Half a century after he created them, Jackson Pollock's drip paintings have achieved maturity.
They are free now of their "parents," the mythic Pollock persona that lent them an aura of frantic abandon and the total originality of image that caused extreme reactions. They now have their own identity, one that's less raw and anguished, more calm and beautiful than these pictures at first appeared.
The drip paintings constitute the heart of the exhibit "Jackson Pollock" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. With more than 150 works, it's the largest Pollock exhibit so far and the first major American retrospective since 1967. It presents a complete overview, from the tentative early efforts of the 1930s to the last stumbling attempts before his 1956 death in an automobile accident at the age of 44. But it demonstrates absolutely that the essence of Pollock's greatness lies in the drip paintings that he created in a brief period from the fall of 1947 to the fall of 1950.
They need little description, for they are instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever seen one. Working with his canvas on the floor, Pollock dripped, spattered and drizzled his paint, from brushes and sticks and directly from cans of enamel house paint. The finished paintings, up to 9 feet high and 17 feet long, consist of intricately overlapping and intertwining skeins of paint that are at once abstract and yet reminiscent of landscape.
The reception these paintings earned when new arose partly from people's perception of Pollock, partly from pictures of him painting and partly from the effort to articulate the meaning of images whose like the world had never seen.
Pollock was a son of the West who emphasized his Cody, Wyo., birthplace, although he grew up mainly in California. In the New York art world, he was hard-drinking, hard-swearing, macho. For a 1949 Life magazine spread that brought him national attention, he was photographed wearing jeans and a paint-splattered windbreaker, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a pugnacious expression on his face. Furthermore, he was a seriously mentally disturbed man who began seeing psychiatrists in the 1930s.
Small wonder, then, that it was easy to see in Pollock's work the result of an angst-ridden frenzy of activity. Critics used terms like ecstasy to describe his creative fervor, and pictures of him in action made it look as if he were flinging paint at canvas with abandon. Some saw this work as an attempt to liberate art from the European tradition, while to others it was the manifestation of cultural degeneracy.
Curiously enough, the leading critic of the day, Clement Greenberg, saw in Pollock the complete opposite of all that. To Greenberg, Pollock epitomized the artist who elevated form over content and intellect over emotion, a direct descendant of early 20th-century European cubism.
Today, the drip paintings suggest neither half-crazed ecstasy nor cerebral distance. Instead, their loops and swoops and swirls, dots and flecks and eddies of paint add up to works that are lyrical, balletic, contemplative, optimistic and, above all, intimate: intimate in the sense of a day-to-day relationship with someone over a long period, in which one discovers, bit by bit, the full nature of the other. For they not only meet the viewer as entities but also invite close encounters, tiny part by tiny part. The eye can enter them at any point and wander freely, spend a long time with one small passage or roam loosely and luxuriously across and around the image.
They impart a sense of simultaneous freedom and control -- freedom in the spontaneity of the gesture and control in the ability to avoid extravagance or self-indulgence. As a result, they can give sheer sensuous pleasure akin to that of a dog rolling in the grass, and an intellectual pleasure akin to that offered by the cadences of great poetry.
There is certainly emotion in them, but it's the emotion of quiet elation, not of depression, anger or madness. Pollock was certainly unhappy, but no one is unhappy all the time, and he said something very important: "Painting is no problem. The problem is what to do when you're not painting." Painting, obviously, was his happiness, especially after he found his signature style in the late 1940s.
It took him a long time to get there. He was born in 1912 and grew up mainly in California and Arizona as the youngest of five sons of a poor farming family. Two of his older brothers became artists, and he followed one, Charles, to New York in 1930. Subsequently he studied with American regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton.
On the surface, it would seem that Benton had little effect on Pollock. But MOMA curator Kirk Varnedoe refers in the catalog to Benton's "serpentine" style. Benton's figures and landscapes have an undulating quality, and perhaps it found its way into Pollock's swirls.