A Stroke of Genius
Reflections on Jackson Pollock's Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art
By David Dalton

Dec. '98

On an afternoon in January 1947, Jackson Pollock dipped a stick into a gallon of Duco house paint thinned to the consistency of honey and moving his hand across the surface of the canvas laid on the floor let the paint drip in swirling loops and splatters of color. With this almost heedless act, a gesture of throwing something away, Pollock turned modern art inside out (and returned painting to its magical origins).

The all-over drip paintings that Pollock painted between 1947 and 1950 are the Big Bang of modern art. Not only are they the apotheosis of Modernism, they also mark the end of it. The drip changed everything. Pollock's occult act pushed history into another dimension. A Hellenistic age of pastiche and irony followed. After Pollock came the post-modernism of neo-Dada, Pop art and a thousand other self-referential genres that sampled and parodied all that had gone before.

But the death of Modernism was fatal to Pollock as well. Within three years Jack the Dripper was a celebrity on the cover of glossy magazines. Society folk invited him to their parties in the hope that the wild man of Abstract Expressionism would pee in their fireplaces. To himself, however, he had become a ghost in a pin-striped suit and expensive shoes. His work done, he was just waiting it out. When Pollock died in a car crash in 1956 he hadn't painted in a year and a half.

We don't know the exact date Pollock made his first drip painting but it would have been a chilly day in January 1947 when the weather god had covered the eastern end of Long Island under a blanket of snow, a white sheet on which anything could be written. Pollock, wearing two pairs of pants and three sweaters against the cold, waded through the blowing snow drifts from the house to his studio, an unheated barn with no electric light (a replica of the studio has been constructed at the Museum of Modern Art for the current exhibit). It was so bitterly cold he could only stay out there for a couple of hours at a time. Snow was blowing between the boards of the barn. The only light the incandescent glare through the windows from the snow outside.

The Sorcerer's Cave

Pollock had discarded the traditional painter's tools. He no longer needed brushes or palette knives, tubes of paint. The conventional methods were too slow, too ponderous to capture the spin and lurch of his mind. He had transcended the vaulting ambitions of fauvism, cubism, surrealism and dada––those avatars that swam like schools of brilliant fish through the history of Modernism. Jackson wanted nothing less than to catch "memories arrested in space."

This was not simply an aesthetic breakthrough like Cubism, this was a leap into space. As he painted he wasn't even touching the canvas; he was painting on thin air! It was the unconscious writing its own multiphrenic tale in a seraphic, turbulent calligraphy that coiled and stuttered, reeled and sang in long looping tensile lines. Shadowy bulls, horses, hands, snakes, totems, trees, suns, wolves, Eskimo masks, biomorphic bulbs and psychosexual monsters uncurled in skeins of paint that floated in the air. That was the painting. The shaman's hallucinatory act. An existentialist finger encoding its images in the air, letting gravity paint the picture. What Pollock called "energy made visible." A Joycean language of forms that would appear and vanish in the twinkling of an eye.

With that Promethean act, Jackson stole the sacred fire from Europe. Before he shattered the frame, American artists had lived under the oppressive shadow of European tradition. Praxiteles! Michelangelo! Rembrandt! Picasso! Like Alexander severing the Gordion knot Pollock's radical act made all that great art––awesome and sublime as it was––seem anachronistic and academic. His loose and supple lines soared off the surface of the canvas and sang with the crazy wisdom of a be-bop riff.

His pulsing, swirling scrawls derive directly from van Gogh, as if he had unspooled the compressed energy of the cosmic whorls of Starry Night into delirious feral lines. Like some giant wanton child he had leapt from van Gogh across every art movement since, picking up pieces of modernism as if they were strewn toys Kandinsky's interstellar swirls, Matisse's color-as-meaning, Gorky's psychomorphs, Klee's cryptoglyphs, Picasso's phantasmagoric bulls and in a flash point of inspiration made all art of the past this!

