“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying this image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.”1
In January 1948, at the Betty Parsons gallery in New York, Jackson Pollock unveiled seventeen of what are now regarded as his classic works; among them was Lucifer, a work of oil, enamel, and aluminium paint. It stood three feet five inches high by eight feet nine and a half inches wide, and was named partly out of convenience, in order to distinguish it from other works, but also to help thematise the works of that year.
Lucifer at face value presents something of an enigma because it is an abstract work with no apparent formal content or clue to its meaning. However, we are we drawn to it even though it appears devoid of all potential rationalisation and leave us no hooks upon which to exert our cognitive interpretation. Representational, symbolic, and conceptual art all allow discussion upon their content so that a sense of satisfaction can be gained, By contrast, works like Lucifer seem to positively shun the possibility of satisfaction, or even meaning. So, what is it about Lucifer that holds our gaze, keeps us interested, or even answers to something deep within us? The answer to this question whilst appearing deceptively inviting actually requires very careful consideration if one is not to plummet into meaningless platitudes.
On the 15th of January 1948 Alonzo Lansford reviewed what we now regard as Pollock’s ground-breaking exhibition in The Art Digest. However, Lansford, the journalist, derided both Pollock’s technique and results:
“Pollock’s current method seems to be a sort of automatism; apparently, while staring steadily up into the sky, he lets go a loaded brush on the canvas, rapidly swirling and looping and wriggling till the paint runs out. Then he repeats the procedure with another color, and another, till the canvas is covered. This, with much use of aluminium paint, results in a colourful and exciting panel. Probably it also results in the severest pain in the neck since Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling.”2
Such obstinate resistance to his work must surely remind us, and possibly even reminded Pollock himself, of James Johnson Sweeney’s tone-setting inaugural appraisal of Pollock in which he called for courage in painters to “risk spoiling a canvas to say something in their own way,” and for them to paint “from inner impulsion without an ear to what the critic or spectator may feel.”3 Pollock in his classic work definitely seemed to adopt this sentiment, although public opinion did weigh heavily upon him. For now, though, it might be more useful to examine one of Pollock’s own descriptions of his work:
“When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying this image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with this painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”4
The emphasis is clear, once a relationship has been established between the painter and the work, then harmony can ensue, this is obviously in contrast to Lansford’s suggestion of haphazardness. Bryan Robertson, in his effusive account of Blue Poles, a work from slightly later in Pollock’s career but still arguably in the same format, picks up the pace by analysing Pollock’s rigour in this new direction:
“The degree of control is prodigious in Pollock’s handling of pigment in this new way. The same split-second precision determines the degree of accuracy in the way that a cow-hand handles a lariat. Control is of the essence.”5
Such praise, though, only came after Pollock’s death.
During Pollock’s life much of the criticism surrounding his work and even himself, especially after that first show at Betty Parsons was in the same sniping vein as Lansford’s. Robert Coates writing for The New Yorker said that the exhibition’s major works were “mere unorganised explosions of random energy, and therefore meaningless.”6 Pollock, predictably enough, felt attacked by such damning accusations of his work as random or haphazardly automatic, from which Robertson all too late, four years after his death, would rescue him.
Two months before Pollock’s first solo exhibition in November 1943, when he unveiled Guardians of the Secret, Norman Schwab was born in Chicago, Illinois. In 1992, Schwab prepared to exhibit his work at The Yamasa Institute’s, Aichi Center for Japanese Studies, Nob Gallery in Okazaki. The reason for my remarking upon such an apparently unrelated artist lies in Michael Laurence’s opening comments for the catalogue of Schwab’s exhibition:
“Art which is enigmatic compels us back to experience it again and again. It yields its visual and emotional meaning in layers by repeated viewings. Yet, enigmatic art never wholly explains its complete meaning, core of secrecy, because it’s ‘narrative’ shifts and constantly changes with each successive viewing. The root of the word enigma comes from the act of telling fables, from talking in riddles where meaning is caught or glimpsed at a slant.”7
Such a description of Schwab’s work could almost be used to describe Guardians of the Secret, painted in 1943, which belongs to an earlier phase in Pollock’s career that I feel is rather more provocative and evocative than enigmatic.
Obviously, then, I am suggesting that there is a difference between my use of enigmatic and Laurence’s, even though similarities are also present. The compelling quality of a work such as Lucifer, in its demand for repeated viewings, is definitely a facet of its enigma for me, yet the frustrating search for meaning I find misplaced and more applicable, as I have suggested, to Pollock’s earlier work. Meaning can only be sought for under certain conditions. Perhaps this is where Laurence and I diverge over our use of the word ‘enigmatic’? For Laurence, it appears that for something to be enigmatic it must have an impermeable core of meaning which is more tangible than it’s having meaning by being just significant or important. Laurence’s meaning indicates that something could be unveiled and understood if it were not enveloped in its impermeable membrane. In my use of the term enigmatic there is no apparent impermeable core of meaning given. This sense of meaning has been removed, and the enigmatic dimension only surfaces due to the work somehow still possessing significance and importance to us. To properly grasp this idea of meaning being removed we have go back to Pollock himself.
