Abstract Critical

Pollock’s Planes

Written by Robert Linsley

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.
See how the absent moon waits in a glade
Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,
Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.

-Wallace Stevens, Blanche McCarthy

Today, the stature and importance of Jackson Pollock’s work is taken for granted, however, critical interpretations of his work have not changed much since the sixties. The formalist line of Clement Greenberg is pretty much entrenched in academia, and its basic outlines are well known. The expressionist line, from Harold Rosenberg through Alan Kaprow, has perhaps had more influence on practicing artists, although it is generally out of favour among critics and art historians. In addition to these two main traditions there is a Jungian faction, also venerable, and the recent “hidden figuration” theories of Pepe Karmel, presented in the catalogue of the last retrospective, but these latter have the drawback that they treat Pollock’s work as if it were analysable in the same way as any historical figure painting. If his work is as important for abstraction as many of us would like to think it is, surely it must demand something more innovative from criticism. I would like to make two modest contributions to the discourse. Firstly, to suggest that Pollock’s work is both abstract and completely literary. It is this way because the gesture of reduction that Pollock makes itself has very old literary antecedents. Secondly, I would like to propose what I think is a fresh, if not in fact entirely new, way of looking at the lines, forms and spaces of the classic drip paintings.

Part One: Abstract and Literary

To put it briefly, my claim is that as the paint falls, so does the artist, and this trajectory can be seen clearly in the works of 1946-47, at the beginning of the cycle of major drip paintings. Full Fathom Five and Sea Change (both 1947) are two pieces from this period into which various kinds of debris—pebbles, cigarettes, coins etc.—have fallen. They also have Shakespearean titles, drawn from the exquisitely lyrical death poem of The Tempest. The Shakespearean reference seems appropriate for the artist who declared “I am nature,” because Shakespeare, for over two hundred years, has been paradigmatic for precisely that Romantic conception of the artist. From here we could also note that this poem about the death and transfiguration of the father is an entirely appropriate reference for an artist who is just beginning to succeed in sublimating the inheritance of analytic cubism and thereby build his own world of magic on the preserved and transmutated body of his most anxiously regarded father, Picasso.

But I would rather swing in another direction and observe that Full Fathom Five and Sea Change overlap a larger group with celestial titles—Comet, Galaxy, Reflection of the Big Dipper, and, most importantly, Lucifer (all 1947). In these latter pieces the canvas on the floor is placed in a mirroring relation to the sky. One member of this group (Galaxy) contains heterogeneous material, and so also belongs with the lyrical death pieces already mentioned, but the titles of the others offer complexly poetic images of falling. Comet seems the most literal—a bolt of light falling downward at a slant. This piece may be the one referred to by Greenberg in a 1948 review of a show at Betty Parsons as “Shooting Star.” But Reflection of the Big Dipper is far more important. The title is explicit about how the picture works in relation to the sky above it, and it has a suggestion of imagery—stars, clouds and tree branches reflected in a pond—that can be very naturally derived from the position of the canvas flat down. In this case the canvas does not passively collect falling debris, but rather images of what arches above. Situated on the cusp of Pollock’s turn to a materialist and non-representational art, this residual figuration marks a gathering of energies toward the next stage; but the most interesting aspect of this work is the way that it collapses a deep and spherical space onto the picture plane, and then elides the view looking down and the view looking up. It’s as if the placement of the canvas on the floor has paradoxically reinvested the tradition of ceiling painting. The rich possibilities of this piece are obscured when it is hung vertically on the wall, perhaps explaining why its signal importance has not been detected. It’s as if Kandinsky’s cosmic spaces have been made material; not so much flatter as more rational in purely painterly terms. But the invocation of Lucifer, the original fallen star, in a thoroughly abstract painting, is the clue that helps us to understand that the reductions of Pollock’s art—above all a surrendering of the power to invent and distort forms in favour of a kind of semi-automatism powered by gravity—themselves constitute a fall, which means an acknowledgement and acceptance of a certain kind of failure. At the same time, the Satanic reference implicit in the title also signals Pollock’s determination to turn that failure into a new kind of success, because by Satan I mean a noble old literary character, the hero/villain of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

My argument starts with the titles of the works, but it doesn’t depend on them. The titles are convenient, but they can be misleading. There is evidence that some of them at least were suggested by others—including Pollock’s Long Island neighbour Ralph Manheim. Pollock’s fall is not the literal fall of paint from his stick; rather, the technique is itself a metaphor or trope for the more profound and essential fall. What is under discussion is reduction as an aesthetic posture, of which the abandonment of painterly tools and the capacities they give is only one aspect; Pollock’s gesture is more than a throw of the paint, it is a deliberate declining away from the achievement of cubism.

