Jackson Pollock, a mediocre painter became excellent. Semantics of contemporary art #4

 “Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
 Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
 Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong,

 Shakespeare, The Tempest


 ‘I can control the flow of the paint; there is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.’ JP


In 1945, in The Nation, April 7, Greenberg wrote:

“Jackson Pollock’s second one-man show art Art of this Century establishes him, in my opinion , as the strongest painter of his generation and perhaps the greatest one to appear since Miró. The optimism in his smoky, turbulent painting comes from his own manifest faith in the efficacy, for him personally, of art. There has been a certain amount of self-deception School of Paris art since the exit of cubism. In Pollock there is absolutely none, and he is not afraid to look ugly — all profoundly art looks ugly at first.”

It’s quite extraordinary for a critic to praise a painter for his propensity to ugliness. And it’s even more the case to read this under Clement Greenberg’s pen! One could either note a touch of humor, or an almost suicidal audacity (for the painter). But, on the other hand, Greenberg is quite right to speak of ‘ugliness’, because such is, in 1945, still the case. Here are a few illustrations from 1943 to 1945, in which, admittedly, ugliness predominates.

Jackson Pollock, “Guardians of the Secret”, 1943, oil on canvas, 122.9 × 191.5 cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
Jackson Pollock, “The Moon-Woman Cuts the Circle”, 1943, oil on canvas, 109,5 x 104 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris
Jackson Pollock, “Gothic”, 1944, oil on canvas, 215.5 x 142.1 cm, MoMa
Jackson Pollock, “There Were Seven in Eight”, c. 1945, oil, enamel and casein on canvas, 109.2 x 259.1 cm, MoMa

In the face of this abundance of optical shocks, Greenberg is to be commended for his lightning foresight, which enabled him to glimpse, beyond these recurring uglinesses, Pollock’s ability to “find” something new and “revolutionary”, because in 1945, and for an untrained or less historic eye, this was not yet patent and undeniable:

Jackson Pollock, “Alchemy”, 1947, oil, aluminum, alkyd enamel paint with sand, pebbles, fibers and broken wooden sticks on canvas, 114.6 x 221.3 cm, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice
Jackson Pollock, “Full Fathom Five”, 1947, oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc., 129.2 x 76.5 cm, MoMa

From 1947 onwards, Pollock struggled with his forms of « embrouillaminis » (this term is not here pejorative → 1688, a cross between « brouillamini » and « embrouiller »), with, at one point or another, a more homogeneous breakthrough that would become, as they say in military science, decisive. And see, precisely, the kairotic difference between “Alchemy” (1947) ⇑, “Full Fathom Five” (1947) ↑ and “Watery Paths” ↓

Jackson Pollock, “Watery Paths”, 1947, oil on canvas, 114 × 86 cm

Between the first two paintings (in scrolling order) and the third, something happens. From a compositional point of view, the latter is certainly the most successful, the most coherent. Indeed, it seems that in “Watery Paths” we can see an affirmation, a taking charge, of the whole regime of the painting through the determination of the circulation of the black lines, whereas this circulation, in the first two above, seeks, and loses itself; but loses itself without finding anything else. One of Pollock’s great challenges will be to strike a balance between confusion and order, chaos and feeling, leading, in fact and certainly in some places, to a new form of elegance; an elegance that can be seen in “Watery Paths”, by serendipitously picking up on a detail: 

The life of the painter Pollock could be entitled: “Organizing magma” (magma “residue of a perfume” borrow from the Greek μαγμα, “kneaded mass, ointment”, from the family of ματτειν “knead”). See, in this detail ↑, the fragments of chaos are grasped, driven, frozen; like atoms are stopped by cooling (when close to absolute zero). There’s circulation — the first regime —, and chaos fragments — the second regime. And it’s on this binarity, this rhythm, that Pollock will constantly play; with, in his fragmenteries, persistent, open, diffracted monads. But to believe that “Watery Paths” can be summed up in this way would be to overstate the case. To get an idea, all you have to do is randomly pick out another detail.

And now we’re in a completely different register. And it’s still the same painting. Admittedly, this is a very enlarged detail, but we can assume that Pollock left nothing to chance, at least that’s what I like to think (see the 2nd exergue of this article). It’s as if we’re flying over continents, over life, over elements that are primordial to the motor of painting, the “Unmoved Motor” (ὃ οὐ κινούμενον κινεῖ, borrowing from Aristotle, with some licence). Are you in doubt?

Look, right next door, at these two highly sophisticated filaments:

Chaotic or pseudo-chaotic structures, organic worlds intermixing with oil painting; a logical fulfilment.  

Look at these traces along the golden ridge, standing out like cellular filaments. Backbone, subcontinent, inorganic and organic, a world invested with detail and attention.


Ref / Pollock quotation In : Janet Engelmann, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Munich, Prestel Verlag, 2007  


Léon Mychkine 

writer, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher, art critic, member of AICA-France


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