zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







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Pollock on work on 1st version of


Jackson Pollock, UNTITLED, screenprint on paper


Modern museums have historically conveyed political, economic, and cultural attitudes that affect the artist’s 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 Pollock’s 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 today’s 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 Tate’s 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 Pollock’s reputation? Time doesn’t 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 Pollock’s work.
Clearly Varnedoe was charged with guarding the formalist gate to MoMA’s formidable collection of modern art. His analysis of Pollock’s 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 works—some 90 oils and an assortment of other mediums. The flow of the work supported Varnedoe’s position that the dripping, or, more accurately, the pouring method, constituted the artist’s 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 Pollock’s 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.
Varnedoe’s 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 Greenberg’s definition of space as “optical” in that Pollock’s 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.
Varnedoe’s writing was directed to a popular audience—rehashing 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 Pollock’s 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 Karmel’s catalog essay offered a provocative perspective on Pollock’s art-making process. His insights are based on his analysis of Hans Namuth’s 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 conclusions—leaving 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 Pollock’s spatial process of splats and overlaps that refute pure opticality. Varnedoe draws on Karmel’s perspective, but doesn’t 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 Pollock’s influence since the ‘60s. And it’s not over yet.
The exhibition which moved directly to the Tate Gallery was largely selected by Varnedoe in New York—while Jeremy Lewison was totally responsible for installing the show. It was smaller, yet well spaced and more cohesive. Three paintings of note were missing—autumn rhythm, lucifer, and alchemy. He held to a chronological order as well, but he didn’t 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. Varnedoe’s, titled “Comet: Jackson Pollock’s Life and Work” covers more topics: Greenberg, the American artist, Pollock’s influence on a younger generation—nothing new there. Lewison’s 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. Lewison’s analysis of Pollock’s 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 strategy—he 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 Pollock’s 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 significance.
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 touch—effecting a fluidity of paint, facture, layering—the 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.” There’s 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 Leja’s recent arguments in his book, Reframing Abstract Expressionism, that “film noir” and contemporary literature are sources for these characteristics as well as Pollock’s 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 random—Pollock 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 ‘48-49—the 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 meanings—to the role of interpretation—this 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.

Jeanne Siegel
New York, New York