In a classic modernist stratagem, he moved downward to a more fundamental plane of experience, where plastic form and pictorial space are not so clearly resolved. But while spatially the movement is down, temporally it is backwards to a moment before cubism, to a more “primitive” and hence more modern achievement. Down and back is how it goes. Fallenness can only be acknowledged and troped through a further fall; he undoes the father by further scattering his broken forms and further collapsing his uncertain spaces.

Krasner’s description of Pollock’s ambivalence toward Picasso is well known:

… there’s no question that he admired Picasso and at the same time competed with him, wanted to go past him. Even before we lived in East Hampton I remember one time I heard something fall and then Jackson yelling ‘God damn it, that guy missed nothing!’ I went to see what had happened, Jackson was sitting, staring: and on the floor, where he had thrown it, was a book of Picasso’s work…[1]

But his disheartenment might be better summarized by the following words of God from Book VII of Paradise Lost, words that could have issued from the illustrations in that same art book:

Necessity and Chance
Approach not me, and what I will is Fate
. [2]

It’s no accident that Pollock’s method should hinge precisely on that very dialectic of chance and necessity—means with which to make his own space within the aesthetic fate known as Picasso.

For any artist of Pollock’s generation, Picasso’s determining role—in other words, the problem that he posed—lay in the feeling of total freedom that emanated from his work. He was apparently not bound by any rules, meaning that he was master of the circumstances of modern art, which to other artists appeared as historical necessity. At the same time, every decision that he made, no matter how arbitrarily personal, became art history—in other words a fact that everyone else had to deal with. His freedom became fate for others. Pollock might throw the art book down, but he is the one thrown, and so it’s no accident that his later method involved thrown paint. This is where Pollock’s friendship with Ralph Manheim may be significant. As a translator of Heidegger, Manheim would have known about the philosopher’s notion of the “thrownness” of Being. But better to leave this direction for a qualified scholar; we just have to remember that Lucifer did not just accidentally fall out of heaven, he was thrown, and after that expulsion he became Satan, both fallen and falling still.

Paradise Lost was written in the period just before and after the failure of the English republic and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. According to Christopher Hill: “…the magnificent Satan of the early books of the epic does convey some of the defiance Milton himself must have felt tempted to hurl in the face of omnipotence as the republic crashed about his ears. The rebellious energy ebbs in the later books, after the restoration of Charles II has brought Milton to recognize the full magnitude of the rethinking that is required.”[3] In this reading Satan—after the rebellious energy has ebbed—is a typical modern person, and it is his typicality that ensures the legibility and validity of abstraction in general. But before he became a universal type, Satan was also one Romantic paradigm of the artist, a model of a disillusioned realism that yet refuses to surrender to the reality principle. That understands that heroism lies in what one makes of the present, yet understands just as well what a failure such success must be; both Pollock’s ambition and his despair, as we remember them.

The paintings of 1947 were more than formal experiments. Pollock was trying to discover what kind of artist he was and necessarily taking on or performing two very different modern roles, roles first written by the Romantics and therefore fundamental for any modern artist: the artist as nature – Shakespeare the model; and the artist as a fallen being, as small and dry and unable to reach beyond himself as the pebbles in the paintings, but nevertheless heroically grounded in that same alienated state – the historic model Milton’s Satan. Pollock’s articulation of these two roles is his way of transforming materialist reduction into a modern sublime; more precisely, to invoke these two personae as alternative masks for the artist is a metaphoric way of talking about that motion.

