boon to understanding the revolutionary character and protean magic of the drip technique. If there’s a weakness in the show, it’s an overrefinement in the curating, betrayed by the preference of the organizer, Susan Davidson, in league with other scholars, to call Pollock’s procedure “pouring,” a fussy nugget of jargon with no support from the dictionary. (Poured paint plays a supporting role in only some of the work.) Not just more accurate and time honored, the vulgar “drip” resonates with a still potent shock of naked materiality which Pollock originated and which has been a major trope in new art (it was decisive for minimalism) ever since. If we want to be precise about what Pollock did—drawing in the air above a canvas with a paint-loaded stick—the mot juste is “dribble.”
Given that Pollock’s process remains incomparable, taken up by no other significant artist, his work has not ceased to pose problems of how to discriminate among its levels of quality. This show’s abundant service to the eye, in that respect, will come in handy if another anniversary observance, augured a few months ago, comes to pass. I refer to the news that the son of two friends of Pollock’s, now deceased, the photographer and designer Herbert Matter and the painter Mercedes Matter, had turned up a cache of thirty-two previously unknown Pollock works, most of them small drip paintings on board. The son, Alex Matter, and the Matters’ dealer, Mark Borghi, promised to show them this year. A prominent Pollock scholar had pronounced the work authentic, though perhaps “experimental.” Others bitterly demurred. A physics professor decided, based on a fractal analysis of the drip patterns, that the hand that made them wasn’t Pollock’s. All this played out sensationally in the press, accompanied by faintly plausible but unenchanting reproductions. They looked imitative to me. Of course, artists have been known to imitate themselves. The affair seems to have gone to ground for now. Borghi has said, through a publicist, that no exhibition is in the offing. Lacking the free-for-all symposium of such an event, the Guggenheim show enables quieter, more probing reflection.
Start with a fascinating failure from Pollock’s wonder years, 1947-50. “Number 13, 1949,” in oil, enamel, and aluminum paint, a dead spot in a sequence of fiercely energized pictures, has been cited in defense of “the Matter Pollocks.” Like them, it has a blandly decorative effect—in contrast to the unresolved tumult that usually marks a less successful Pollock—but only because a boldly experimental motif proved not to work. After painting an amorphous ground of aluminum, white, red, and green, and before overlaying skeins of dripped white, Pollock executed an irregular network of brushed black diagonal bars. This use of geometric elements recalls earlier work in the show—strenuously forced mergers of regular forms with surreal figuration and expressive gesture—and looks ahead to the artist’s last major drip painting, “Blue Poles” (1952), whose eponymous forms snarl like overloaded lightning rods. In “Number 13,” the bars upstage the drips and downstage the underpainting. Analyzing the work is as instructive as an autopsy. You see the muscles and nerves of an amazing style in repose, which is nothing like the soaring serenity that Pollock attained elsewhere. In his best work, which he produced almost incessantly from 1947 until, after long sobriety, he succumbed to drink again, late in 1950, Pollock mastered a quality reminiscent of van Gogh, who wrote to his brother of being “calm even in the catastrophe.”
From early on in the show, you feel the force, however baffled and flailing, of an ambition to reconcile boundless pictorial space (precedented in Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Miró) with raw, emotionally driven physicality. That’s what came about when, by dripping, Pollock freed line from description and color from decoration in a work like “Untitled [Silver over Black, White, Yellow, and Red]” (1948). Warm colors yearn forward; black bites back; silver is everywhere and nowhere; all, as thick substance, configure a wall-like surface. The picture is an improbable but unalloyed visual fact, with nothing mythic about it—nothing American or not American, certainly. Pollock at his peak burned his past conditioning and present turmoil, his very identity and character as a man, and he burned them clean. There’s nobody to recognize. That’s why it can be hard at first sight to tell a true Pollock from a fake. He prepared us to believe that absolutely anything was possible for him. What determines authenticity for me is a hardly scientific, no doubt fallible intuition of a raging need that found respite only in art.