Abstract Critical

The Case for Pollock

Written by David Sweet

Jackson Pollock 1912-1956, Summertime: Number 9A 1948, Oil, enamel and house paint on canvas, Tate. Purchased 1988 © Pollock – Krasner Foundation, Inc.

Jackson Pollock’s ‘all-over’ paintings of 1947 to 1950 aren’t easy to understand. Even Clement Greenberg found them challenging, while the painter himself didn’t really fully recover from what he had achieved in those years.[i] Because of these paintings Pollock’s place in art history is assured, but that place is easier to pass through on the way to somewhere else than to visit. His work fits into both the formalist and conceptualist canons, and his avant-gardist credentials are taken for granted. But precisely because his contribution is located where all the competing artistic narratives intersect, including the one connected to performance art, the work itself seems oddly neglected.[ii]

Pollock may have been neglected for other reasons: His artistic persona seems outdated. Like Hemingway, he is identified too closely with the negative behaviours of masculinity, like womanising and heroic alcoholism, long since seen as irrelevant or objectionable. Secondly, the standing of the generation of painters he directly influenced, as opposed to non-painters who claim him as an avatar, people like Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Stella and Olitski, has been revised downwards in terms of cultural importance. Thirdly, and more parochially, apart from a couple of minor examples, it’s hard to see any of his work in England.[iii]

Here, I would like to put the case for Pollock, which is, of course, a modernist case. Pollock’s achievement was, finally, to rid painting of sculpture. This may be the fourth reason for his neglect, for the difficulty in counting this as an achievement is that the paradigm shift that gave western painting its identity came from sculpture.

Giotto didn’t invent a system of perspective but he constructed a figure that did not fit the Sienese or Byzantine space in which he placed it. It was too rounded and volumetric. Each figure was rendered to imply that its back, though invisible, was as viable as its front. One figure could be placed almost wholly obscuring a second, with only a fragment of the latter’s cloak to be seen. But from this fragment, the hidden figure could be credited with the same volume as its foreground companion. The protagonists’ poses did not follow the semaphore conventions of earlier styles of painting. This allowed expressive gestures but did away with need to distort the anatomy to make each limb clearly defined. A hand could stay inside a sleeve, or an arm in its ordinary position, unseen on the other side of the body.

Although it does accord to the principles of figurative naturalism, it’s hard to see how this reading of Giotto is not based in part on reference to the experience of sculpture. The viewer, used to looking at three-dimensional or high relief figures, would not demand that everything be seen from one position; if one part of a figure is obscured by another, a step to the right or left will bring what was hidden into view. Giotto imports the element of trust integral to that experience into the realm of painting. He also imports the heaviness of sculpture. His figures are not just rendered in a ‘sculptural’ way, they seem to be made of marble rather than flesh and bone. In his frescoes, Giotto’s people weigh more than his buildings and rock formations.

Giotto’s figures are individually convincing and work strongly with and against each other, but they dominate, rather than interact with, their inadequate spatial context. Their emphatic sculptural characteristics, however, established an important formal quality that was inherited over a century later by the figures in Masaccio, who by this time, were able retain an air of monumentality and gravitas, while operating freely within a highly organised system of linear perspective.

The Florentine pictorial paradigm, perfected by Masaccio, was constituted by the interplay between ‘form’, ‘space’, and surface. Composition consisted of organising the forms as they registered on the picture surface. There, figures might be whole, or partially eclipsed; they might appear larger or smaller. That would depend on their position in the perspective system, which receded from the picture plane to the horizon. The same rule obviously applies to objects and architecture. But the sculptural provenance of forms demanded a pictorial space that was permissive and uncomplaining, which presented no hindrance or constraint to the distribution of volumetric elements, like the invisible block of empty, tolerant air in and around a carved figure. And this contrast between sculptural form and sculptural space, though translated into two dimensions, maintained its hold on pictorial art in the west for around five hundred years: Until Manet.

