art, art criticism, art history, Clement Greenberg, Ed Harris, Fred Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, jackson pollock, painting
Few things raise our artistic ire more than reading Clement Greenberg on abstract art and about Jackson Pollock in particular. On the page above, scanned from an art history textbook, one can enjoy the most incomprehensible nonsense that poses as art criticism. It sounds kind of smart, sure. It has a lot of big words and academic mumbo-jumbo. But, it doesn’t really say anything.
Well, that may be exaggeration. It does have one meaningful thought: Jackson Pollock’s most famous works were not pictures or drawings of anything. Right. Well, we could have figured that out for ourselves. But then, art critics would be out of a job, wouldn’t they?
Though most biopics inject their subjects’ lives with some fantasy to make it play well on the big screen, Ed Harris’ film remained true to the known facts without romanticizing. It presents only what you would read in Pollock’s biographies. The film reveals a bit of what seemed to plague the relationship between Greenberg and Pollock: Greenberg made quite a name for himself as an advocate of Pollock’s painting. And, Pollock garnered much acclaim from the fame Greenberg’s writing brought him.
Pollock struggled with self-doubt, though, and having Greenberg put self-important words in his mouth for interviews and statements about the “meaning” of his painting only made him feel like a phony. The critical acclaim helped support him financially, but fame pressured him to put on a bit of a show – a show he was poorly equipped to handle. A show in which he never really believed.
To judge Greenberg as either a parasite or a promoter oversimplifies how the writer and the painter needed each other for success. But in the end, Greenberg failed to take his own advice. When you strip away the confusing language, his writing urged people to understand modernist art as a thing unto itself, without referents to anything other than itself – the pure visual experience on the canvas. But, he failed to give us an understanding of Pollock’s paintings on their own. He injected them with theory and abstract concepts. He used them to paint his own ideas instead of showing them to us as they were. In the end, he painted a false portrait of Pollock the man, for Pollock’s intent was never Greenberg’s. Pollock made pretty splashes. Greenberg turned them into grandiose art theory.
Pollock liked Pablo Picasso. He aspired, perhaps, to be a great painter like Picasso. But Pollock knew exactly what he was receiving accolades for: a very simple, physical, messy approach to decorating a big surface with color. He knew this took nowhere near the technical skill of the Renaissance masters. It troubled him to be hailed in Life Magazine as “America’s Greatest Living Painter,” for he had his own opinion of great art, and never fully believed he had earned the hype.
So when we read passages by Greenberg, we should understand that he is painting over Pollock’s canvases with his own words. If you really want to see Pollock, just look. Don’t read. Don’t theorize. Just look. It is what it is: splashes of paint on a giant canvas. You either think it would look cool on your wall, or you don’t. We consider Pollock’s paintings big, awesome, and fun to look at. Maybe you don’t. Modernist theory will not change that, and it certainly won’t add anything to your enjoyment.
Collector’s Guide: from Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective, 13th Edition, Vol. 2; by Fred S. Kleiner, 2010.
Interesting. I don’t like Pollock’s work. If others find value in it, fine. I don’t get anything from it personally.
But for some reason, it makes me think about jazz, which my mother loves and I used to detest. But now, I enjoy listening to it when I drive, as opposed to the hard rock and classic rock I used to listen to, which sounds like loud noise to me now. Jesus, I’m getting old. I liked the movie. Being an alcoholic myself, I thought Ed Harris did a fantastic job.
On another note, if I may bend your ear, today my brother and I went to see a full-size, erect,replica of the most preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found, right here in South Dakota. (I know you dig this stuff.) Man, that thing is scary. I’ve been to the museum in N.Y. City, and this thing is worthy of a spot there. Both my brother and I are fairly big guys, and that animal would’ve eaten us like rabbits.
