“Utterances are deemed meaningful (or not) insofar as they trigger associations, and in the absence of associations no utterance is intelligible”. Richard Taruskin – Introduction to the Oxford History of Western Music 2005.
I’d be surprised if that, as a theory of meaning, were enough for the brilliant Taruskin, though it is clearly enough for many of today’s practitioners in the visual arts, who are grateful for any response however obtuse – as David Bowie and others fashionably have said – “the music takes place in the audience. I am just a facilitator”, and “conceptual art” in its latter-day opportunistic incarnation seems more than content with that (in a sense it is a truism applicable to all music of course, just as “accessible to eyesight alone” is a truism applicable to all painting).
Utterances in a more obvious sense are either true or false, not in terms of the “truth-function” of the by now surely discredited Logical Positivists, for whom the only truth is mathematical-empirical (having sieved out everything that sustains human communication and motivates it, chiefly ethics and aesthetics); but what this means for artistic expression (yes, it still lives) is that it either engages “that little flame of intuitive life that so few are able to reach in themselves” (keep trying) (Harold Bloom’s daemon), an intimate dialogue in which psychic energy, libidinous or sublimated of course, as in all creativity, from moment to moment is in trance-like absorption with the artistic means, through a perturbation of spirit, allegro con spirito (in Mozart’s markings); or else it strains, overreaches itself in willful, laboured, agonistic competition with former heroes or rivals, even when in denial, or spirals off into realms of cerebral mechanism.
Of course willed ambition, conscious intent, and a mastering of influences, are a lengthy pre-requisite for reaching the position of being able to “let oneself go”, to enable one to prolong these “in the moment” sequences without conscious deliberation – purpose, intent in abeyance.
Both Picasso’s and Pollock’s methods have been described as a “sum of destructions” or “sum of erasures”. What is the impulse which leads a painter to deface his own work; to disturb an easy equilibrium? – to wrest it out of the known in pursuit of some genuine surprise? – in anger at facility? And can such an act properly be described as spontaneous or willed, or both?
When is any willed movement of the arm, wrist or fingers, as are all applications of paint to surface, whether with small self-effacing brushwork à la Mondrian, or larger dots, dashes, swirls or strokes à la Picasso, properly to be described as spontaneous? And does it matter whether we can sense the difference between the warm-hearted loving touch which creates the lustre and sheen of a woman’s body and clothing in say Rubens or Gainsborough and the heavy-handed plodding of some of our contemporaries, who make her look as if actually made out of paint, and dull paint at that? It was Picasso who said “ There is no such thing as pornography in painting. There is only bad painting.” And what is it in an artist’s psychological makeup that gives rise to these differences?
Why is Matisse intensely erotic, while Picasso is less so, in spite of his protean versatility, even when more explicit, even when depicting sexual congress?
As Roger Fry somewhat wordily, but none-the-less remarkably, indeed prophetically puts it - “we note then that the upmost freedom and variety of rhythm, together with the power of holding it through long and complicated phrases, is peculiarly the property of our unconscious nerve-control… Indeed we may almost declare that all rhythmic movement must be carried out more or less unconsciously, whereas the feeling that is expressed in the general design is not so fully divorced from consciousness. Of course even here, the synthetic power must arise from the unconscious; only it does so under pressure of a deliberate and conscious attention and is continuously being subject to conscious criticism, whereas the sensibility expressed in the intimate rhythms of texture must come from the unconscious alone.” ‘From Sensibility’ in Last Lectures at Cambridge,1939.
I am well aware that all this is in the romantic Modernist camp, ridiculed by those whose temperament debars them from engaging with it, or who wish for strategic reasons to distance themselves from an aesthetic which has become fatigued through self-awareness, ie. academicised – but there is no way out of this sort of Gordian knot. The expression-deniers in their turn become academicised – almost instantly they declare themselves. Stravinsky adopted this latter position (I’d say disingenuously) when he joined the anti-modernist camp, extolling Tchaikovsky in opposition to the presumed deleterious influence of the 2nd Viennese School, but later suffered a shocked revelation inducing a near nervous breakdown, a crisis of self-doubt, on hearing a performance of Schoenberg’s Septet Suite later in life; shocked not only by its depth of formal coherence, but by its expressive force as well.
