CURATORIAL CONUNDRUM: UNVEILING POLLOCK; MoMA, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
TATE, LONDON, ENGLAND
museums have historically conveyed political, economic, and cultural attitudes
that affect the artists reputation. In the early 70s critics
accused The Museum of Modern Art of supporting an imperealist political
position along with the US government by sending avant-garde shows abroad.
This took a paradoxical turn in its influence on Jackson Pollocks
fame. At home, his influence surfaced in all mediums other than painting,
while in Europe, because of the many painting shows that were sent overseas,
he became known for the first time. The New American Painting
toured eight European cities in 58. In the US, painting was increasingly
considered dead until the early 80s, particularly targeted for burial
was abstract painting.
Since then, the issues have shifted. To survive in todays antagonistic
political environment, cultural institutions have embraced commercialism.
This was evident in the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of
Modern Art which opened in November, 98. Also, the curator has become
a key force today. He has replaced both the dealer and the artist who
had played a dominant role in the 80s. The show was curated by Kirk
Varnedoe, Chief Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture. He was
totally responsible for both the selection and installation of the exhibition
and catalog essay. He was assisted only by Pepe Karmel, a former student
and art critic, who was appointed adjunct assistant curator. Upon closing
in New York in February, 99, the exhibition went directly to the
Tate Gallery in London. The Tates Director of Collections, Jeremy
Lewison, installed a slightly altered version of the exhibition.
So, how do the different curatorial styles of Kurt Varnedoe and Jeremy
Lewison influence the viewer? What were their agendas? And how do their
points of view impact on Pollocks reputation? Time doesnt
permit my discussing all of the topics they covered so I have concentrated
on their divergent views regarding the relation between figuration and
abstraction and its role and importance in Pollocks work.
Clearly Varnedoe was charged with guarding the formalist gate to MoMAs
formidable collection of modern art. His analysis of Pollocks career
reflects the Modernist fable of a logical, unbroken lineage of Modernist
influences and progress toward a state of pure abstraction. This bias
was clearly reflected in the exhibition layout. The works, presented in
chronological order, increasing impressively in size, led inexorably to
abstraction. The size and space they were allotted gave them power and
conviction. Despite some omissions, there were approximately 200 workssome
90 oils and an assortment of other mediums. The flow of the work supported
Varnedoes position that the dripping, or, more accurately, the pouring
method, constituted the artists prime innovation. (The sign bites
scattered on the walls throughout spelled out his point of view clearly.)
While excellent examples of earlier work were included, emphasis was always
on what is considered Pollocks single achievement, beginning with
mural in 43 and then peaking with lavender mist and number 1, 31
of 50, all of which add up to an abandonment of the figure to let
overallness and untouched materiality take over.
Varnedoes catalog essay dovetailed his exhibition approach. He pays
tribute to William Rubin, the former director of the Museum of Modern
Art and the curator of the last Pollock Retrospective at MoMA in 67.
There was a nod to Clement Greenberg by way of a fairly formalist approach.
However, he refutes Greenbergs definition of space as optical
in that Pollocks line reveals tactility and indeterminate depth.
The tactile quality is revealed in the blow-ups of details scattered throughout
the catalog. This is a strong point.
Varnedoes writing was directed to a popular audiencerehashing
the history of mentors and influences, all of which have been extensively
covered by historians before. His focus on biography accompanied by current
sensational tidbits gave the essay a belated trendy edge. A discussion
of Pollocks financial status and success must have tickled corporate
supporters of the exhibition who were lavished with tours, complimentary
catalogs and elaborate dinners. A Pollock drip everywhere
became a logo.
The assistant curator, Pepe Karmels catalog essay offered a provocative
perspective on Pollocks art-making process. His insights are based
on his analysis of Hans Namuths photographs and films of Pollock
working on Autumn Rhythm and color outtakes, plus video digital imaging
showing that Pollock began by diagramming figures in some sections of
the large canvas on the floor, graphic fragments, some biomorphic, some
stick figures. Then he overpainted with webbing to connect and obscure
the figures. Karmel concludes that rather than veiling the figures,
they are inserted to give form and rhythm to an abstract web. The result
was the rhythmic energy that animated his work. Karmel is perhaps too
cautious in his conclusionsleaving it open to criticism from the
critic, Rosalind Krauss, that this reading is regressive in its emphasis
on Renaissance linearity of form. Karmel responds that he was primarily
concerned with showing Pollocks spatial process of splats and overlaps
that refute pure opticality. Varnedoe draws on Karmels perspective,
but doesnt relinquish his prime position, insisting that the way
abstractions may have started with loose figuration is a matter of pragmatic
method, not deep meaning. All of this served to highlight the divisive
rhetorical camps that have shaped Pollocks influence since the 60s.
And its not over yet.
The exhibition which moved directly to the Tate Gallery was largely selected
by Varnedoe in New Yorkwhile Jeremy Lewison was totally responsible
for installing the show. It was smaller, yet well spaced and more cohesive.
Three paintings of note were missingautumn rhythm, lucifer, and
alchemy. He held to a chronological order as well, but he didnt
separate works of different mediums, which made it possible for the viewer
to observe connections between them.
