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Spring 2007

Pollock on Paper

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W. S. Di Piero

No Limits, Just Edges:
Jackson Pollock's Paintings on Paper
Guggenheim Museum, New York,
May 26-September 29, 2006.

One of the faint doggy odors that lingered in postwar American art (still does, for some) was the quality of Jackson Pollock's draftsmanship. He and others recognized his limitations early on. His brother Sande said that as a student at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles Pollock "couldn't make images out of other images." And in a 1930 letter to his other brother, Charles: "My drawing I will tell you frankly is rotten it seems to lack freedom and rhythm it is cold and lifeless." But when Peggy Guggenheim began to show his work in 1943, he usually exhibited an equal number of works on paper and on canvas. The roughly seven hundred works on paper he produced from the early 1930s to 1952—his production dropped hard in the four years before his death in 1956—index his conflictedness about drawing as it relates to figuration and abstraction. Much of what came before and after the telluric floor paintings of 1947–1952 is come-and-go representational. Over the years, his work in different media—ink, gouache, colored pencils, poured enamel—tracked the argument with himself about figuration. Even at the end of his career, Pollock was still toiling with it, still drawing it, in his way. Some artists abandon what they can't do well, some knock themselves out trying to master what doesn't come naturally. William Carlos Williams was a lousy rhymer, so after some juvenilia he quit trying and instead developed a magical sense of timing and idiom. Although he produced traditional pencil drawings most of his working life—we have sketchbooks to prove it—Pollock had to meet the question some other way. Some claim that even when he seemed to be drawing, he was actually painting on paper. Well, you can dice it however you like, but it's still drawing, preliminary to some other work or not, even if executed with brush, gravity stick, or colored pencil.

Pollock's strengths lay in exhilarating confabulations of skittering, halting line, not in what Baudelaire (describing Ingres's razorous drawing) called the rational deliberations of outline. The phrase Pollock coined to describe and defend his exploratory practice, "No limits, just edges," the title of a roiling exhibition of his works on paper at the Guggenheim last summer, applies to figurative and abstract work alike. They both have to do with pushing and streamering toward edges while creating painting space of infinite inside-and-around possibility. No Pollock, on canvas or paper, was ever really concluded. Like a Williams poem, it had no rhetoric of resolution or completion: it simply stopped at the margins of its own self-enthralling, auto-hypnotic pursuit.

The early work, though studious and restrained, shows where Pollock will go. The stiff springiness of a harbor-and-lighthouse watercolor from the 1930s has the torsional, bent-sheaves energy Pollock learned from Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he studied in 1930. A bleak self-portrait from the early 1930s (not in the show but reproduced in the catalogue) previews the lashing force that would later help him control the pushiness of the grandiose floor paintings. In life, Pollock swung from blackout rages to stony muteness, and the youthful face in the self-portrait, set in a tenebrous chamber-space, looks dumbstruck, shut down, half the face crushed and emaciated by shadowing that suggests a self abashed or terrified by exposure of any kind. By the late 1930s Pollock was in Jungian analysis, hoping that understanding the contents of the unconscious would help his alcoholism; his analyst used his drawings as evidence of his mental life. His unconscious warehoused a broil of imagery—American Indian (especially Pueblo) art, Asian art, cave paintings, petroglyphs, and the phantasmagoria of that menace Picasso. A colored pencil drawing from this period consists of an oval impacted with bladed convolutions. Figure in a Landscape (the title was attached later) is an egg containing an embryonic white-headed creature crouching in a spikey garden or field with a farmhouse snugly curved against the egg's wall. The form suggests the Brahmanonda or Cosmic Egg of Hindu theology but is really, or also, the inside of Jackson Pollock's skull: the egg is cracked (or trepanned) so that we can peer inside at its contents. It's a tight color-cloister, a delicate but migraine-ish place to be.

Around 1937 Pollock was preoccupied, mostly through books and reproductions, with El Greco: his hand becomes more deft and aggressive, he acquires greater confidence in his quickened slanted line and agonized volumes. Figure drawings in sketchbooks—real drawings, good ones, too—deploy El Greco's way of arcing and angling volumes skyward and creating sensuous yet austere outlines. At the same time, like Matta and Gorky, Pollock was caught up by Surrealism and its claims to unmediated access to the unconscious. His graceful mania and all-over attack took Surrealism's familiar vocabulary—feathery, root-system entanglements—and turned it into stretched, gelatinous, surging-and-retreating stews of line. He tapped the Surrealist vein off and on through the mid-Forties, creating calligraphic pileups, color blots, and nut-shelled homunculi that contract to the center of the paper like things afraid.