What has all this got to do with Jackson Pollock, I hear you ask? I have been aware for some time that every time I have written about Jackson Pollock, I have got things wrong in one respect or another. The worst of these forays, of which I am heartily ashamed is the reference to Pollock in ‘Put up or Shut up’, Artscribe no. 29. 1981, which registered my first experience of Hofmann’s Pompeii, when it entered the Tate Gallery. My excuse is that I was at that time much in thrall to the prose essays of D.H. Lawrence, and must have fancied that I could imitate his polemical style – with disastrous results.
But even when simply recording my own reactions in face of the paintings, I am aware of having failed fully to rise to their elusive realities, which it goes without saying are utterly resistant to photographic ensnarement, ubiquitous though this soul-stealing practice has become.
What all of this indicates is that it is extraordinarily difficult to characterize one’s continuing surprise when faced with each new exposure to the best of Pollock’s pictures, by which I mean Full Fathom Five, Lucifer, One, Autumn Rhythm, and a few others.
All I can do is to try to recall what has happened on these occasions. The first time I saw a major grouping of Pollock’s pictures was at the Beaubourg in Paris in 1983. I had missed completely the Whitechapel retrospective curated by Bryan Robertson in 1958 (though I saw the Robertson book), unaware even of that gallery’s existence at the time.
At the Beaubourg in the middle-period rooms at least, I did have the momentary thought that these big pictures had made the past of painting somehow irrelevant, because they had effaced striving, relational balancing, composition, a sensation that rapidly dwindled to dismay as the years after 1950 unfolded, or rather unravelled. I found the black duco-on-cotton duck pictures of 1951-52 faintly depressing, (no sparkle to the blacks, no light from the whites, or rather beiges of their grounds) although the fluidity of his line, the volatile transformations of imagery into abstract pattern does place them in a class by themselves as drawing; and in these pictures he began again to touch the surface by spreading pools of duco with sticks or brushes – a return to the jagged triangulation and almond-shapes of Picasso? – although they seem to anticipate late-Picasso more than the proto-cubist one.
Ocean Greyness (1953), which I saw at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1980 (was it at the Beaubourg too?) paired with a Gottlieb, Hofmann’s The Gate, and Rothko’s Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red 1949, was impressive at the time (though not as impressive as the Hofmann), but seeing it again at the Royal Academy’s American Art of the 20th Century, I felt that there was something forced about the mimetic emphasis of its imagery, its overt cannibalising of the “Great American Sublime”, Captain Ahab, the white whale etc. The metaphor, if such it is, is forced. Great painting doesn’t deal in metaphors, but in actualities – irreducibles. We impose similes upon it, due to the infinite capacity of the mind to read analogies in everything, whether they have external validation or not. Most do not.
That which in the black pictures of 1952 had occurred as the upsurgence of an undercurrent of imagery suppressed in the years 1947-50, had now become self-conscious, deliberate in a bad way, worked up, laboured (and no great painting is laboured despite the effort that it may have taken to get it there). And the drawing in this picture was far from the rhythmic eloquence of the best of the dripped pictures. The surge and undertow of the painting process, instead of remaining an underlying rhythm, had become played out at the surface; it had become too graphic.
It seems that with brush or palette-knife in hand, Pollock was unable to return to the relatively un-self conscious touch of his earlier pictures which employed these implements, and yet Ocean Greyness is still a painting worthy of consideration, a near-miss, probably the last Pollock to aim high, and to open up possibilities for others.
Perhaps the silliest thing Clement Greenberg ever said was this – “The same eyes that can see Raphael when he is good, can see Pollock when he is good” – or words to that effect (in an interview with T. J. Clark, or was it Charles Harrison?). This is plain wrong on both counts.
