Jackson Pollock, a Zombie Michelangelo. This is not a believe in reincarnation, but more the notion that both can be seen to exemplify a Hegelian process of emergence; the ethereal Zeitgeist working itself out into the corporeal world through an unconscious interplay between the ‘genius’ artist and his social/political/historical context.
Pairing these artists might seem needlessly grandiose and obtuse, looking to establish links between the two grand traditions of Western art which are often positioned as antithetical. A search for continuous histories rather than specific differences, however, reveals that aspects of art, and therefore perhaps the human condition, remain constant.
The analysis of Pollock within this framework requires a consideration of Clement Greenbergs Modernist doctrine. Greenberg’s position is navigated by a reading of classical art which seems to align itself with Vasari’s account of the Italian Renaissance.
Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ provides a three stage account of the Italian Renaissance, culminating in 16th Century Central Italy, and in particular Michelangelo. Vasari labelled great art as having a focus on the intellectual properties of design, the use of draughtsmanship for purely mimetic, figurative ends. Multiple figures placed in a convincing box like space were arranged to relate to some grand biblical or historical subject. A painting was to be a window which denied its reality as a two dimensional support with paint spread across it.
Greenberg describes a historical journey which moves in the opposite direction, with painting returning to itself. He describes a move from Manet, through Cubism and to the Nadir of abstract expressionism.
“The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”
This Kantian methodology is the nub of Greenberg’s argument for a Modernist approach to painting. The argument is for a painting which celebrates its flatness and the spreading of paint across a two dimensional support. Subject matter is to be done away with in place of a singular focus on the formal properties of the discipline.
The work of Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock is thus held up as the ultimate example of each doctrines ideal. Seen through the eyes of Vasari and Greenberg, therefore, Michelangelo and Pollock are the total antithesis of each other.
Such a standpoint needs to be filtered through a realisation of the limitations of both writers. Both are bastadisations of history, myopic assessments made to justify their position. The work of the artists preceding Pollock and Michelangelo is manipulated to fit into a preconceived narrative. Both make the presumption that the ideals they espouse for their historical and geographic context can be accurately and liberally applied to past art from different locations. Cubism is reduced to a mere step towards abstraction, rather than an intense testing of the limits of realism. Piero Della Francesca’s spiritual stillness and geometric flatness is seen as an inability to create the depth and dynamism of a Michelangelo. An in depth analysis of the misreading of the art which precedes their respective demi god’s is not necessary here. The implications such mistakes have on their readings of Michelangelo and Pollock are what is at stake here.
Numerous other reassessments of Greenberg criticise his analysis and implementation of his findings, but not the findings themselves. David and Cecile Shapiro and Eva Cockcroft make detailed accounts of political implications of Greenberg’s doctrine and Pollock’s work. They highlight a paradox in the account, that the idea of the works as autonomous, solipsistic closed doors on association, is exactly what made them such potent political weapons; as symbols of American liberty and the freedom of the individuals expressionism. This is held in direct opposition to Soviet Socialist realism.
Fur gives an account of Greenberg’s amnesia over the importance of Surrealism both to Pollock and Modernism in general. She reassess his work, particularly the ‘cut out’ pieces’ within the context of his connection to surrealism. Her psychoanalytical approach, not of the biographical type but rather the pychology of the works and their impact on the viewer, reinvigorates Pollock’s practise.
New Art historical approaches, particular gender studies, provide an almost limitless critique of Greenberg and the whole process of production and consumption in which Pollocks work was produced. There is not enough room to even summarise those here, but Michael Leja and Anna C. Chave are of particular interest.
What these various revisionist accounts reveal, however, is a common condition. The Greenbergian doctrine ignores the clear importance of Pollocks imagery within fields of thought outside the frame. They are not closed doors but potent images which resonate through every level of the social and historical context in which they were produced. They emerge from and engage with the real tangible world in numerous and profound ways.
The mythologizing of Pollock and Michelangelo has been covered in much depth. Barbara Rose gives a good account of the role of Greenberg and Namuth in the sublimation of Pollock image. Krauss’ scathing account in the ‘Optical Unconscious’ demonstrates the exact mechanics of the creation of the Pollock myth.
The problem with much of the new literature on Pollock is that it takes Greenberg’s account as its basis rather than Pollocks work. The shift in this hierarchy moves the work from what should be a secure position at the centre of analysis, and instead focuses on the possibilities of errors in Greenberg’s application of his analysis. What is almost always taken for granted, therefore, is the visual analysis itself.
It is the presumption that Greenberg’s visual observations are correct that I wish to dispute, so reclaiming new ground for the possible understanding of Pollock’s work in a wider history of painting. The sheer flatness of the works, the visual power of the imagery and the balancing of formal content are all crucial to the dynamics of viewing a Pollock.
Harold Rosenberg’s account of Pollock and the other abstract expressionists is often dismissed, partly for its madcap notion that the objects themselves are subordinate to the process. Rosenberg’s dismissal of the finished product is clearly flawed, but his analysis of the importance of the process and the shift in the manner in which artists approached the canvas, is of deep importance.
Rosenberg famously stated:
“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
His claim that what was to go on was merely an event, and the picture lacked importance was incorrect. But it is true that Pollock’s works should be read in the terms in which they are created. They are recorded of an event, which is true of all paintings, but a Pollock expresses this truth at every stage of the viewing process.
We cannot escape the physicality of Pollock’s gesture. Our eyes trace the journey the paint made from the stick to the canvas. Each curved line talks of the movements of his arms across the surface and of his body around is perimeter.
