Who can imagine an art world without Jackson Pollock? After Pollock broke through the shackles of European Modernism with his revolutionary poured paintings, he, in the words of co-curator Bobbi Coller, “caused an earthquake that shattered the syntax of visual language, destabilized fundamental expectations of how a painting should be made, and liberated future generations of artists.” This exhibition, The Persistence of Pollock which has manifest in light of the Jackson Pollock Centenary (1912-1956) aims to demonstrate the far-reaching and enduring influence of Pollock – not only on art but also in the realms of music, poetry, literature and even film.
Above: Jackson Pollock, Number 10, 1949. Enamel and aluminium paint on canvas, mounted on wood, 18 x 107 ¼ inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tompkins Collection and Sophie M. Friedman Fund. artes fine arts magazine
To be sure the Pollock myth has consistently overshadowed the art; one recalls the 1999 MoMA Retrospective where we were served up a lot of hagiography and very little aesthetic. Of course it is sexy to concentrate on the hyperbole and ignore the foundations – it attracts crowds and it satisfies the insatiable need of the masses. After his death, Pollock’s widow, the artist Lee Krasner, tried to counter many inaccurate myths that grew up around him, but truth is always less seductive than mythology.
This exhibition offers a refreshing approach to the myth of the Pollock name, embracing, rather than shunning this side of the coin effectively turns the whole question of myth and hype on its head. There are also plenty of concise art-historical connections for visitor’s to grapple with, seen through other artists creative responses to the paintings that Pollock produced. Co-curated by Helen A. Harrison [Eugene V. Thaw & Clare E. Thaw Director of the The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Centre] and Bobbi Coller, The Persistence of Pollock assembles thirteen works of art in diverse media that aims to reflect Pollock’s indomitable influence and attest to his relevance for contemporary artists in the 21st century. On a curatorial level it’s a smart move sideways, rather than forward, one might say, and effectively demonstrates the fact that Pollock has become a point of reference, a symbolic figure, to be simultaneously admired, challenged or diluted, depending on your tastes.
The collection of artists chosen for the exhibition represent each of the decades of the sixty years since Pollock’s death in 1956. At the forefront is the artist, Alfonso Ossorio, who was a collector of Pollock’s work, remained a life-long friend and is buried in Springs cemetery along with the artist. Ossorio was clearly not in Pollock’s league but his exposure to Pollock’s process resulted in experimentation with a less rigid design principle. Following Pollock’s death Ossorio also made a series of memorial works in homage to his friend. The exhibition also features Norman Rockwell’s humorous homage, The Connoisseur (1962), in which the dichotomy of the avant-garde facing off against the establishment is well imagined. Ray Johnson, a founder of the New York Correspondence School is represented with a typically amusing, if not sinister, collage and ink [Jackson Pollock, Recipes] that alludes surreptitiously, to the death and myth of the artist.
Feminist art is also well represented here by both Lynda Benglis and Janine Antoni. The latter substituting Pollock’s brush for her own hair in a intuitive feminist twist that effectively removes the machismo of Pollock’s method. Replacing paint with the hair dye brand ‘loving care’ Antoni relocates the ‘action’ into the realm of feminist culture. Bengalis too, (less successfully in my opinion), employed the physically demanding pouring technique synonymous with Pollock and was featured in a 1970 Life magazine article entitled “Fling, Dribble and Dip.” To this ‘masculine’ gestural technique Benglis has fused oppositional traits such as soft/hard and male/female. That is not to suggest these categories are not well evidenced in Pollock’s own oeuvre, works such as Portrait and a Dream (1953) and Moon Woman (1942) often explored the dichotomy of male/female and the exploration of opposites based loosely on the Nietzschean Apollonian-Dionysian duality.
Right: Janine Antoni, Loving Care, 1992-96. Performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, 1996. DVD courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.
A sculptural response is also denoted with the inclusion of Robert Arneson who is famous for a ten year period, beginning in 1982, when he produced over 60 works in homage to Jackson Pollock.. Most of all of these centre on the myth of the Pollock legacy, yet to focus on the hype here would also be to undermine the craftsmanship of Arneson’s work. Aesthetically the pieces utilize the difficult medium of ceramic glazes, and mimic poured paint on the artist’s face or clothing, fusing [or confusing]the man with his production. There is also a beautifully crafted pair of bronze bookends that parody tombstones, signifying Pollock’s death. These are inscribed with a rather novel, if not over-dramatised script that seeks to recount an imagined dialogue of the final moments of Pollock’s life, something akin to the diatribe found at the close of Naifeh and Smith’s now famous Pollock Biography.
Asian art response to Pollock is also included in the exhibition, with Lee Ufan, the artist whose retrospective was recently shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York. It is widely known that Pollock was interested and engaged with Asian art, using Japanese papers and inks to compose many of the 1950s works on paper. Ufan’s Pushed-Up Ink is clearly informed by Pollock’s experiments with ink on Japanese paper. Like Pollock, Ufan’s action in making the work creates a rhythm that is both invigorating and liberal. Arnold Chang, an American-Asian artist who has consistently engaged with Chinese ink painting, despite never having visited China, participated in a 2010 exhibition: Fresh Ink: 10 Takes on Chinese Tradition, at the Museum of Fine Arts, in which leading artists from China and the Chinese diaspora engaged in dialogues with classical examples from the museum’s collection of Chinese art. Chang, the only American-born artist in the exhibition, decided to bypass the China element and chose an American work – Pollock’s Number 10, 1949. [see opening image, above] As Chang commented, “My choice of Jackson Pollock as a model was an attempt to coax modern audiences into recognizing the abstract qualities inherent to classical Chinese painting. It was also a way for me to integrate the American and Chinese sides of my identity.” The resulting work is essentially a muted down version of a Pollock painting, with the delicacy and colour associated with Chinese scrolls.