The significant difference between the two curators lay in their approach
evidenced in the catalog essays. Varnedoes, titled Comet:
Jackson Pollocks Life and Work covers more topics: Greenberg,
the American artist, Pollocks influence on a younger generationnothing
new there. Lewisons smaller catalog, appropriately called Interpreting
Pollock, adopts a thematic approach, locating Pollock and his work
in a broader context of art and ideas. He cites more critical points of
view and recent scholarship on Pollock.
Both he and Varnedoe begin by exploring the relation to Jungian ideas.
Lewison analyzes Pollock in relation to Jungian interpretation and his
strong engagement with so-called primitive art, particularly North American
Indian Art and mythology as an expression of the irrational. He locates
the influence of Picasso and Orozco as emerging from the preconscious.
Lewisons analysis of Pollocks need for figural references
in his work assumes that Pollock was after access to the unconscious and
in his desire to express inner forces in the anxiety and insecurity of
modern life. According to Lewison, Pollock leaves vestiges of the image
as a distinct strategyhe oscillates between revealing and disguising
the figure. Sometimes it serves both a structural and representational
role. In mural it unifies the composition by repeating strong vertical
black lines that resemble figures.
Varnedoe has little faith in trying to explain Pollocks work in
terms of its concepts. He has mixed thoughts about the success of paintings
relating to Jungian ideas of the unconscious. While he included a substantial
number of provocative paintings in the period that started in 42,
his verbal response was decidedly negative. He refers to male and female
(42) as an old chestnut. He described guardians of the
secret of a year later as overburdened with additive symbols and
layered with caked pedimenti. On the positive side, he said they
began to include free-form abstraction. However, he summed up the whole
period as a struggle. His analysis can be defined (and this
is true throughout) as descriptive and judgmental. Lewison finds these
same works invite multiple interpretations. He points out in guardians
of the secret that if turned upside down, marks become stick figures.
male and female wears a look of the unconscious, but ambiguous motifs
raise questions about anima and animus of Jungian and possibly personal
Varnedoe continues his negative critique until his passion finally surfaces
in his meticulous and detailed description of the pouring technique that
results in the absence of toucheffecting a fluidity of paint, facture,
layeringthe complex method of arriving at a not so flat space. He
asks the question: What did the drip paintings mean? His answer: The whole
story is on the surface which has a concrete, matter of fact, critical
presence that overrides any reference to things absent. There is no secret,
symbolic figuration repressed. The drip paintings cannot be read in terms
of earlier works. Pollock worked away from the figure as an act of opening
up, not suppression. He struggled when inventing images, but succeeded
when finding fresh poetries innate to materials.
Lewison addresses the monumental drip paintings of 50 where Pollock
put down a series of figural markings in the initial application. In the
process of obliteration, the markings may have had impact on the second
stage. The marks Pollock made which are influenced by his original urge
to depict a figure or figural forms in one way or another communicate
that original intention. The final paintings hold a memory of the
figure. Theres a basic human instinct to form an image and
even if he wanted to move away from it, his gestures often contained a
memory of the actions which create image. Lewison concludes that far
from abandoning the figure it is held captive within the complexity of
the paint. His conclusions are reinforced by Michael Lejas
recent arguments in his book, Reframing Abstract Expressionism, that film
noir and contemporary literature are sources for these characteristics
as well as Pollocks conflicting spatial realities that invoked metaphors
of man ensnared in a web, labyrinth as a vision of entrapment, ie, vortex
(not included in either exhibition). The gestures were not randomPollock
invariably exercised control and uncontrol.
In contrasting the positions of the two curators, bear in mind in a total
career of approximately 20 years, the drip paintings lasted only for three
years. And more significant is the fact that figuration can be found throughout
in different ways.
Lewison finds meaning in another group of rarely seen works Pollock made
in 48-49the same time that the drip paintings were to peak.
He became absorbed by a form of collage that involved introducing a figural
shape along with a dripped area. cut-out-figure, 48, is cut out
from a discarded overall, drip painting and mounted on a dark ground surrounded
on both sides with loose but highly controlled white pouring at first
seems abstract and arbitrary but then suggests sentinel figures that he
used in early paintings in degrees of recognition. Here they look as if
they are in a dialogue, perhaps a metaphor for protection of the figure.
In out of the web, Pollock gouged out the masonite surface to create biomorphic
shapes. Lewison interprets it as suggesting both containment and release.
In closing, Lewison invites speculation about where Pollock might have
gone if he had lived. At this point in his search for a new image, with
the figure playing an increasing role, could he have challenged de Kooning?
What we had were basically two distinctly different shows. The work was,
for the most part, the same, but the attitudes and analytical approaches
were vastly different. The MoMA encased Pollock in amber like a revered
dead specimen or curiosity that has been clearly defined and put to rest
as a relic. The Tate broke the amber to study the DNA in a state of suspended
animation, albeit, one still capable of vitality and change.
A way to preserve the force of high art along with embracing popular culture
is to educate the student as well as the viewer to its meaningsto
the role of interpretationthis is what Lewison does. Meanings in
abstraction still need elucidation and evaluation. Bear in mind that curatorial
voices coming from major museums like MoMA and the Tate carry enough clout
to find their way into art history texts.
New York, New York