A Short History of the Drip

There's a certain Popeyish I-yam-what-I-yamness to Pollock that makes it seem as if he were the first to ever think of dripping or splattering paint on canvas. But the drip has a long history. As far back as 1877 James McNeil Whistler had been accused of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" by the critic John Ruskin (merely for the specks of red and gold he stippled on The Falling Rocket to simulate a fireworks display).

The surrealists were keen scribblers and frottageurs. In the thirties Max Ernst had sprinkled paint on canvas by punching holes in a paint-filled bucket and swinging it over a canvas. Automism––letting a pencil freely travel over the paper forming a web of lines––was a solemn fad among surrealists.

In the years immediately preceding the drip paintings there had been numerous examples of drips and splatters. There were the automatic drawings of Matta, Mark Tobey's white writing, and the web-like paintings of the surrealist-abstractionist grandmother, Janet Sobel. Pollock's breakthrough paintings of 1947 weren't even his first. Eleven years earlier he had experimented with splattered paint in the workshop of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquiero and seven years before that he'd dripped paint on a plate of glass covered with water in Frederick Schwankovsky's classroom. As early as 1939 Pollock made automatic drawings, and in 1942 he used sprayed paint in the ejaculating totems of Male and Female. Guardians of the Secret of 1943 contained an abstract painting of hieroglyphic symbols at its center.

A more basic origin for the drip paintings was suggested by Pollock's neighbor, Patsy Southgate: "He saw himself standing beside his father on a flat rock, watching his father pissing, making patterns on the surface of the stone . . . and he wanted to do the same thing when he grew up."

Raising Lazarus

But none of the preceding attempts (including Pollock's own) used the drip in the intentional manner of his paintings of the late forties. They were essentially formalist experiments and lacked the consummate vision that would pull this coat of many colors together. Everything awaited the sorcerer who would cast his deciding spell. The determining element came when Pollock moved art from aesthetics to a psychological realm akin to magic.

For Pollock, Native American art-as-ritual was more influential on his work than any fine art precedents. In 1941 Pollock had watched with great interest as Navajo artists executed sand paintings on the floor of the Museum of Modern Art. He was also obsessed with cave paintings, at once grasping the source of the numinous power in these paintings, not as images but in the magical act of painting itself. Forty years earlier in Paris, Picasso, too, had recognized the compelling aspect of African sculpture, but when he used African masks for the faces of the prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon he was employing the imagery of magic; it was Jackson's ingenious revelation to recreate the magic itself.

Using infra-red photography and computer imaging, Pepe Karmel, the assistant curator at the Modern, has uncovered some of the layers of images in the drip paintings.

"In some cases," Karmel says, "the so-called veiling layers of Pollock's paintings are themselves composed of surrealist imagery representing sketchy human and animal figures as well as ideographs and gothic hieroglyphs. So we have a palimpsest that you can't read when the painting is finished because it's layer upon layer but each layer nevertheless carries its own meaning. The cave paintings Pollock loved have images of bison from, say, 10,000 years ago overlaid by bison pictoglyphs from 9,500 years ago. Pollock may have had a similar magical attitude towards his drip paintings. Imagery did not have to be readable to be effective. In shamanistic fashion, early man had piled image upon image in a cave painting. Maybe Pollock thought he could do the same thing in his canvases, that the magical or emotionally effective aspect of these images was there whether you could read them or not."

But suppose when looking at Pollock's drip paintings we were in some subliminal manner to read his palimpsests as psychotropic glyphs. The play of energy, color and light in the paintings replicating the synaptic paths that thought and image take, splicing idea and thing, and transporting us into that same ecstatic moment when Pollock passed his wizard's wand over the sleeping body of Western art and made it rise up and walk one last time.

Jackson Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe with Pepe Karmel.
(The Museum of Modern Art's catalog)

To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock by Jeffrey Potter

Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith