Jackson Pollock:
Helplessness Before The Void
By John W. Whitehead

American art had been in limbo since Marcel Duchamp's creative period in the early 20th century. The Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s, however, brought American painting to the forefront. Indeed, the Americans set out to master modern art, and by the outbreak of the Second World War, they had.

Influenced by the thinking of Freud, Jung and Marx, the Abstract Expressionist movement dominated the New York scene for about 15 years following the end of World War II. Their work, through mass magazines such as Life and art periodicals, was very rapidly transmitted through much of the world. In Europe, and to some extent Japan, parallel manifestations of the new style appeared with far greater speed than had reflections of Impressionism in late 19th century art.

Most prominent among the Abstract Expressionists was Jackson Pollock, brought to the screen in Ed Harris' Pollock (R, 122 minutes), now available on video/DVD. Harris' portrait of Pollock is based on the very fine Pollock: An American Saga (Potter, 1989) by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The film affords us a peek into the swirling rise of Abstract Expressionism and, in particular, Jackson Pollock's role in the movement.

Unlike the French artists before them, the new American painters generally lived in the city, where cultural circles accepted psychiatric treatment. Pollock suffered from chronic emotional problems and alcoholism before he first received psychoanalytic treatment having spent two years in psychoanalysis. As Naifeh and White note: "His frequent drinking binges always ended the same way: someone first his brothers, then Lee [Krasner, his wife] would come to the bar where he had passed out or pick him up out of the gutter and carry him home."

Pollock felt a visceral necessity, if not psychotic compulsion, to succeed. When he cleaned floors or silk-screened neckties during the long years of anonymity in Depression-era New York, he wandered the streets at night in a drunken stupor, shouting at a passerby, "I'll show them someday." Even the "untouchable" Picasso was the object of his vaulting envy. "That fucking Picasso," he would fume. "He's done everything."

Partly due to his disturbed mind, which helped germinate the genius from which he drew (and his often-alcoholic state), Pollock went on to develop a violent expressionism. Of Pollock's short and turbulent existence, renowned painter Willem de Kooning once said: "Every so often a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with Cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell. Then there could be new paintings again."

Pollock, however, as Ed Harris's film seems to suggest, was not alone in his field. Pollock was part of a movement where he and his contemporaries wanted to locate their discourse beyond events, in a field not bound by historical time, that reverted to pre-literate, "primitive" tribal antiquity. Barnett Newman, who made no significant paintings before the late '40s but was active as a propagandist for the myth-laden art, advocated the need to re-primitivize oneself to obtain cultural wholeness by regression: "Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his own tragic state, at his own self-awareness, and at his own helplessness before the void." In fact, Pollock himself often reverted to a grunting, primitive state much like a caveman when he painted.

Replete with Freudian overtones, the phrase "helplessness before the void" sums up the period style. Like Paul Gauguin, the Abstract Expressionists postured themselves as tragic Adams who, having lost Paradise, would not content themselves with this world.

In terms of passion, inventiveness and emotional, violent energy, Pollock painted the strongest atavistic images of the '40s. His painting Pasiphae (1943) is an example of what was to come later––Pasiphae being, in Greek mythology, the wife of Minos and mother of the Minotaur by a white bull belonging to Minos.

Pasiphae's totemic image and mythic theme reflected Pollock's involvement in Jungian psychoanalysis, which emphasized archetypes and the "collective unconscious." Pollock, painter Mark Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s turned to archaic myths and primitive art for inspiration. These painters also developed the technique of automatism, or automatic or unconscious action, in psychological terms. Supposedly, automatism recollected man's primordial past and revealed the archetypal symbols that "lived" in the collective unconscious. As art historian Irving Sandler writes in American Art in the 20th Century (Prestel, 1993):

These "Mythmakers", as Rothko called them in 1943, professed that their interest in primitive man was prompted by the Second World War. Rothko said that archaic art and mythology contained "eternal symbols of man's primitive fears and motivations. And our modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular and our art, for all the changes in the outward conditions of life."
Pollock eventually carried automation into an extreme abstraction to express man's unconscious, primitive sense. Placing outsized canvases on the floor, Pollock poured, dribbled and flung paint on them as he moved around. He believed that his body movement needed scope, which encouraged him to work on a large scale to, as he said, "literally be in the painting." Hans Namuth's dramatic series of still photographs and his film of Pollock at work (both portrayed in the film Pollock) demonstrate that the artist painted by standing over a canvas and letting paint spill onto it from above until he had achieved the rhythmic movements, varied densities and textures.