As he matured, Pollock became more and more a glyph-maker of the feral and unsayable: animals and biomorphic deformities (some cribbed from Picasso: maws and paws, bulls' heads, snouted ladies, bristling forked bipeds), stiletto draperies, sharp-edged lariats and blades, imaginary creatures (usually in some condition of trouble), and motifs suggestive of Navajo sand painting, Hopi bowl designs, and the celebrative bonfires of Pueblo communities. The abstractions of the mid-Forties are really preliminary drawings—he's testing the embedded axial uprights and contested symmetries that swim forth in paintings later in the decade, though the hand that races to evade symmetries also chases densely nested structures. Sometimes the real subject of the work on paper is his anxiety about making original imagery. After El Greco and the Navajo sand painting technique he learned in David Alfaro Siqueiros' workshop—pouring a picture on a horizontal surface required a new understanding of "attack," a letting loose instead of application— the tentativeness exposed in his early tries at "making images out of other images" gets freed up into distressed lyrical tenderness. By 1947, he's vasculating surfaces with fearless, prophetic intensity.

Throughout it all (the pure abstractions excepted) the Haunter, the figure, comes and goes. A 1946 experiment comically illustrates Pollock's running hide-and-seek with representation: over a photograph of a dog he laminated film skimmed from enamel paint. Stressed-out canines appear often. In his 1943 painting Guardians of the Secret, in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the slashingly drawn coyote-ish animal lying at the picture's bottom, between gaunt male and female hierophants, recalls the Prankster of American Indian stories. There's another roughly drawn cult painting from the same year, The She-Wolf, in the Museum of Modern Art. And in a 1943 work on paper in the Guggenheim show, one doggish creature bays at the sky while his companion's lopsided eyes cock straight out at us. In this and other drawings from the period, Pollock treats pictorial space as a wall on which to make memorializing marks. Instead of bison, aurochs, and lions, he leaves the shape-shifting probes of his imagination or dream life —uterine, ovular, and cranial forms, free-floating geometric abstractions, handprints, hulking half-vaporized titans, cramped marks that look like math formulas, petroglyphic dots and domino tiles and mysterious astrological notations. The imagery looks draped on the support, hanging there like an animist veronica.

For me the big jolt in the exhibition comes in 1948. A wiry white-on-black enamel shows sprinting radiographic figures that could have been modeled either from a Greek vase or from bent coat hangers. Another enamel on paper, drawn black-on-white, traces in long, loopy, single-stroke lines a fragile figure trio—heads, breasts, and pelvises all clearly articulated; soaked into the paper, the line bears a gray shadow, a running ghostly outline of itself, like a vigilante or memory of the line's passage. You turn from these pictures and their zizzy, nervous speed to a poured abstraction of the same year, painted with congestive grays, blues, reds, and yellows that tremendously pressurize the space the poured color creates. The fatter line moves with the same tracery energy as in the black-and-white pictures, but its glandular pulses of color create a kind of anxious cheer. As a viewer, you feel the usual blood-rush tracking lines and prying into the space they create, but once your eye runs to the edges where the energy stops, it hovers back and drills vertically—that's the sensation—into the fractaled circulatory systems of paint from which it can at any time elevate, and then drop again. Watching Pollock in the drawings from 1948 dilate and contract space on a surface is like reading a poet who in three lines can vamp from skipping, light-fingered textures to cranking, chunky dynamics.

The poured work from the late Forties and early Fifties, on canvas and paper alike, has an explosive formal integrity: the paint isn't veiled over a vertical surface, it's set in motion with steaming enthusiasm, and Pollock seems at times, if not exactly a happy artist, at least a poet of sweet if barely stable excitability, like Kit Smart or John Clare, exercising a joy riven and pressurized by mysterious off-ness, or second sight, or gleeful anger, or despair so internalized that its agent is himself unaware of how inseparable depression's energies are from the excitements of form-making. I have to confess that I've always been partial to the mysterious, austere, figurative speculations Pollock made, many on paper, in the early 1950s, when some felt his gifts were in decline, where desperation dances with a fearless grace. Color and space are aerated, not dizzily impacted or self-referential. The most haunting oil painting from that period by any painter is, for me, Pollock's Number 7 (1951), in the National Gallery. Like other late, sketchy pictures, it's a diptych: the left panel bristles with knobby black upright lines like pickets, gathered around a small egg-shaped fire of sticks; through the right panel stalks a meaty-thighed figure whose torso seams together male and female attributes, with an open-mouthed head split down the center by a line similar to those sticks. The left panel is a skeleton of the big poured pictures, a skeleton fleshed out just barely in the right panel, where the contrapposto figure turns both toward and away from those loose bones.

This most oddly gifted of moderns brainstormed his way to an idiosyncratic practice in the poured pictures, having come from the struggles with figural drawing, then pushed onward back to the figure —often monstrous, never fleshy (like Picasso) in its reference to the actual body—and to the archeological or aboriginal. When Pollock experimented with stacked, porous Japanese papers in 1951, his colors bled through the topmost sheet to others beneath, creating minatory shadows of continuity and contingency. In a sense, all his flat and upright surfaces showed deposits of a restless but extremely specialized artistic intelligence behaving the pictures into existence, as cave and sand paintings were behaved into existence, as if trying to find a new order of imagery for his tribe.

W. S. Di Piero's Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems has recently been published by Knopf. He lives in San Francisco.

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