Sensitive readers will detect here a close approach to Harold Rosenberg. The tradition of abstraction that I’m going to trace out from Pollock is not subjectivist in a narrow sense but it is about how it is possible to be an artist at all – about the creation of the individual as an autonomous critical position through mimetic work on historical tradition, and this is what Rosenberg was concerned with. Many art historians today are unfairly critical of Rosenberg; some of them, T.J.Clark for one, seem to think that they have to take sides with Greenberg against his rival, as if the friction between Greenberg’s reductivism and seriousness and Rosenberg’s irony and social perspective was a moral issue. In actuality it’s more one of expedience; Greenberg’s ideas are more useful to the art historian, definitely. Rosenberg’s position is always caricatured, and reduced to the straw man of “action;” in fact his actor was always on stage—never blindly flailing, but always self-conscious and historically knowing, rehearsed to the point of virtuosity, and very much aware of the audience. Rosenberg’s insight is that the artist is a function of the thing made, not of the biography of the person who makes things. To confuse him with a naive expressionist requires some willful misinterpretation. In any event, the expressiveness of Pollock’s work lies in how a gesture – a fall – can bring to life a condition – a state of fallenness. The historical continuity of this state has to be articulated with the novelty of the gesture – the question is whether it is possible to fall further and then to keep falling. Though we have to consider Satan, and Milton, I don’t want to propose historical origins for Pollock, but historical consequences.

Pollock’s successors, Stella and Louis, rejected the subjectivist or “expressionist” reading of his work even as they carried forward its aspect of self-negation or the voiding of meaning, which we could characterize as a fall into banality and emptiness, and each of these artists teach us how to read the classic drip paintings in this way. Stella’s stripe paintings, for example, force a recognition of the dumb factuality of Pollock’s commercial enamel on raw canvas. Notions that the swirls and loops of paint register movements in the artist’s subjectivity are put aside by an objective arbitrariness that we come to identify as fundamental to abstraction itself. Louis, on the other hand, foregrounds the experience of passive falling as he spends most of his studio time waiting for paint to drip.

At the 1967 Pollock retrospective, the works of 1947 had an important impact on Robert Smithson. In an article of the following year, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Smithson recognized Pollock as one of his own precursors:

 Full Fathom Five becomes a Sargasso Sea, a dense lagoon of pigment, a logical state of an oceanic mind. Pollock’s introduction of pebbles into his private topographies suggests an interest in geological artifices.

Pollock enabled Smithson to see the entropic aspect of Louis’s pours, and this was immediately reflected in the composition of the essay Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,[4] and in his series of out-of-the-studio, real world versions of Louis’s paintings, such as the Glue Pour and the Asphalt Rundown. But his strongest response to Pollock was his series of Non-Sites, begun in 1968. The nihilist line runs from Pollock’s drips to Stella and Louis, and the Non-Sites then continue the decline, arriving at rock bottom. These works remind us of the larger universe outside the human world, and the invocation of entropy tropes this “outside” as death, which in art is always an allegory of the process of artistic becoming. The anxiety precipitated out in those boxes full of rocks is then of the same sort that produced Pollock, for the death wish encoded in his citations from The Tempest – the transformative “sea change” – is also an allegory of what the paintings are supposed to accomplish, both for himself and for art. Smithson’s famous dialectic of boundlessness and containment is yet another attempt to put both romantic masks into play at once; cosmic immensity and fallen matter become the tropes of a new formal text that apparently dispenses with the subjectivity of the artist yet still stages the drama that brings the artist into being.

Pollock aims to be first, and this is why his picture has the name Lucifer rather than Satan – the existence of an artist, if the work is fully achieved, is supposed to be something like the happy celestial state before the fall. This is a rather optimistic troping away from the artist’s lateness, his or her real Satanic condition. But the heroism of Satan, his negative magnificence, is itself a troping of the consequences of the first fall as we know them immediately in this world – the banality of labour. Work is the curse of the fallen world; interestingly Milton, in common with some of his radical contemporaries, believed that Adam and Eve also worked in the garden before the fall. [5] For modern art, a positive conception of labour has long been crucial.

Impressionist paintings, for example, often depict scenes of leisure, and this is one reason for their popularity, but they also display visible signs of the work that went into them – their brushstrokes show. It’s the congruence of work and leisure that makes Impressionist paintings so appealing and so significant; they are accounts of lived time, not empty time passed in routine work, or “killed” leisure time, its counterpart, but genuinely lived time, free of the clock but measured out by the stages of an intrinsically valuable activity. It could be the very image of non-alienated labour, except that it is so dependent on typical holiday sights and scenes, and on how those summer days feel, that it can’t get out of the shadow of modern work. A beautiful dream of time lived without pressure, but a time ticked off by the succession of brushstrokes, each one a reminder of the grim truth that all dreams are of a moment, and that all moments must end.