The final set of artists represented in this exhibition, Mike Bidlo, Red Grooms, Vik Muniz and Joe Fig, base their art, not on the work of Jackson Pollock, but on the films and photographs by Hans Namuth taken in 1951, showing Pollock working in and around his studio at Fireplace Road-Springs, East Hampton. So famous are these images that they have been almost solely responsible for the public perception of Pollock’s work. In 1951, a publication which has passed into Pollock mythology, “Pollock Paints a Picture,” written by Robert Goodnaugh for Art News with pictures by Namuth, kick-started the entire trend. The article is full of inconsistencies, Goodnaugh refers to the painting as Number 4, 1950, when its original title was Number 30 later renamed Autumn_Rhythm, Number 30, 1950. He describes the application of aluminium paint although the canvas shows no trace of it and he states the work was begun in June which is at odds with Namuth’s account that it could not have begun before July. The impression is that Goodnaugh is describing Namuth’s photographs and not Pollock’s art. These inaccuracies however, did not upset the historical impact of Goodnaugh’s article – what remained fixed in the collective consciousness was the image of Pollock “executing a kind of ritual dance, a trance-like state” and the seemingly random quality of compositions.
Less than a year after this publication Harold Rosenberg’s theory of “action painting” scored an immense success when it was first presented in 1952. In a single stroke, Rosenberg’s essay situated Abstract Expressionism into the realm of existential action where Pollock’s painting was not to be viewed as an aesthetic endeavour but rather as the catalyst of a “heroic private action.” This episode is now worth recalling not only because the Namuth photographs have become so inextricably involved in the public perceptions of the art of Pollock, but also because something akin to this perception has shaped the artist responses in the current exhibition. As a young artist, Mike Bidlo chose Namuth’s movie of Pollock painting as the basis for his first show, a performance re-enactment in 1982 at P.S.1. After at least a year of studying the way Pollock moved, the way he controlled the viscosity and layering of paint, and the way the paint was absorbed into the canvas, Bidlo (in his own estimation) could convincingly reproduce a Pollock which he then entitled Not Pollock.
Red Grooms’s tribute to Pollock, Jackson in Action (1997) compresses an immense dose of biographical information into a small space and is set, once more, in Pollock’s studio. With the fourth wall removed like a theatre stage, Pollock, surrounded by his paints and props, is portrayed working like a maniacal, “multi-armed dynamo” on a large canvas spread on the floor – a very conscious echo of the Namuth film, sections of which were actually speeded up to enhance the effect that Namuth sought to project. That studio interior is, of course, the mise-en-scene of the media-generated legend of “Jack the Dripper” and “Action Jackson”, and all the other delightful nonsense written about Pollock. By evoking Namuth’s legend of the painter performing in the studio, the artists here succeed in shifting attention away from the paintings to the artist himself as he passed into the mythology of modern cultural life.
Artist Vik Muniz has a rather novel way of approaching his tribute to Pollock: a work titled, Action Painter III (Action Photo IV), Pictures of Chocolate (1997-2009) is based on the imagery of Hans Namuth but Muniz chose an edible substance, Bosco chocolate syrup, as his medium. The syrup has a gelatinous consistency and glossy shine, similar to the enamel paint that Pollock preferred – thus, Pollock is reduced to an edible confection, which is wonderfully apt for his mass consumerist appeal.
Left: Vik Muniz, Action Painter III (Action Photo IV), Pictures of Chocolate (1997-2009). Digital C-Print. Lent by Kay Childs.
Joe Figs’ homage to Jackson Pollock is rather different from those cited above, despite embarking on a project that deals with Namuth’s photographs of the artist working in and around his studio. Figs’ title: Namuth’s Pollock #10, 2004 – demonstrates the artist’s awareness that what he is recreating here is effectively Namuth’s impression or vision of Pollock; in this way Fig utilizes the myth of Pollock on a very conscious level, it may even be considered a critique. As Fig stated: “I am not interested in the “myth” of Jackson Pollock. I’d rather focus on the man and his creative process. He was a young artist who studied with and became part of the Tom Benton family. He was a man who challenged himself in the studio. A man who through discipline, faith and hard work listened to his inner voice and followed his own vision and came up with a way of creating that was his own. By doing so, he changed the American culture and the course of art history. He was courageous.”
One hundred years after Jackson Pollock’s birth on January 28, 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, artists from every corner of the earth are still moved by the work and perhaps more so by the man. This exhibition The Persistence of Pollock has opened a new window onto that phenomenon through a thoughtful, intelligent, fresh and innovative approach, which simultaneously manages to offer as much to engage with aesthetically as historically: thus, in my opinion, it is a curatorial triumph that offers visitors an appropriate way to celebrate 100 Years of the indomitable, Jackson Pollock.
By Dr. Natalie Maria Roncone, Contributing Writer
The exhibition The Persistence of Pollock runs from May 3 – July 28 2012 at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Centre, 830 Fireplace Road, East Hampton, NY, USA. There are also talks running in conjunction with the exhibition: A Reception Gallery and Talk by co-curator Bobbi Coller on July 8; July 15 “Bidlo Paints a Pollock” Appropriation artist Mike Bidlo, in conjunction with the exhibition, The Persistence of Pollock and artist Arnold Chang, “Reorienting Pollock” on July 29.