In 1946, at an artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Pollock renewed his volatile relationship Hans Hofmann. After goading Hofmann into an argument, Pollock made his famous declaration “I am nature”8 when Hofmann tried to suggest that Pollock should work from nature. Although this declaration took place before the establishment of his more mature abstract works, I believe, it acts as a statement of intent as to where Pollock was venturing artistically.
Clearly any sense of attempting to duplicate, represent, or symbolize nature was something that Pollock wanted to remove from his work. However, “I am nature”, as a statement, has ambiguities. By removing ‘traditional elements’ from one’s art, one leaves open the question of what one is actually doing or, in Pollock’s case, painting.
In the catalogue statement for his exhibition entitled The Intrasubjectives, shown in late autumn 1949, where many contemporary American artists were brought together under the fraternity of the mind, Sam Kootz stated:
“Only now has there been a concerted effort to abandon the tyranny of the object and the sickness of naturalism and to enter within consciousness…. The intrasubjective artist invents from personal experience, creates from an internal world rather than an external one.”9
Harold Rosenberg, in the same catalogue, veers away from the, by now, all too familiar topic of consciousness within art criticism and muses upon the new toy of existentialism:
“The modern painter… begins with nothingness. That is the only thing he copies. The rest he invents….. Instead of mountains, copses, nudes, etc., it is his space that speaks to him, quivers, turns green or yellow with bile, gives him a sense of sport, of sign language, of the absolute… Naturally, under the circumstances, there is no use looking for silos or madonnas. They have all melted into the void. But, as I said, the void itself, you have that, just as surely as your grandfather had a sun-speckled lawn.”10
John Golding, in some small way, continues Rosenberg’s metaphysical thoughts when he discusses Pollock’s work between 1947 and 1951: “There is even a sense in which Pollock was, in them, representing the unrepresentable.”11 Quite whether Pollock meant his declaration, or even his work, to be read in any of these ways is, in my mind only perhaps, open to question. Could it really be that easy to categorise, summarise, and then potentially dismiss Pollock in this way? Anyway, surely, there is an inherent contradiction in these critical summations in conjunction with his declaration. Both Rosenberg’s and Golding’s metaphysics seem at odds with Pollock’s succinctly grounded hylicist position of “I am Nature” which also doesn’t favour Kootz’s last seasons fashion of woven consciousness.
The simplicity and purity of Pollock’s classic work, as seen in Lucifer, clearly acts as an entreaty for the art critic or complex theoretician to include his work into their theses. However, Pollock’s own declaration puts up considerable resistance to such complexity and appears to defy theoretical manipulation of any kind. David Lee in An Artists’ Symposium, organised by Art News in 1967, suggested that Pollock was painting with his physical being rather than some form of consciousness or ideologue: “For this new confidence in his senses, it is right to say that Pollock broke significantly with the classic history of painting.”12 Perhaps this physical attunement was what Pollock was referring to with his declaration to Hofmann? To gain a more rounded insight it is perhaps prudent to step back and see how other simpler observations about his new format reflect my description of this work as somehow removing the traditional ‘meaning’ constituents from a work of art.
Pepe Karmel uses two of Pollock’s contemporary reviews to discuss my notion of removal in his article A Sum of Destructions.
“As Seiberling wrote in Life, ‘Once in a while a lifelike image appears in the painting by mistake. But Pollock cheerfully rubs it out because the picture must retain a “life of its own.”’ Similarly, the text accompanying Namuth’s photographs of Pollock on their first publication, in 1951, stated, ‘The conscious part of the mind, he says, plays no part in the creation of his work. It is relegated to the duties of a watchdog; when the unconscious sinfully produces a representational image, the conscience cries alarm and Pollock wrenches himself back to reality and obliterates the offending form’.”13
Quite whether we should, or Karmel does, entertain the ‘watchdog’ description of Pollock’s consciousness, or even Seiberling’s claim of figurative erasure, is subject matter for such work by James Coddington and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro who employed various scientific ‘x-ray’ procedures to discover how Pollock built up his classic format images. The importance for our present investigation lies in what Pollock presented as a finished painting. The finished paintings of the classic period, such as Lavender Mist, have no figuration or representational image, these have been removed. Whether deliberately avoided, scrubbed out, deleted, or painted over, any recognisable image, object, or form is absent from Pollock’s work in this format, as Karmel states: “The effect of the finished paintings is unquestionably abstract.”14 Karmel also highlights that this was what “Pollock himself insisted.”15
Now, this is important, because Karmel is making reference here to Pollock’s radio interview for WERI, Westerley, Rhode Island radio, where over the course of two questions concerning how someone should approach his work he gave the following insightful statement:
“I think they should not look for, but look passively – and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for…. I think it [his painting] should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed – after a while you may like it or you may not.”16
So, in wanting his viewers to “not look for” Pollock must have deliberately wanted his paintings to be completely devoid of any particular imagery, object, or form. However, how similar do Pollock’s words on how one should approach his art sound to Levinas’ thoughts on how when should approach the face of the other? Remember, in post 25, that Levinas said the following:
“The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the colour of his eyes! When one observes the colour of his eyes one is not in a social relationship with the other.”17
So, Pollock, through his art-enabled way of ‘not looking’ presents us with a remarkable parallel to Levinas. The key being that the spectator or subject should not examine what is before them, but rather allow that which they are with, whether The Deep in this instance or another person, to be free to present themselves without interference, examination or speculation from the subject. Of course, this is tremendously hard, however, as Levinas states, to do otherwise is not to be in a “social relationship with the other”. Pursuing that line of thought, Pollock’s classic works determined to elicit a social relationship from their spectators, something which hitherto was to all intents and purposes unheard of in the history of art.