Wölfflin is a good deal more accurate when he explains, in Classic Art, that the modern observer has great difficulty in attuning him or herself to the special preoccupations of Cinquecento design, and requires a good deal of preparatory study before they are able to “see” Raphael or Michelangelo. And Greenberg was only able to “see” Pollock, or what was good about Pollock, after training, being educated by the paintings themselves, his judgment growing with exposure to the evolving style. On first acquaintance with the Mural 1943 at Peggy Guggenheim’s flat, he did not like it, did not “get” it, and it was only after reorganizing his sense of values (away from cubist design and a balanced, bland Apollonian art) that he began to see what Pollock’s “daemon” entailed and promised.
One and Autumn Rhythm are its fulfillment. It will never be known for certain what part Greenberg played in encouraging the greater abstraction, and the amplitude of ambition and scale, of this episode in Pollock’s work, but I suspect that it was crucial, and that Pollock’s later reaction against the self-emptying he felt it had entailed led to the re-engagement with imagery and ultimately to Greenberg’s declaring that there was “something soft underneath”.
The continuing fascination of One and Autumn Rhythm is that they reveal with sensational naked somnambulism a hidden aspect of all pictorial art. Although we can see, and we know, that the skeins and spatters of paint have fallen onto the surface from above, this is not the sensation that we experience when the canvases are stretched and lifted to the wall. On the contrary, the resultant image, due to inbuilt habits of perception (even though the paintings challenge them) on the one hand appears to rise up, loom out, as if the spume and fractured spray of a giant wave as it breaks, unfolds towards us (although this simile is inaccurate, too physical, and so is “web”; a web is suspended laterally across a space, held at its extremities by tensile forces inherent in its spun linear structure) – while on the other hand the implicit gravitational pull implicated in a pictorial image which rises up before us creates the illusion of a structure which, like a sculpture made of spun wire or glass fibre, maintains itself from the ground up (however precariously, and however interlaced with lassoes in contrary motion, the whites especially).
Both of these sensations occur simultaneously, and are only enriched, complicated by further effects, further associations. That they spawn so many similes is part of their allure; a sum of erasures, a sum of associations – inimitable.
Once again we see that the analogy between the presumed “all over” design in Pollock and the equalizing of vertical and horizontal elements in Schoenberg’s or Babbitt’s or anyone else’s serialism is specious. The vertical and horizontal only exist on paper in music i.e. visually and conceptually – in sound, sequentially, they create an auditory space of altogether different complexion.
Whereas in painting, there is always a gravitational pull – if a painting is turned upside down it is radically altered as an image and as a spatial experience (unless it is an absolutely symmetrical grid). And conversely, absolute symmetry in music is an impossibility except on paper – since, even if we were able to hear it as such, the mind sequences it differently as a progressive event in time, and forms complexes in memory simultaneously with the forward propulsion.
And similarly Greenberg’s attempt to give Lavender Mist, and pictures like it, pedigree in the relative regularity of the cubist armature in Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean, is misguided; and more recent attempts to summon up chaos theory to attempt to account for the splaying and branching of the spun capillary tendrils of spilled paint likewise.
Imagine the task of finding mathematical formulae for the splattering and pooling of viscous black calligraphic ganglia in Lucifer. It is the absence of regularity, the achieved freedom from any obvious patterning, and yet the control with which this fluidity is made to careen, sprawl, fan out across the substrate membrane of spatial indicators – that’s the beauty of it! This is what people subconsciously feel about the best of Pollock – its demiurgic freedom from the constraints of the organising intellect.
You will also note that I reject almost entirely the Greenberg/Fried “opticality” thesis, in which the “cutting” sculptural implication of Pollock’s line is prevented or subverted by staining, so that the paint lassoes are described as impregnating the canvas fabric to form an equalised continuum with it, preserving the continuity of the canvas weave; and that this “breakthrough” innovation, once isolated and made conscious, became the foundation for Frankenthaler, Louis and beyond. (It may have done, but only to painting’s cost).