In modern art after Impressionism, sensual pleasure is increasingly expressed through large flat colour areas, culminating in the so-called colour field of sixties American modernism. The little brushstrokes disappear, except around the edges of a field, or turn into subtle modulations within it, a generalized brushiness. In the process work also seems to disappear, but not for the painter. It takes a lot of repetitive and sometimes even boring work to make a “one-shot” painting, one that gives the viewer an instant and easy pleasure. Yet each colour field is still the equivalent of one brushstroke. Impressionism is continued in these works not just through lateral openness or optical effects but in an image of an elastic present – a temporal distance that’s been lived through.

In any modernist painting, what matters is the interval between the individual strokes; the shorter the interval the more vivid the experience of the work as an organic union of action and reflection. The field painting represents an inflation of the inter-time, which coincides historically with an increasingly conceptual practice within all forms of art. It is an adaptation to a world where an artist passes ever more time like an office worker—organizing, supervising, phoning, ordering, paying bills, explaining, teaching, even writing. The gap between strokes is the space of reflection, of criticism, of reorientation of energies toward the next stroke, and the wider it is the more filled in with digressions, discursions, relationships, allusions, parallels and language of all sorts—all more or less direct or indirect ways toward the next stroke but also ever more likely to form an autonomous realm of their own.

But the stroke itself, now very much larger than could be grasped by any artist’s hand, is as hollowed out as the complementary inter-time. Morris Louis, for one, spent most of his working day watching paint seep down his canvases. Two canonical readings of his work are clearly inadequate; neither Michael Fried’s claims for a high seriousness that skates over the surface of nothingness, nor the contrary but corollary view that the pictures are pure visual pleasure really have it covered. What both miss is the labour of filling in the field—and Louis’s exemplary way of dodging that work. More germane is art historian Shep Steiner’s Kierkegaardian reading of Louis’s anxiety. As the paint falls, so does the artist; Louis’s passive process is an experience of a fall into banality and emptiness, and though he accepts empty time without any apparent anxiety, it is precisely this acceptance that measures what is at stake. One of the beauties of Louis’s work is that each stain clearly and visibly retains its identity as a single stroke, and this is the difference between it and the work of the more strictly field painters such as Newman, Rothko, Kelly and Noland: Louis’s drips track the price paid for the “one-shot” painting, a price paid in “lost” time. See for example Louis’ Alpha Pi.

The works of Pollock, Frankenthaler, and Louis are openly additive; they move in one direction only toward completion – there are no corrections. Corrections and changes of all sorts, which are a turning back of the work on its own development, were of the essence of modernist painting from Cezanne right through Cubism and Mondrian, and this ability to turn back has important pragmatic consequences for any historical theory of modernism – if the artist can turn back before the work is finished, then presumably any artist can turn back at any time to any earlier modern moment, as long as modernity itself is not finished. But the reason for on-going changes and corrections was to build stronger, more compelling works – pictures with an ability to stop time and still keep it alive. Modernist painting aims to heighten the time sense by creating a vivid present; to do this it has to tinker with the past – including the past of art – and needs a strong sense of the future. The colour field continues this tradition but dissembles its time consciousness by eliminating internal movement and presenting itself all at once. The present becomes clotted with paint; there are no spaces through which time can breathe. In great modernist painting, sensuousness releases the moment and frees the viewer; the brushwork of latter day abstraction is temporal quicksand, and the even, flat field only covers over the mistake. The additive painters, on the other hand, let the time of painting unfold as an image of their own mortality. Is it because they have lost the strength to seize time and make it halt?

Paintings don’t literally move after all. Their movements are figurative—in other words, tropes. The tradition from Pollock through Louis and Frankenthaler tropes by substituting natural process for creative power, or, more accurately, the artist’s capacity to both break and invent form is figured as itself nature. Since the process used is gravity, the time of creation becomes an allegory of death – time runs out with the paint. It’s easy to see a continuity with the Impressionists and their discovery that paint itself can be used to heighten the time sense, although the art actually troped is cubism, with its claim to the future. This curtailing of the time within the work is a more radical reduction of art’s potentials than the elimination of figuration, but freedom from the past – meaning especially the cubist past – is supposed to open up the future and establish a new tradition. A painting without a past is a first painting, yet in practice the new abstraction could only anticipate a future of more reductions, and the final point on this line is marked by Smithson’s Non-sites.

Frankenthaler was clearly attempting to challenge Pollock’s firstness. One good example would be her punning title Before the Caves, trumping the primeval claims of her predecessor’s famous handprints. Louis then took the primacy of the laws of physics as a way of competitively establishing himself as earlier still. Coming later, Smithson, with sardonic ambition, called on The Second Law of Thermodynamics, a more fundamental law than gravity, but his firstness is also an image of the end, the ultimate “heat death” of the universe. Smithson wants to be both first and last, but this grandiloquently cosmic negation is at the expense of the present, both the social present and the time of creation, neither of which remain in the work. Smithson belongs in this tradition because even though his immediate models were Pollock and Louis – in fact, precisely because of the narrowness of his concern with these two artists – his work is just as much engaged in an anxious negation of cubism. A jumbled pile of rocks in a steel box is the ultimate cubist composition – many flat and curved planes tilted in all directions, crystalline solids and voids of any shape – but there is literally nowhere to go from there; the fall through time has finished and all potential energy has been expended. The death of painting is hardly an historical event; it is one of the major tropes of firstness and a critical perspective on the deadness of work in this culture. Only the most flat-footed literalist could take the endgame as the sign of an actual end, however deferred, and claims about the end of modernism are all too literal responses to the dying fall of one tradition of abstract art.

Part Two: Space

However interesting all this may be, it’s only art history if it doesn’t help us to see the pictures in a new and useful way. To stand in the MOMA, or any other collection with good cubist pictures and good Pollocks, and move from one to the other, can give a very different understanding of the major drip paintings than conventional art history does. But can a way of looking at Pollock that brings him, and us, closer to cubism do anything for the future of painting?

Greenberg, Pollock and all of their important colleagues of the forties and fifties were so much concerned with establishing an American art, with achieving independence from and equality with Europe, that the specifics of Pollock’s relationship with cubism have not been enough recognized. He was supposed to be different, he had to be different, and so his breaks with cubism had to be more important than his links to it. Greenberg trod the line. In 1961 he said “The interstitial spots and areas left by Pollock’s webs of paint answer Picasso’s and Braque’s original facet-planes, and create an analogously ambiguous illusion of shallow depth. This is played off, however, against a far more emphatic surface, and Pollock can open and close his webs with much greater freedom because they do not have to follow a model in nature.” [6]

This is a description that has to be expanded, and that is what I will do, but I dissent from Greenberg’s exceptions, from the qualities that are supposed to guarantee Pollock’s difference. It’s curious how insubstantial they are. The second one is obviously nothing at all – since when does the need or obligation to follow a model in nature put any a priori limits on form? Granted it may have seemed that way once, somewhere, but objectively it is simply not true, certainly not since cubism. That leaves us with an “emphatic surface,” in other words, the famous flatness. But how does “flatter” constitute a significant advance? If that’s all there is to American painting perhaps it’s better than no one talks that way anymore. More important is the modifier “emphatic,” which basically means the strength, decisiveness and grace of Pollock’s gestures. Actually there are any number of objective qualities – feeling, will, passion, intelligence – that distinguish Pollock’s painting and make it great. And there is the achievement, also recognized by Greenberg, which I have glossed as necessary reduction, or the Satanic fall (“…Pollock demonstrates that something related to skill is likewise unessential to the creation of aesthetic quality: namely, personal touch, individuality of execution, handwriting, ‘signature.’”[7]). But on the level of form, despite all the importance American critics give to the all-over composition, Pollock’s work just doesn’t move that far from cubism. I guess I have to agree with Greenberg again:

For all its initial violence, Pollock’s originality was not such as to compel him to break with certain canons of style laid down by the Cubists. This may sound surprising, but one has to remember that advanced art has always turned out in the long run to be less advanced, less removed from tradition, than it first looked. [8]

So how then does it look? One might use the following terms to try and describe the forms and spaces produced by the lines in a painting by Pollock: transparent globular bulges, pleated curtains, broken receding cylinders, angled irregular planes, cliffs and plateaux. One: Number 31 in the MOMA , is good example of what I’m describing. The heavier black and white lines both all seem to be marking out the edges of planes, some of them tilted in space and some of them quite complexly curved. I think the proof that this is how Pollock saw them, or that he meant that they could be seen this way, is found in a 1948 piece in the Tate Gallery called Summertime: Number 9A. He has filled in the spaces between some of the skeins with solid areas of oil colour. These more or less triangular planes look like sails twisting and receding at different angles. He does the same thing in another piece of the same year called White Cockatoo, though in this case the colored planes are also written over with calligraphic squiggles. This overwriting is an attempt to give transparency to the colored fields, to see if the skeins can come through the solid areas. But eventually he realized that the effect of curved planes was present without the need to paint them in, that they swell between the more prominent thrown lines anyway.