Where Giotto dramatised the weight and density of his figures, without generating enough pictorial space to accommodate them, Manet compressed their volume. He then found he had more depth than he needed. He solved the problem this surplus would have caused by dividing the space in two. He squeezed traditional space, (the consecutive dimensions of still-life/portrait, interior and landscape) into a short distance between the painting’s surface and an interior partition, which he constructed exactly parallel to the picture plane. Instead of a ‘vanishing point’ on the horizon, this interior screen or plane is where traditional space ends. But, unlike the vanishing point, it is also where a new space begins. Manet’s painting offers two distinct types of spatial experience.

The duality of Manet’s space is easily demonstrated. In A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) everything ‘in front of’ the mirror is in a foreshortened version of traditional space, everything ‘in’ the mirror is in the new space. The horizontal gold frame marks the junction of the two dispensations. The surface of the mirror is the internal plane, which partitions the painting. Its function, as a barrier to continuing recession from the foreground, is disguised by the amount of visible activity it supports. However, this activity does not take place in the same spatial realm as that occupied by the central figure. A version of this figure appears as a reflection in the mirror, to underline the difference.

The same binary structure occurs in The Fifer (1866). The figure is flattened, its silhouette emphasised by strong lighting. A relatively uneventful warmish grey fills the rest of the painting. Apart from the shadow of the flautist’s left foot there are no clues as to the architecture of the setting. There’s no sense that the area behind the figure is a wall, set back at a specific distance, and it is impossible to determine the relationship between the foreground and middle ground. The grey produces a very particular visual sensation, but not one of flatness. It seems to have a current or potentiality, as if switched on. It has the characteristics of a spatial field, but one constituted by resistance to, rather than embrace of, the illusionistic habits of traditional perspective.


In painting after Manet the deployment of the two spaces can almost stand as the history of the medium. The Impressionists favoured the new space in the mirror, but early Cubism went back to the shallow relief version of traditional ‘sculptural’ space. After a great start, with Picasso’s Olympia-like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), the movement settled for a dreary academic revivalism, until it invented collage. Then it discovered the functional possibilities of the surface, in dialogue with the shallow space it had already produced, and got a lot better.[iv]

But whatever route painters took after Manet, the polarity between form and space, which obtained in sculpture and was imitated in painting, gave way to a more complex relationship between the two elements in which surface played an increasingly prominent role. The distinction in Impressionism between a figure and the surrounding world is often uncertain. Things are sketchily indicated, volumes dissolve in light; air becomes as liquid as water. Even in Cubism, though in thrall to trompe l’oeil illusionistic effects, objects are diced into triangular fragments, swamped by the corrosive pointillist medium that flows through them, till it’s hard to say what’s what.

A less sculptural relationship between form and space demonstrably added up to a paradigm shift in the development of modern painting. Cézanne is supposed to have said it took him twenty years to work out that painting wasn’t sculpture, but the western tradition had been happy to confuse the two for six centuries, producing quite a few masterpieces in the process. Nevertheless progressive painting, affirming its identity as a medium, adopted the new paradigm and held to it when it mattered. The result may have been a loss of sculptural solidity, and the onset of something approximating ‘dematerialisation’, even while the genres attached to traditional space, still-life/portrait, interior and landscape, remained in force.

Cézanne’s apples are not lumps of fruit but collections of marks held together by centrifugal force. The apples are not painted. Cézanne painted his sensations, his intense perception of the object, not the object itself. It was this self-conscious movement ‘inwards’ that worried van Gogh. He had what would be classified now as mental health issues and wanted to hold onto any world to avoid madness. He didn’t paint what he, or anyone else, actually saw, what was ‘present’. He was desperate to cling to chairs and tables, to the buttons on a postman’s coat, to save his sanity. He went to great lengths to convince himself by building a room from the floorboards up, including shadows and beams of light, out of paint. The slipperiness of perceptions was what he feared most. His painted ‘reality’ was his coping strategy, but it can’t be ours.


Mitigating the polarity between form and space inevitably increased the pictorial value of flatness and surface. ‘Tipped-up’ tabletops and floors, influenced by Cubist practice, strengthened the claims of colour by relaxing the tension between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects of painting. Ignoring aerial perspective, Matisse could flood background and foreground with the same hue, limn a shallow trapezoid outline without interrupting the colour’s spread, before adding a few ellipses, correctly drawn, to hint at still life objects. Yet even then, he did not want to create convincingly recessive space, which would reduce pressure at the picture plane.