And Michael Fried, incidentally also rejects it. In his introduction to the reprinting of his early article on Caro’s sculpture in the Tate Britain Catalogue of 2009, he says that he now regrets his “obeisance to Greenbergian opticality” – as if he were not fully implicated himself in disseminating and enlarging upon the idea – one over which so much ink has been spilt, and still is (see David Sweet). I do so (reject it) because in my experience of the Pollock pictures (and this most recently in 2011), it is an interpretation which suppresses half of their content, a severe reduction of the complex spatial interaction with their surfaces, not only associational, but also structural, a curtailing of “the visibility” (in the terminology of Caroline Jones).
If One, for example, is observed from an oblique angle, almost inevitably with a picture of that size, as one approaches and traverses it, taking in its detail, the lashes of finely spun black arcs lace through and over the shallow depths created by multiple droplets and earlier throwings, like bramble suckers through a spindly hedge, so that a kind of hollowing out beneath these black lashings occurs. Soaked into the cotton duck or standing glossily upon it – the result is not a tender, oh so fragile continuum – rather a large drawing for a spatial sculpture which is made out of an as yet unknown material, as viscous and pliable, friable as paint, but capable of hanging in space. Many avant-gardist sculptors have sensed this, but none have succeeded in containing it within a viable constructional mode (blowing up garden sheds with explosive will not do).
The Pollock retrospective at the Tate in 1999 marked another inverse epiphanal moment in my experience of the cumulative effect of his pictures. I have always liked Pasiphae 1943 and The Key both of which achieve the kind of command of the entire surface in a continuous act of drawing (and which the Mural 1943 inaugurated) in which Van Gogh excelled; by a rhythmic scraping out of unnecessary accretions of paint with palette-knifed incisive strokes, in The Key. But with one or two such exceptions the overwhelming impression was of an exacerbated desperation, a lack of sensuous or even sensual ease, warmth, at-homeness in the world of the senses; no luxuriance, abundance, calm assurance, or pleasure in creating. Instead a tormented inability to feel, which takes itself out in assaults on paint, and on imagery, which for a short few years became attenuated, sublimated through the technique of dripping, into a spasmodic eloquence – and then lapsed again into desperate displays of frustration and anger.
There, I’ve done it again – traduced a master in an act of “bad faith”. But I hope it is an honest reporting of the ambivalence which Pollock’s pictures have aroused in me over a period of some fifty odd years.
The delusion, though tempting, that Pollock’s big pictures make the past of painting irrelevant (for that is what it is) would fall away if the right comparisons were made, and if the right progeny were laid beside them, in that Musée Imaginaire which we perforce must carry around in our heads, since it conforms to no actual museum, and is less and less likely to do so going by current standards of curatorship (I was appalled to see what the Metropolitan Museum New York now arbitrarily considers worthy to represent “contemporary art” – the usual suspects – Warhol, Kiefer, Twombly, Richter, Scully, Kapoor, Cecily Brown, Rego, Struth – and some others new to me – Pat Steir, Judith Reig, etc……..). Clearly someone is capitulating to the sorts of pressure that have brought so many museums into disrepute across the world.
There has been no paradigm-shift. Pollock’s art is an extreme point of style. His art with all its multifarious associations is inseparable from the drip technique and his labile drawing style, volatile, looping, drooping, a cursiveness released from the definition of specific “form”, and yet still creating a remarkably complex spatial experience, and no one has been able to take off from that. Alan Davie’s all-over style of the 50s derives from the 1943 pre-drip Pollock’s.
The challenge still beckons of a kind of painting in which a genuine rhythmic movement “together with the power of holding it through long and complicated phrases” does actually lead to freedom from struggling and striving, and novel pictorial forms.
The desire to escape from “composition”, relational decision making, and the willful imposition of “tasks”, into the impersonal realms of automatism, has coloured much of the outer shores of avant garde manoeuvering both in music and painting for much of the last century, from its mid-point certainly, but what of the results? Duchamp, Cage, Johns, Fluxus, arte povera, Robert Morris – the readymade, found object, the life-cast, the grid – (and Pollock was recruited to that sorry band) – all are ways of evading both the responsibility to make a coherent statement and really mean it, and the synthetic power which may or may not arise from the unconscious (the jury is out). If rationality is suspect, what could be more suspect than phoney irrationalism, the worship of anti-form and aleatory cheese-parings and candle ends. The whole quest for the non-relational suspension of volition, its associated anti-Europeanism, together with its converse in the “ death of the author” subterfuge of the French structuralists, is bogus.