Pictorial space is transparency, by definition. Space and form are always inter-effective, creating and defining each other, and historically forms were always solid and opaque, making space a circumambient medium. Cezanne’s twisted and bent spaces showed a way forward, and Picasso and Braque competitively bent them further, driving the forms right through each other. Pollock adopts Picasso’s aim – to render the forms themselves transparent and strangely penetrable. The straight lines in a cubist painting of 1911-12 form strict boundaries for the individual strokes of paint, almost always marking a shift of colour or tone, yet we can still feel the space flowing through the planes. Pollock continues in the same direction by setting his stronger and more prominent lines against, beneath and above amorphous clouds and fogs of paint. Even where they close in on themselves to make skeletal volumes, the effect is still one of transparency, of free and unencumbered movement within and through the paint.

Both Picasso and Pollock are working against the opacity of paint, for the medium that is supposed to create space can be in itself nothing but an obstacle to the same. Such is the magic of great painting – to assert and simultaneously overcome its own materiality. To put it another way – all painting is illusionistic, and this, rather than “flatness,” is the fundamental defining quality of the medium. The curved planes that arch across and through Pollock’s webs are produced by the distribution of paint on the canvas, but they themselves are not painted. In this way, Pollock’s work points toward the most beautiful of illusions – painting without paint. Not light and atmosphere, but solids and planes, as real as perception itself, but immaterial nonetheless. The picture plane itself is illusion, and can be assimilated to this new description. It is not to be identified with the plane of the canvas or other support, for by definition it can never be anything but an invisible and intangible membrane stetched across the field of view. In fact, the picture plane has only become perceptible since abstract painters have learned to bend, twist and fold it at an angle to the plane of the painted surface.

If we can bypass the need to define Pollock’s achievement as a greater flatness, or more emphatic surface, some overlooked aspects of the history of New York School abstraction come into clearer focus. Andreas Neufert, the leading scholar of Wolfgang Paalen, has traced out that Austrian artist’s importance for abstract expressionism, and for Pollock in particular. It is well known that in the early forties Chilean artist Roberto Matta was trying to establish himself as leader of a group that included Pollock and other American painters. Paalen was strongly opposed to Matta’s conception of a multidimensional perspectival space, holding that space was a function of the viewer’s perceptions, that the viewer must actively create it. Paalen’s space could never be an empty box, however twisted, and it could never be consistent or unified over the whole field of the canvas. What Paalen was reaching for, in Neufert’s words, was a unification of seeing and imagining, both for the artist and the viewer. Paalen’s critique probably contributed to the break-up of Matta’s group, and helped to confirm Pollock in his independent pursuit of a dynamically and unevenly constructed space.

This history also throws a different light on Pollock’s scale. With the large drip paintings, one must stand some distance back to see the overall rhythms of Pollock’s lines and the shapes they create, but closer up the broader pattern is lost and the surface of the picture begins to undulate and breathe in and out as one notices a multitude of recessions and overlappings among the skeins and stains. In cubist pictures, on the other hand, both the larger design and the movement of the planes as they project forward and fold back can be seen from the same viewing position. Pollock splits these two aspects apart, and in that way adds a temporal element to the viewing experience, for the viewer is required to move. This is in line with Paalen’s demand for a simultaneous creation/perception – that the image must be constantly in formation. The viewer has to move just as the artist does. Neufert’s startling and highly original suggestion is that Pollock’s swirls and loops are a mimesis of the experience of looking at a cubist work – the constant back and forth movements in every direction over the surface of the picture that the viewer has to make in order to assemble a coherent image.

The possible spaces and volumes of Pollock’s work only exist inside the tangled wooly mass that forms the image, which itself sits rather neatly inside the edges of the canvas. From this it’s easy to follow the logic of Barry Le Va, Robert Morris and Eva Hesse, all, like Smithson, inspired by the 1967 retrospective, but the question remains – what kind of space lies outside the image? In what kind of space does it rest – is it Malevich’s or even Matta’s kind of infinity, and does that type of space form the limiting boundary of Pollock’s, and Paalen’s, ambition?