But as well as the developments relating to Cubism, Kandinsky showed that the sculpture model of polarity could also be broken down by creating forms that were less rooted in the real world, yet could still be arranged in a type of depth. This peculiar depth, which is both ‘abstract’ and ‘expressionist’, isn’t trapped inside a suggested architectural or landscape subject but appears open from all sides. In it, signs and symbols, with no palpable bodies to displace a tactile spatial medium, advance and recede, but have no place to go. They are not pulled down by gravity, nor back towards the vanishing point, therefore do not need to be reminded where the surface is, as collage warns Cubist forms of their position relative to the canvas plane.


Pollock, like other American artists of his generation, was aware of the scope of the formal developments achieved by European painting going back to the 1860’s, including the different varieties of abstraction. As well as a history of formal innovation, he would have been familiar with movements in contemporary cultural attitudes, zeitgeist concepts associated with psychoanalysis, and issues connected with the political climate of his time. He was interested in the experience of modernity, without cynicism.[v] He also seems freer, or less encumbered than de Kooning, with his need to demonstrate the traditions of life-drawing, or Newman, with his metaphysical seriousness, or Still, with his egotistical flirtation with the sublime, or Rothko, with his romantic moodiness, or Motherwell, with his grand manner. He managed to work through the illusionistic problems of early Cubism to create a post-Cubist space, a space ‘accessible to eyesight alone,’ a space by which mature modernist painting stands or falls.

This space is certainly not without its detractors. Those painters, who adopted it from the late fifties through to the seventies, have hardly met with long lasting critical approval outside a small circle of admirers. Some current abstraction, Mary Heilmann for example, adheres to the modernist paradigm, but claims the credit for making it the critical subject of the work, gaining more kudos for debating it as an issue than the practitioners who produced it in the first place ever enjoyed. Maybe this meta-critical attitude is seen as an acceptable way of ‘theorising’ the enterprise of late modernist painting, prolonging its life, as Jasper Johns extended the life of abstract expressionism, and bringing it into line with the agenda of contemporary critical discourse.

Yet optical, post-Cubist space, as opposed to the more easily recollected modernist idea of flatness, was pretty well theorised from the start. Greenberg, Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss put in a lot of intellectual effort to describe its operation and distinguish its visual regime from that of earlier systems, leading to a thorough understanding of the formal contributions made by American art of the fifties. Fried, in ‘Three American Painters’ (1965) gives an account of these transitions that is, in the words of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, ‘unarguable’[vi]. Fried’s analysis of paintings of the late forties, like Number 1, 1948, where he lays particular emphasis on Pollock’s development of a linear element released from its usual role of making bounded shapes or ‘figures’, accurately describes how the new space works with the new form.

Fried’s comments on a painting called Cut-Out (1948) point to its use of a negative form which is visible, but not actually there, to show how the ‘figure/ground’ distinction can be reversed in Pollock’s formal system. Out of the Web (1949) uses the lacunae created by excising parts of the ground in a similar way, creating elements that are ‘blind spots’ or throwing up a ‘shape’ that is not positive but ‘perceived as an absence, over a particular area, of the visual field’.[vii]

Out of the Web marks the end of painting’s reliance on spatial principles derived from sculpture. It confirmed the existence, and even argues the limiting case, of the modernist pictorial field, established by Pollock’s all-over paintings, in which the relationship of forms and space is radically complicated. It shifts the paradigm. But so did the invention of perspective. Old and new ways of making pictorial space are, in effect, part of the functional history of painting, but to some extent they are aesthetically neutral. Minor artists picked up the rules of perspective quickly, but the artists remained minor, even after mastering the system. Minor artists have also learned the rules of post-Cubist space, but Pollock’s achievement was not just his contribution to establishing the modernist field’s operating protocols. It was what he did with them. My guess is that he turned away from traditional, European picture-building habits, to make the Great American Painting. It was this ambition that propelled him beyond Cubism.[viii]

Although it sounds an aspirational, quixotic, Leavisite project, making the Great American Painting was a viable objective in the context of American letters. The Great American Novel had been an accepted cultural category since the 19th century, applied variously to works like ‘Moby-Dick’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’ amongst others. It’s usually described as a novel of identity, encompassing the broad sweep of national experience at a given time. One can imagine that the visual arts version of that literary category would also involve identity and the American experience. But almost all of the conventions of painting, including those surrounding Cubist pictorial structures, were European in origin, and strongly associated with European sensibility. Anyone who wanted to stake out an American identity for painting would have to find a radical formal alternative.[ix] Pollock was in possession of that non-European alternative, however he still had to address the problem of the national experience.