Biographers Naifeh and Smith provide a telling account of Pollock at work in March of 1952. Pollock's friend, Tony Smith, received a telephone call from him in the middle of the night. "I'm going to kill myself," Pollock told him. Some hours away, Smith drove to Pollock's studio, where he found Pollock drunk and holding a knife, yelling obscenities. In the house, Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, cowered behind the bed in fear of her husband.

Pollock's studio reeked of liquor. "I was afraid," Smith later admitted, "because Pollock, even in his later years, was very strong. He could have done me in with a swipe of the knife." Smith settled Pollock down by suggesting that they paint a picture together. The canvas was stretched on the floor.

As he often did, Pollock applied the paint with basting syringes made of thin glass with a rubber bulb at one end. When a syringe clogged with paint, which happened a number of times, Pollock would fling it at the canvas in disgust. Each time he threw a syringe down, it shattered against the concrete floor and on the painting until the paint surface glinted with slivers of glass. Defiantly, Pollock took off his shoes and waded through the dark, sparkling paint in his bare feet. Smith was dared to follow. Later the next morning, Smith recalled, "We spent a lot of time getting glass out of my feet."

Following that crazy night in March and over the next six months, Pollock returned to the canvas again and again to scrape the paint off and rework it, applying new layers of yellow, red, light blue, aluminum and finally using a long piece of two-by-four paint eight deep blue vertical "poles." Twenty years after Smith's visit, sixteen years after Pollock's death, that same painting Jackson titled it Blue Poles, sold to the government of Australia for $2 million. No American painting had ever sold for more, and in the entire history of Western art, only works by Rembrandt, Velásquez and Leonardo da Vinci had commanded more respect in the marketplace.

Pollock is credited with developing the notorious "drip" technique, although the tiny drip paintings of Hans Hofman (who died in 1966) predated his work. This technique, however, was not without its method. As Pollock noted: "When I am painting I have a general notion as to what I am about. I can control the flow of the paint; there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end."

Pollock may have been a madman, but when the beauty he possessed escaped, it could be remarkable. For example, one of Pollock's finest drip paintings is Lavender Mist (Number 1). It shows the artist's energetic, direct method of applying paint without a brush from all four sides of the canvas, in overlapping loops and streaks and line, producing a new, painterly kind of drawing. The paint outlines neither figurative images nor abstract shapes that were set out in a balanced composition. The looping lines encase nothing; rather, they are themselves distributed across the broad field of the canvas. Although the paint decreases slightly in density toward the sides, top and bottom of the picture, the flow of the lines suggests the possibility that the paint may extend beyond the perimeter of the canvas. In fact, Pollock's skeins of line on bare canvas seem almost to be on top of the picture plane, projecting toward the viewer rather than into depth, as in most painting since the Renaissance.

Lavender Mist is sustained and profound; it has deeply-mediated cathartic and "religious" structures. Like its author, Mist has no boundaries as it seemingly bleeds into infinity off all sides of the canvas.

Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists, thus, accepted form over content. This in itself led to much doubt, anxiety and alienation of many of the artists of the period. This in turn drove some to despair, including Mark Rothko, whose paintings cry out with a convulsion of pessimistic inwardness. He committed suicide in 1970.

Pollock endured a similar travail in a tragedy that seemed more self-inflicted than purely fortuitous. Relapsing into alcoholism near the end of his life, he died in an automobile accident at the age of forty-four, thrown from his V8 Oldsmobile. "He was free," write Naifeh and White, "not falling, flying; flung from the tumbling car in a straight trajectory fifty feet long and ten feet off the ground. He covered it in less than a second, but, according to the coroner's report, was fully conscious, arrested in space, until he hit the tree."

Pollock, as such, could no longer sustain the tense, precarious balance he had struck in his work. He, too, battled with the reality of the void, as his suicidal tendencies evidenced. Pollock ends where Jackson Pollock had been heading all along crashing headlong into the darkness from which he could not escape.

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