As we were looking down the barrel of that monster’s enormous skeletal jaws, I quoted that poem by William Blake to Daniel, my brother: Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, in the jungles of the night (I may be misquoting here) what immortal hand or eye, framed thy fearful symmetry. Or something to that effect. My point was, if Blake thought tigers were scary, and wondered about the nature of a God that would create such an animal, he would have been severely struck by what we were looking at: a predator that would make the largest tiger look like a mouse. My brother replied, “There is no God, and there’s your proof.” Gesturing toward a pair of jaws that were as big as he was, he said, “That’s chaos, there. It’s every sucker for himself.”
I don’t agree, exactly. I do believe in God. But, I have to admit it makes me nervous.
Mars Will Send No More said:
Drawing parallels between Pollock’s paintings and modern jazz makes much more sense than Greenberg’s academic ramblings.
Improvisational jazz, from dixieland to modern, relies on a formal structure of chord progressions and meter. Musicians use this as a starting point or a foundation for their spontaneous jamming. What often seems like chaos and wild abandon to the untrained ear relies heavily on structure. While big band swing, a dance form, has less room for spontaneity, both dixieland groups and small bebop combos had much room to improvise while keeping in mind the overall harmony. Bop made it more and more difficult for the untrained ear to hear the original chord progressions below the aggressive improv. After bop, modern jazz moved farther and farther away from these structures until we got recordings like Interstellar Space by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali.
Pollock’s paintings underwent a similar metamorphosis. In the MOMA exhibit catalog we shared earlier this year, you see Pollock working with recognizable human figures. He also painted a bull several times, probably a nod to the bull in Guernica by Picasso, whom he admired. Gradually, and with awareness of art movements in Europe, Pollock incorporated splashes, random writing, and drips until the figures became obscured. Soon after, the figures disappear completely.
In both cases, we see movement from clear and well-defined strcutures to more intensely expressive or abstract work over those structures. Finally, the artist abandons the structure altogether. Pollock isn’t for everyone, and neither is Interstellar Space. But you can certainly understand paintings like Blue Poles, Lavendar Mist, Cathedral, and Full Fathom Five as the visual equivalent of the sounds Trane and Ali made on that album.
They’re not exactly what one would call “pretty” paintings though. He doesn’t use pretty colors, and it doesn’t seem to be what he’s after. They also have a really layered quality, because they ARE layered. From a contemporary perspective, the one in the article you pasted, “Number 1” had a really “grunge” or “stressed’ feel about it. Pollock seems to be careful about balancing lights and darks to get a good contrast. There’s some aesthetics involved in doing a good Pollock, because it’s not too difficult, if one gets his work, to spot fakes.
I rather like his work, much more than stuff like Jeff Koons’ balloon dogs.
Mars Will Send No More said:
Thank your for reading and commenting, Eric! Some people certainly find the paintings downright ugly, so describing them as pretty reveals our bias on the matter. We completely agree that many of them generate their own moods, and that Pollock definitely made aesthetic choices about his colors and layers and textures.
Seeing them reproduced in photos measured in inches does not really do them justice. To stand in a gallery full of these paintings and see them full size really hammers home the different moods and methods Pollock used to make each one unique. The Guggenheim Mural, for example, comes to life when viewed full size. The power and flow of Pollock’s gestural approach to conveying movement and energy become evident as abstracted figures dance across a canvas that extends beyond one’s field of view. When standing close enough to the painting, one gets a sense of being there with Pollock as he energetically applied sweeping brush strokes. In that sense, one realizes what the theorists call expressionism: preserving the act of painting, not just describing a subject.
We like how you choose a couple words to describe the mood of Number 1. If we got ten people to come up with their own lists of descriptive words for five or ten Pollock abstracts, would we see a lot of agreement? Would, for example, a majority of people get a “stressed” vibe from Number 1? Or would the paintings generate totally unique results like Rorschach tests? It might make an interesting creative writing project.
How strange it is that in conversations about Pollock the person who literally put him on the “art” map was Lee Krasner, his wife?