Here he had three pieces of good fortune. Firstly, he was born in Wyoming, in the part of the country that featured strongly in the national narrative. Secondly, he managed to inscribe a notion of ‘freedom’ in his methodology at a time when the political arguments around the topic reached world-historical intensity. American expertise and capital had won a war against oppression, the Marshall plan to aid European economic reconstruction was initiated, and ‘democratic’ space was being successfully defended against Communist encroachment, an enterprise dramatised in the U.S.-led Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. Pollock’s third break came from his familiarity with psychoanalysis. At the time this was not a minority interest. Freud’s ideas, and explanations of behaviour, had enjoyed a wide circulation in American culture since the twenties, influencing people like Alfred Hitchcock whose film ‘Spellbound’(1945), despite the director’s sceptical attitude to the subject, drew on popular conceptions of psychiatric practice and the power of a mind divided against itself.

Pollock was also reasonably fortunate in terms of the history of art. Because of his interest in psychoanalysis he could readily incorporate an idea of Surrealism into his practice. This gave permission for a certain type of generic weirdness, or nonsense, but also a justification for heavy, mythological symbolism, whose meanings could now be re-interpreted under the rubric of Freudian or Jungian theory. What might be called ‘non-Dali’ surrealism imparts a particular character to the signs and symbols that appear, in different stages of legibility, throughout Pollock’s work, endowing them with a specific morphology, visually similar to the elements in Miro’s symbolist lexicon.

The Surrealist thread is more significant than an indication that Pollock, like many others, was attuned to the preoccupations of his time. The kind of forms he generated under its influence, forms, like Miro’s, which taper, or tail off, like pennants, hark back to the pinched, tapering, flame-like shapes of Gothic, Medieval, Sienese or Byzantine pictorial art. This widespread morphology, rooted in the pictorial symbol, was ‘superseded’ by that informed by the anatomy of the ‘Mediterranean’ Renaissance figure, based on the idealised human bodies of Classical art. This figure is, as I have said, a sculptural construct, and could only be accommodated in painting if the old pictorial space, of Duccio, of Sassetta, moved out of its way. In ridding painting of sculpture, in going beyond Cubism, Pollock created a space to which this repressed symbolic figure could return.

Out of the Web is the Great American Painting. In it, Pollock offers, in highly economical, synecdochical terms, a critical reading of the developmental history of the art form it instantiates. But such a claim seems counterintuitive. It achieves so much with means that appear so slender that it might be argued the painting does not offer the viewer a solid enough experience. Of itself, it has no ‘thickness’ no satisfactory ‘layering’, density or sensual richness. It contains entities that are there and not there, mixed in an unstable compound. To say all that however is to forget that this is a modernist painting.

We come to Out of Web as veterans of encounters with all other painting, just as we arrive in front of Las Meninas as seasoned observers of the real world, with its walls, floors, people, animals, textures, lights and darks. Velasquez presents us with the splendour of what we already know, and it is essential that we bring this knowledge with us when we look at the painting. But we do this automatically. With the Pollock, through slender means, we are being given a map of the rich terrain that we have already travelled, a map of the history of our own looking and understanding of the large body of work to which this painting relates. Those hours spent in museums, churches, galleries, and studios, sometimes with work just made, but mostly with the paintings of artists long since dead, and the thought such a study entails, all are brought into play. This essay, with all its name checks, and debatable art history, has been about what I ‘see’ when I ‘look’ at Out of the Web.

Summertime: Number 9A, 1948 is on display at Tate Modern in ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’ until 1st April 2013.


[i] Clement Greenberg in conversation with the author, 1976.

