Exhibit focuses on paint drips that changed art history

CRITIC'S CORNER

Guggenheim features seminal Pollock works on paper

July 05, 2006|By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- A new and powerfully beautiful exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum does something that similar presentations almost never do. The established way we think about a pivotal artist gets turned inside out, and the revision is right on target. No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper says something essential - and in previously unconsidered ways.

Curator Susan Davidson erases the conventional distinction between drawing and painting in the classic works Pollock made with the drip method. Nearly 70 of about 700 known Pollock works on paper have been brought together for the exhibition, which continues through Sept. 29. They center on a handful produced between 1948 and 1950 by dripping oil paint or, most often, enamel on sheets of relatively modest size.

This show is not about traditional drawing per se, the curator notes. It emphasizes that between paper and canvas, Pollock's working method did not really change much. That fact goes straight to the core of his achievement.

By now, everybody knows the well-rehearsed story of Pollock's breakthrough. During the summer of 1947, he worked in a makeshift, 20-foot-square studio at his house on the eastern end of Long Island.

Sober for the first time in a long time, he unfurled a length of raw canvas on the floor and dripped, poured and spattered colorful skeins of paint all over it. Modern American art came of age that summer, so the story goes, and the drip method entered the annals of art history as a radical turning point.

By now, everybody also knows the Pollock puzzle: What possessed him?

Why did the artist do something so unexpected as to forgo stretching canvas onto wooden bars and then putting it on an easel, as artists had been doing for 400 years, and instead lay the raw cloth down on the floor?

The drip paintings that resulted from this change of venue are not uniformly successful, but they are a radical departure from the way painted canvases had ever been conceived before. Collectively they posed an aesthetic question that Pollock also asked his wife, the estimable painter Lee Krasner, in point-blank terms: "Is this a painting?"

For avant-garde art the accepted answer has long been "Yes." But the Guggenheim show answers "No" - or at least, "Not exactly."

Yes, the drip works are made with the materials of painting. But they come from an artistic point of view more closely aligned with drawing. Sharp distinctions between the mediums of painting and drawing, Davidson writes in the concise and excellent catalog, "are quite elusive in Pollock's work." Because of this fugitive but fundamentally hybrid character, the drip paintings became an important pivot for American art.

The show follows Pollock's evolution from the mid-1930s to 1952, four years before he died in a car accident. The show's largest section - almost half its works - considers the variety of Pollock's Surrealist drawings made between 1942 and 1947. Then come the abstract drips. The show's crescendo is a lineup of six works from 1948 and 1949. None is larger than 31 inches on a side - a far cry from the monumental canvases he also made.

Consciously or not, Pollock applied to painting the established sculptural technique of drawing in space. The drip was born.

Christopher Knight writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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