Most of the abstract expressionists were influenced by the concept of space proposed by Paalen and first convincingly embodied in the interiors of Pollock’s large scale drip pictures – at least the visual evidence suggests as much. De Kooning’s work, for one example, is thoroughly relativistic – space only appears through the motion of adjacent planes and cannot be seen as an empty container for pictorial incidents. Greenberg’s criticism of De Kooning’s late cubism – that it was always fitting itself to the frame – is clearly not correct, and in any event it is not a sufficient basis for a break with the cubist legacy. There is no reason why an articulated and divided interior couldn’t avail itself of the openness and expansiveness of post-painterly abstraction – in fact, that makes a very good description of the possibilities opened up by Pollock’s work, what it reaches toward but doesn’t quite get. Imagine twisted and overlapping planes, folding and bulging forward and back, diving under each other and resurfacing, but treating the edges of the canvas as if they didn’t exist, suggesting that we only see a portion of a larger whole. This kind of composition would implicitly reach out into real space, but retain illusion. These thoughts might give rise to the question of whether painting has more spatial resources than installation, and whether abstract painting might to this day be capable of a most sophisticated engagement with social space.

This reading runs completely against accepted views – both those of the avant-garde and the traditional formalists – and if that was all it had to recommend it we should nevertheless be glad, for our own sake and Pollock’s. But it is important again to try and decide what this revisionist history might mean for the future of painting. It seems that the most productive modern moment was cubism, and it probably remains so. Oddly, the evidence suggests that it is not the period from 1910-1912 that matters as much as the interweaving and overlapping planes of the great culminating works of the twenties. These seem to be Pollock’s reference point as he suggests complexly curved planes by drawing the lines that define their edges. Greenberg’s insight that Pollock destroys and sublimates the space of analytic cubism is right, but only if we see that Pollock reaches back to 1911 from the twenties. And the unexpended potential of that moment emerges most clearly today from the work of Smithson’s most significant successor, Gordon Matta-Clark.

We have to begin with Matta-Clark’s brilliantly economical appropriation and negation of Smithson. Smithson thought that an artwork was a frame – Matta-Clark accepts that but doesn’t need an actual frame, he just cuts a hole. He burrows into the social in a way that even dispenses with Smithson’s melancholy remnants, yet his work is in no way a negation of the object in favour of an idea but a real existing material emptiness. These holes are things. But more significant yet is that Matta-Clark’s engagement with Smithson’s work spontaneously reopens cubism. Though many of Matta-Clark’s cuts were circular, just as many – and some of the most striking, such as the famous Day’s End  – were made of two intersecting arcs, actually sections of a circle and an ellipse. As they intersect they also implicitly overlap, reminding us of a typical late cubist device and of Pollock’s skeins. But further, one of those arcs is itself a section of a cone projected into the corner of the building. In this complex three-dimensional projection, realized by drawing/cutting into two dimensional surfaces, solids are still implicitly present, as virtual form.

Matta-Clark’s works are all space – they contain nothing that could be construed as equivalent to a brushstroke – and so their time is only the time of everyday life. But everyday life and everyday time is the material of art. Brushes, paint and canvas are tools for sculpting time, but it can be done without them. What matters is not the medium or method, but that the present should live, or that artists and viewers should be able to live in it. Smithson’s entropy is the final trope in a tradition that in reaching for ultimate beginnings and ends had to cut away the particular past and future that belonged to its own present. Earlier modernism, on the other hand, constructed the present as a space of some elastic dimensions, as a pause that gathers into itself a specific and not so distant past and a specific possible future. Once in such a space, one could presumably do something that really would constitute life, and this is where avant-garde politics begins. Matta-Clark’s work, like most avant-guardist work of the sixties, places all value in the real time of contemporary labour, but nevertheless it contains absolutely no suggestion of entropy, and this is why its surprising recovery of cubism seems productive rather than accomplished. It is in no way grounded in the “anxiety of influence,” in the claim that the modernist past is finished. It’s a kind of drawing and cutting directly into the social substratum that yet keeps open the formal possibilities of drawing and cutting. And, as his preliminary sketches show, it also retains an illusionism similar to that I have traced in Pollock—projected solids move through the “empty” space opened up to the viewer.