No wonder the musicians of the New York Philharmonic sabotaged the first performance of Cage’s Atlas eclipticalis (1962). If the artist suspends volition and composes “according to the laws of chance” why should gifted musicians submit to the strict instructions imposed on them; or indeed, why bother to turn up for a gig, if determined indeterminacy rules. The mind will go on trying to relate even this inconsequential frippery into some kind of comprehensible order, and even to supply it with a meaning and a purpose that it doesn’t have. The final idiocy of 4’33” lies not with the ‘composer’, but with the audience, who are prepared to sit religiously through it without swearing, breaking into song, or breaking wind.
There is a painting by Reynolds (not usually celebrated for his spontaneity) in the Frick Collection in New York – Selina, Lady Skipwith which contains a beautiful demonstration of genuine spontaneity in action. Reynolds has painted the transition from the whale-bone central rib of Selina’s bodice with an emphatic form-defining stroke, abruptly turning to deep shadow, from out of which he has scribbled the indication of the rucked sleeve covering her left forearm emerging from this shade, a blurred irresolution which in fact sets the whole picture alight with movement. He could have given greater definition to this arm (it is not in this instance the result of poor anatomical competence, for which Reynolds has often been rebuked) – but something made him stop at this point, a vision of the whole which required this fluttering destabilizing passage, and without which the picture would have been more static and conventional.
It brings to mind Cézanne’s description of the way Chardin has drawn the tip of his own nose in his pastel self portrait (in the Louvre) – and there are countless other examples in post-baroque painting (Franz Hals for instance). So all this ironising self-flagellation about “spontaneous” “gestural” painting is misplaced. It all depends what these gestures contribute, what they are for, how they function in the overall conception. Ultimately, either a pictorial gesture is spontaneous or it isn’t – and only an intuitive grasp of formal intent, and an empathetic absorption of the whole image can decide.
If in the end I prefer The Moroccans of Matisse to Pollock’s One, it is because I desire something “clear, demarcated – out there, resistant to the eye” – in which the painter has savoured and weighed his own impulses, and you can see and feel that in the fabric of paint itself.
14th of February 2013
Of course the cultural sub-text to all this includes the gradual orientalising of American taste in aesthetics and religion; the spread of interest in Indian mysticism, Zen Buddhism and the occult, from the West Coast pacific rim, with its proximity to the Far East .
Generally when a “ new sensibility” becomes fashionable ( the 1960s), it has already been underground in the thinking and tastes of at least two generations of “beatniks” beforehand.
Pollock is still of the generation who took Freud and Jung as gospel, before the revisionists and fantasists got to work. And the Surrealists, without whom Pollock would not have been possible, for all their love of libertine pranks, still took Freud seriously, and saw revolutionary potential in psychoanalysis.
And it is more than ironic that those who want to attack Freud’s patriarchal authoritarianism e.g. Linda Nochlin and T. J. Clark, still use his Oedipus complex as a stick with which to beat poor old Courbet and Cezanne.
W. H. Auden said that the image which best sums up the 20th century is that of the bawling baby (the baby throwing its toys out of the pram , or being praised for doing a “whoopsee” on the carpet ?). It is a metaphor (or is it ?) which can be applied on many levels, both Freudian and post-Freudian, but in relation to art I think he is referring to a new standard set by the pre-adolescent petulant maunderings of those who are rebelling against their parents simply because they are standing in the way of self-gratification,( and the Surrealists must share some of the blame.) The consequences for art of this psychology are all around us.
Enter post-modernism! (see Picasso and Surrealism, by John Golding, in Picasso 1881 -1973, Paul Elek, London and New Hampshire U.S.A. 1973).
And what will the appropriate image for the 21st century be ?