Understanding the confluence and influence of Pollock to art

November 05, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

If there is one figure who stands at the center of the American art of this century, it is surely Jackson Pollock.

"I think he is seen as a . . . hinge figure between earlier modernism and the postwar world," says Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "He was a sort of Janus figure, a summation of a certain direction and a source from which a lot of important innovations in art have flowed."

Those who want insights into Pollock can hear one of America's leading authorities on modern art at the Baltimore Museum of Art Sunday at 3 p.m. when Mr. Varnedoe delivers the annual Israel Rosen Memorial Lecture, commemorating the late Baltimore collector.

Mr. Varnedoe is known for such significant exhibitions as "Primitivism in 20th Century Art" and "Vienna 1900." From his office in New York earlier this week he gave a preview of his Pollock lecture.

Pollock is generally regarded as first among that group who took the ideas of European modernism, combined them with an American sensibility, and created abstract expressionism, the movement with which America wrested leadership in art from Europe. He is especially noted for the famous "drip paintings" of the late 1940s and early '50s, which is what Mr. Varnedoe will concentrate on. Pollock, he says, is a special figure, whose work was in part about "the nature of space, the use of material, gestural freedom. But also having something to say about American landscape, the American political system and the possibilities of American life."

It is particularly interesting to investigate his influence because Pollock didn't leave behind a whole group of artists whose work looked like his. "He completely defined the style he invented, so there was no place to go with it directly," Mr. Varnedoe says. "It was a modern innovation that cannot be passed on in kind. You cannot do a Pollock without somehow seeming to be an imitator. Pollock, in a certain sense, defined a kind of extreme position.

"But some of the most profound consequences or lessons for the artist don't immediately look like Pollocks. They . . . are in sculpture rather than painting. He had a strong influence on Eva Hesse, she talks about it in her diaries, and I'm going to talk about Richard Serra and Robert Smithson, all deriving important lessons from Pollock, and each one taking it in very different directions."

Just as the works of those whom Pollock influenced don't look like his, so one would not immediately, perhaps, think of him in terms of Mexican muralists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Rufino Tamayo and Jose Clemente Orozco. But Mr. Varnedoe, in his recent reinstallation of MOMA's permanent collection, hung Pollock together with them.

"He studied with Siqueiros and he knew Orozco, and there are strong formal similarities in his early paintings. In one sense this feeds into drip paintings, because Siqueiros experimented with the chance effects of liquid paint puddling on canvas in a free-form way. That influence of Siqueiros was one of the contributing factors in Pollock's own freedom to experiment with his art. And also the Mexican muralists' art was socially powerful; it helped to determine the collective identity of a people. Those are very important things."

In sum, Mr. Varnedoe says, "I think Pollock was an enormously important artist . . . He was one of the great defining figures of the century.

"And I think European artists think that as well. When [German artist] Joseph Beuys was here, he was asked whether there is anything in American art that he found interesting, and almost before the question was out he said Jackson Pollock."

There is another aspect of our interest in Pollock, Mr. Varnedoe adds, because of his life and death -- his alcoholism, his death in an automobile accident in 1956 at age 44. "Pollock's early death in dramatic circumstances and the volatility of his life relate to a kind of American myth. There is a certain aura of James Dean and so on. And this kind of popular level attachment involves Pollock also in American imaginations."

LECTURE

What: "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," lecture by Kirk Varnedoe

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles and 31st streets

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Free to the lecture

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

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