[ii] Pollock’s paintings are included in ‘A Bigger Splash; Painting after Performance’, Tate Modern, 14th Nov-1st April, 2013. The closing date seems the perfect choice.

[iii] The Tate mounted a Pollock retrospective in 1999.

[iv] Clement Greenberg, ‘Collage’ 1959, in Art and Culture, 1961, pp. 70-83. Every painting student should be forced to read this essay.

[v] Prevalent in New York at this time, according to Michael Leja, was the concept of ‘Modern Man’ that described individual sensibility as divided between primitivism, myth and the Unconscious. This seems to cover Pollock’s personality. See, Michael Leja, ‘Reframing Abstract Expressionism; Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940’s’, 1993.

[vi] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, ‘Irreconcilable Similarities, The idea of nonrepresentation’, 1991, in Beyond Piety, Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986-93, (1995) p. 45.

[vii] Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters; Noland, Olitski, Stella’, 1965, in Art and Objecthood; Essays and Reviews’ 1998, p. 228.

[viii] This seems a big statement, the kind that usually requires permission from at least two art historians. But writing the Great American Novel has been a goal of quite a few US novelists for many years, so a similar aim for painters doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Georgia O’Keeffe makes satirical remarks about her 1931 work Cow Skull; Red, White and Blue, as being the Great American Painting. It’s reasonable to assume that if something is satirised it’s usually because it is also taken seriously.

[ix] Don Judd seems to be motivated by a similar anti-European drive in his development of what perhaps should be called ‘American Minimalism’.

  1. Patrick Jones said…

    Thank you for those responses which mirror my own excitement whenever I see a Pollock in the flesh.Maybe we should get some money together ,rent a farm and stage our own work-in,where nothing but New ground breaking Art could be allowed.Triangle in 82 was ruined ,not by a lack of seriousness ,but by the availability of heavily marketed Golden Paint technology.Painters were overwhelmed with Gel mediums and Iridescent colour ,both of which were tricky to use ,unless you were Olitski.The lack of anything approaching spirituality was nauseating as Late Formalism backed into the Post modern era,infatuated with the wrong set of toys.It is exceptionally difficult at the moment for artists to get shows of ambitious and experimental new work.It seems to be soooo easy in the national artistic psyche to do plain weird and avoid addressing the problem Pollock addressed with his lifes work.

  2. Terry Ryall said…

    This is an absorbing and forceful piece of writing. One (if I understand it correctly) that describes a view of the history of Western painting, beginning with Giotto, as being dominated by the demands of a sense of sculptural space and evaluates the significant achievement of Pollock in terms of him finally ridding painting of the burden of the sculptural and, in the process, with “Out of the Web” arriving at the “Great American Painting”
    I will leave aside the perhaps natural adverse reaction of a sculptor to the sculptural- influence/concern being hinted at as eventually having become a sort of redundant accessory that painting in the mid 20th Century could now do without. This ‘ridding’, doesn’t, on its own (even if the basis of that assessment is correct) do justice to, or get us closer to the understanding of, why Pollock should be regarded as a significant painter. As for “Out of the Web” 1949, the inclusion of those strange Miro-like shapes that David Sweet refers to seems to me like a clumsy attempt to make it into a ‘real’ painting with a ‘proper’ sense of form and shape. Lavender Mist : Number 1 1950, in contrast, dispenses with such pretence. It is extreme, all Pollock. What I like about the best of his painting is to be found in the daring and conviction of such extremity and the visual density and unremitting energy that it presents.
    Some artists have picked up on aspects of Pollock’s way of working (in relation to his ‘drip’ paintings) and taken them into areas (often completely outside the parameters of painting) that have subsequently influenced opinion about the value and perhaps integrity of the way of working that he has become best known for. This does not deter me from seeing him as a painter in the traditional sense for whom the persuasiveness of what he did with paint on canvas, in a visual sense, meant everything.
    That of course begs the question of what exactly he did achieve that at its best is so exciting. As ever I think words can only get us so far, if this were not so then there would be no point in making art. What is so attractive (I ask myself, as a sculptor, somewhat quizzically) about these masses of webs, threads, splashes and drips that at their best are seemingly without any sense of form, shape or the relational? We can talk about his great sense of drawing with paint, his energy, the density and depth of his imagery, the abstractness of the visual journey that all of this stuff can take us on when we stand before his work, but ultimately I think it’s more to do with his purpose and daring which is entirely visually and physically evident.