There is a distinct musical quality to the way our eyes move up, across and through a Pollock. We engage in an optimality which has various rhythms, paces and melodies. Our eyes transverses a great swath of canvas, as one sweep grabs us, then we are held in a congested cluster before finding a way out and around the canvas again. The hypnotic quality of this journey sees us coming in tune with the pulse, beat and sensations of Pollock, like we might settle into the patterns of a signers voice or a drummers beat. We are not afforded a total detachment from the process of the images creation, instead we are actively involved in it, particularly as the image still seems alive, in the process of shifting and moving.
Biographic projector onto images is widely, and rightly, dismissed, but this engagement cannot fail but to open up some kind of reading and understanding with the mythological character of Pollock. There is something overtly masculine and sexual about the manner in which these images are made, and this something violently assaults our eyes on viewing the finished image. The great Amercian hero, all energetic, all action, athletically parading around the canvas, sticks held as if extensions of the penis, wildly ejaculating over the bare skin laid across the floor.
Rosenberg was wrong to dismiss the finished object as secondary to the process of the images making, but Greenberg and others are wrong to forget the importance of this process. The object and the process are always intrinsically linked, and in Pollock this link is central to any reading. The final object is, as much as anything else, a potent index of its own creation. Pollock’s paintings are monologues, providing autobiographies of their own making.
Perhaps the most common misconception of a Pollock is the notion that they speak entirely of flatness, a singular description of the spreading of the material across the surface. This is heralded as a modernist ideal. The reality of the images comes closer to a permanent ideal of painting.
View a Pollock in the flesh. Your eyes travels up and across the canvas, attaching itself to a single line, moving at pace across the surface. As the line moves over or below the webbed lattice our eyes moves with it, shifting across subtle illusionistic and physical depths. Our journey is often broken but arrival at points of coagulation. Our eyes shift from attention on a single line to awareness of a web area, this shift in registers creates the illusion of depth. Suddenly a space is opened up which our eye can fall into, dependant on the area and the painting, this depth various from very shallow to infinitely deep. It’s akin to the depths we find in a forest as our eyes search and move between layers of trees.
We are constantly oscillating between a reading across the surface to a reading through the surface. This two fold play between the reality of flatness and the illusion of depth if not new, but is a permanent truth of painting. The second we lay any mark on a canvas a sense of depth is created. The second we lay any mark on a canvas an awareness of flatness is created. The job of the painter is to harmonise these two registers.
This two fold play is something Pollock and Michelangelo both do. Look at Lavender Mist and Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ (Sistine Chapel). Is the viewing process that different? In the Last Judgement our first reading is not to go through the wall, but instead for our eyes to travel up and across, running up, around and across the spiralling mass of forms in the sky. It is a secondary, although equally as strong, reading which takes us into the picture. Like with a Pollock, we are aware of the image as a window and a wall, no viewing is spatially singular.
Both achieve these through their use of line. Michelangelo’s line is obviously harnessed towards exquisite mimetic ends, a figurative master class. Pollock’s line is, clearly, liberated from any direct figurative concerns. Yet for both there is a grammar of vision, there is an importance in using line as a sign with a multiplicity of references. They are aware of the role of line in the mechanics of viewing a painting. They use it to navigate us across and through the canvas, always fluctuating between both spatial registers.
It is the shift between two points of opposition which underpins Pollock’s work. The basic construction of Pollock’s work resides in a careful balance between order and chaos. Krauss’ essay on Pollock in ‘The Optical Unconscious’ reveals a history of criticism on the work which looks to polarise our reading. The language seems to veer towards a focus on the intrinsic order within his work or its seeming chaos, each being used as a device with which to either denigrate or subliminate his work.
The aggressive accusations claim ‘A dog or cat could do better’, they are ‘painted with a broom’, Pollock has just pissed on the canvas. They are labelled as the daubings of a pissed spider excreting paint.
The apologists praise the works relation to natural ordering systems, to the tight patterning of classical compositions,
The reality is that both statements are true of the works, they seem to sit precariously between utter chaos and a beautifully composed order. Just as our eye settles into a rhythm, defined by the seeming consistent ordering of the lattice of lines, the whole image breaks down. The image then becomes a sheer mess of lines in front of our eyes, just as it seems to be incomprehensible, our eye takes on a new line, bringing the whole into a new focus. We rediscover potential orders and patterns within the work.
Krauss correctly relates the distinction between the two points in regards to the shift in the works from a horizontal mode of production and a vertical axis or consumption. She discusses the shift in terms of the sublimation of Pollock. Yet it seems to reach further than this. In shifting from the horizontal to the vertical Pollock shifts gravity. A line of paint which sits flat, without dripping, goes on a journey from a mere index of Pollock’s process and past presence to a floating phenomenon of liberated line. It is the shift from the framework of the works making to its viewing, which raises the makes Pollock makes beyond a mere record of his presence and into a world of otherness. There is a certain magic within this new gravity defining pattern, a kind of unconscious energy which seems to sit beneath the line. They seem alive, but they seem to speak of mystical internal forces rather than being mere autobiographical accounts of their making.
In laying his canvas across the floor Pollock was able to liberate line, to reinvigorate his range of marks, to find his signature expression. But it is in the shifting of the plane back to the vertical for the purposes of viewing which allows his webs of lines to transcend themselves and to find a moving power which is akin to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. The word ‘Terribalata’ was used to describe the sense of awe which the Last Judgement induced on viewers. Its closest translation is perhaps to the 19th Century ideal of the sublime. It seems that this is the best frame in which to read Pollocks work, as if it is a sublime landscape, and we become Friedrichs wanderer, looking across and into a force of nature.