Likewise, cuts that run through more than one floor of a building, such as Conical Intersect of 1975, effectively reinvent cubist construction as the juxtaposition of social spaces even as they dispense with the need to bring disparate objects together. In this case, the sketches for the work make it even more clear that the shape of the cuts is generated by a notional solid—the cone of the title, itself intersected and broken by complex curves.

Matta-Clark’s relation to cubism is similar to Pollock’s – creative negation rather than imitation. In a tradition begun by the Soviet avant-garde, he draws cubist form destroying and form-creating energies out of the space of painting. This is the real legacy of cubism, and the fulfillment of its most radical potential – to cut planes and spaces out of and into the social realm – to change the world, in other words.

Matta-Clark and Smithson were two significant “post-studio” artists whose work kept a connection with the illusionism of painting. This is very clear in Smithson’s pieces with mirrors supported by piles of dirt or rocks, which are a direct response to Pollock. But of the two of them, Matta-Clark was both more radical in his negation and more challenging in the claim that his residual illusionism makes on us. The important question they raise is whether avant-gardist forms founded on a presumed or desired break with painting really are capable of founding a new genre of practice that can dispense with illusionism. The evidence from Smithson and Matta-Clark is ambiguous. Since the importance of cubism was precisely the way in which it reached out beyond painting, it may seem perverse to look back through the art derived from those energies to its pictorial origins, but that is what the works of both of those artists invite us to do. The argument might go something like this: where illusionism is least evident, where we have the strongest impression of factuality, there in fact illusion lies deeper, less visible, and hence more dangerous. And where the imaginary spaces and forms of art remain, as in the work of Smithson or Matta-Clark, so there remains the best chance that the mere “facts” of the world can take their proper relation to each other and ourselves.

It was Smithson’s generation – figures such as Fried and Judd especially, but also Smithson – which was most concerned, even anxious, about establishing Pollock’s post-cubist credentials. But if the most important developments out of cubism are the real world interventions of the sixties and seventies avant-garde, perhaps painting – which is now no longer the whole game, but carries on by itself off in one corner of the expanded field of art – is best advised to hang back, and dwell in the cubist moment a little longer. If we can take some distance on the rhetoric of American modernism, it might seem that that is what has happened anyway. In any case, the best chance for painting is to start from this insight, with the corollary that whatever the avant-garde has extrapolated from painting is still painting. But the split between De Kooning’s version of cubism and the field paintings of Frankenthaler, Louis and Noland – which are supposed to mark a fundamental and irrevocable break with cubist space and cubist form – has become canonical, and unreflective. American painting has flattened itself into a corner, and cubism is above all an art of turned corners. Perhaps abstraction might benefit if we could see Pollock’s lines as cuts and the spaces between them as planes – in other words see Pollock as closer to De Kooning than we are used. Then the openness of the field could combine productively with the interlocked forms of the past buried beneath its surface – and painting might have its time once more.

Robert Linsley, Kitchener, Jan. 2002 (slightly amended March 2013)


1 B.H.Friedman, “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock,” in Jackson Pollock: Interviews, Articles, and

Reviews , ed. Pepe Karmel, MOMA New York 1999, p.36

2 John Milton, Paradise Lost, (VII 172-173) ed. Merritt Y. Hughes, New York 1962, p. 169

3 Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution, London 1977, p.368

4 See my “Mirror travel in the Yucatan: Robert Smithson, Michael Fried and the New Critical Drama,” Res

#37 Spring 2000, pp.7-30

5 Hill, Milton, p.395

6 Clement Greenberg, “The Jackson Pollock Market Soars,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed.

John OʼBrian, Chicago 1993, Vol. 4 p.110

7 Clement Greenberg, “Jackson Pollock: ʻInspiration, Vision, Intutitive Decisionʼ,” The Collected Essays

and Criticism, ed. John OʼBrian,Chicago 1993, Vol.4 p.247

8 Clement Greenberg, “The Jackson Pollock Market Soars,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John OʼBrian, Chicago 1993,Vol. 4 p.110


  1. Chris Walker said…

    Your article has been most informative. It seems there is always something more one can learn about this man, whose idiosyncrasies, unique style and indifference to artistic normality, continue to inspire artists to create that which has not been created.
    Another Jackson Pollock may arrive with a new genre for the 21st Century, but in the meantime, lets celebrate what we possess now.