Getting back to Pollock, per se, David Novros tackles the theme of Pollock’s work removing all particular focus points in order to preserve a uniform vision, which he juxtaposes with the, then, inherent problem of their explanation. How does one ‘explain’ Blue Poles; Number 1, 1950, Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm or Number 32, 1950? Novros writes:
“If I say that these paintings are ‘totally resolved’ – what do I mean? I mean that in my describing my appreciation of Blue Poles I cannot separate colors, color drawing, composition, space, shape and describe the ways in which these elements are independently deployed in the painting. If I write about the ‘colors’ in the painting (ultramarine, black, white, orange, yellow, aluminium) and how they are juxtaposed then I will be writing about the ‘drawing’ which at the same time will describe the ‘space’ which will describe the ‘composition’ which will describe the ‘scale’ which will describe the ‘total color quality’… Is this confusing? When written, yes, but when standing in front of Blue Poles, there are no contradictions, the painting transcends all paradox – it is a unified object – a Painting – and that is something I know, but can’t explain.”18
Whether we have the “total resolution” of an enthusiastic Novros in these works, or the “negligible content”19 of Howard Devree’s disparaging December 3, 1950 article in The New York Times, what is certain is that Pollock’s classic format caused a major disruption. Or, as Willem de Kooning remarked: “Every so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell.”20
Pollock’s removal of imagery, object, and form broke through to a new art which created not only a painting but also an ‘environment,’ which was devoid of any impermeable, or otherwise, inner core of meaning and necessitated a radical re-evaluation of our critical capacities and gave rise to such innovative descriptions as Novros’ “total resolution.” Pollock himself understood the necessity of critical innovation and famously said of his work that “it confronts you,”21 thus turning on its head our preconceived notions of how to look at a painting. Such a drastic overturning of aesthetic theory confirms de Kooning’s remarks and gives license to John Golding’s comparative encapsulation of Pollock’s progression to his classic works: “The Guardians’ who had stood over the jealously kept secret are no longer required because the secret is revealed as painting itself.”22 Art critics are made redundant. Pollock has single-handedly dispensed with their services and replaced their words with a confrontation that can only be attained in person or, as Levinas would say, in a “social relationship” between the work of art and the person standing before it, who can no longer be a subject nor a spectator, but rather something more like a friend, perhaps?
Don’t worry, Benso has something to say on this.
- Pollock. J., ‘My Painting’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 18.
- Lansford, A., ‘Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Automatic Pollock’, included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 58.
- Sweeney, J. J., quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, 59.
- Pollock. J., ‘My Painting’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 18.
- Robertson, B., Jackson Pollock, 35.
- Coates, R. M., quoted in Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, 555.
- Laurence, M. ‘Art Criticism for Exhibition and Catalogue of Norman Schwab’ Nob Gallery, Okazaki, 1992, http://www2.gol.com/users/nobg/artists/norman/Norman-Critics-E.html
- Naifeh, S. and White, G., Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, 486.
- Kootz, S., quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, 135.
- Rosenberg, H., quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, 136.
- Golding, J., Paths to the Absolute, 139.
- Lee, D., ‘Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part 2’, from Art News, vol. 66, no. 3 May 1967, 27.
- Karmel, P. ‘A sum of Destructions’ included in Jackson Pollock: New Approaches, Kirk Varnedoe and Pepe Karmel, (eds.), 88.
- Ibid., 89
- Pollock, J., ‘Interview with Jackson Pollock’, broadcast on radio station WERI, Westerley, Rhode Island 1951, included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 20-21.
- Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, 85.
- Novros, D. ‘Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part 2’, Art News, vol. 66, no. 3 May 1967, 29.
- Devree, H., quoted in B. H. Friedman, Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible, 167.
- De Kooning, W., quoted in Deborah Solomon, Jackson Pollock: A Biography, p. 178.
- Pollock. J., quoted in Berton Roueché, ‘Unframed Space’ included in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and Reviews, 19.
- Golding, J., Paths to the Absolute, 134.