  3. Geoff Catlow said…

    David, I really enjoyed your essay, so easy to read. Winter is generally dispiriting, the studio is cold the, light is awefull, but your writing will enlighten the rest of my winter months. My experiance of Pollock was the big show at the Tate, several years ago and as I was going through major changes in my own work the impact of that show was all the more of a shock to me. I was emotionally affected by the intensity of the fact of standing in front of a kind of paintings that seemed things unto themselfs, not portraying or describing, just being, paintings, for their own sake. It was the pieces where Pollock did not physically lay a brush on the surface, that really held me, as though in that long stream of painting dna dripping from the end of the stick or brush, I was being directed to the future of my own work.
    Thankyou once again.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    I wish Robin would point us in the direction of any artist who is making the sort of Completely New Modern Painting he desires to see.I think the idea of a figurative abstraction mentioned elsewhere on Ab Crit is daft ,just as dissing modernism is futile. How many young painters are painting really ambitious pictures? I remember walking into John Walkers studio in the early seventies and you could literally feel the ambition/ pictorial ambition.
    .Where would you find that today?

  5. Robin Greenwood said…

    A very good article indeed, very thoughtful.

    But… you seem to equate sculpture with a certain literal lumpish-ness, and the intrusion of its three-dimensionality into painting as a rather distasteful sullying of its pictorial purity. This view must stem from the recent modernist tradition of equating sculpture with literal objecthood. I instinctively baulk at this; sculptural space is at least as illusionistic as the space of painting – or should be – and of a different kind altogether. I don’t think, therefore, that you can really attribute the changes that happened in painting to any invasion of a ‘sculptural’ way of thinking. They surely arose mainly as a result of painters (and their patrons) wanting their work to be more ‘real’, more open, varied, and spatially flexible; more equivalent to the world they saw around them.

    I still can’t bring myself to believe in this theory about the flatness of Manet (as we have discussed elsewhere), and ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ does not possess for me the strange spatial qualities you ascribe to it. I would have thought that Manet’s inclusion of the mirror was a deliberate move to incorporate deep space. The fact that the space is in a mirror is a rather conceptual point; it’s a very perverse way to flatten out a painting! I would only admit to the barmaid looks a little squashed in her slot behind the bar; so without the mirror I would perhaps concede to a flattening.

    I do, however, like the comparison of modernist painting with early icon painting, pre-Giotto. Their limpid and unquestioning decorative beauty, lack of convincing space, lack of a substantial active content (in favour of a passive subject matter), and a reliance upon symbolism (was Patrick Hughes right about Louis?), all point to such an association. Much as I like a lot of it, I’m afraid I can’t believe any longer in ‘the Great American Painting’. It only amounts to all the more reason for abstract art to move on beyond modernism’s now obvious limitations to something more ‘three-dimensional’, whatever that might imply; unless, that is, you are arguing that pre-Giotto painting is superior to Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Goya, Poussin, Constable…..

  6. Patrick Jones said…

    A terrific piece of writing ,although I dont understand why a piece of Art has to do something so specific as free itself from sculpture to be good.Pollock painted so many minor and major masterpieces,as well as complete junk.Out of the Web is only fairly middling,but if you take No One in Moma N.Y,Full Fathom Five ,The Deep ,Autumn Rythym,Lavender Mist,She Wolf,etc.hes up there with Picasso and Matisse no doubt .Unfortuneatly he sort of stopped the show ,which makes the demise of Frank Stella all the more dispiriting as he looked like he could continue with his early pictures.He still needs following up ..A great article congratulations

  7. Filip Gudovic said…

    Great essay David,
    As a big fan of cubist space and collage approach to surface, this article has given me more understanding of the space that occupies Pollock’s work – a historical space, but also the space that his work creates – as you mention a post-cubist space. Few observations of Giotto and Manet are also essential for building up the argument.
    Thank you