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ALLAN

E.S'J/f'15 0/11 TNt:


I'
of A"j t1Nl> LIFE (fi"EI(KL . C11 : Ul:'F
c-ltLIFafl-NIA f'fi:ES..J'/ ;2003) /- t.
The Legacy of Jackson Pollock
(1958)
The tragic news of Pollock's death two SUllllllers ago W;lS
depressing to mJny of us. \Ve felt not only ,I sadness over the death
,1 great t1gure, hut also a deep loss, as if
died too. We were a piece of him: he was,
of our amhltion for absolute liheratlOn and a
to overturn old tables of crockery and Rat
the possibdity of an astounding a sort of ecstatic
blIndness.
But there was another,
,It the top" for heing his kmd of modern artist was to many,
in the work before he died. It was this hizarre Jlnplication thJt
was so moving. \Ve remembered van Cogh and Rimb;llld. But now It
was our time, and a man some of us knew. This ultimate sacflfleial
aspect of being an artist, whik not a new ldea, seemed in Pollock
terribly modern, and in him the statement arid tin: ritual were so.,
so authoritative and all-encompassing in their scak and danng that,
convictions, we could not fail to he affected hy
tllIS sacrificial Side of Pollock that lay at the root
of our deprc,siol1. Pollock's tr3gedy was more suhtle than his death:
for he did not die at the top. We could not avoid seeing that during
the last five ye3rs of his life his strength had weakened, and during
the last three he had h:mJly worked at all. Though everyone knew, in
the light of re3son, that the man was very ill (his death was perhaps a
respite from almost certain future suffering) and that he did not die as
Stravinsky's fertility maidens did, in the very moment of creation!
annihilation-still we could not escape the
itch that connected this death in some direct way with art. And the
THE FIFTl
connection, rather than being climactic, was, in a way, mglorious. If
the end had to come, it came at the wrong time.
Was it not perfectly clear that modern art 111 general was
Either it had become dull and repetitious as the "advanced" style, or
numbers of formerly committed contemporary painters were
defecting to earlier forms. America was a "sanity in art"
movement, ami the flags were out. Thus, we reasoned, Pollock was
the center in a great failure: the New Art. His heroic stand had been
~ l ! ! d ( ' F:lt\1I'1 !h;)l1 rr.,I(d;ls;Il\J lil,' I' \"111 111.!/ il ;11 hr<;i pr()II'II'iCl.,
o ,
not only a loss power and possible disillusionment for Pol
lock but also that the jig was up. And those of us still resistant to this
truth would end the same way, hardly at the top. Such were our
thoughts in August 1956.
But over two years have passed. What we felt then was genuine
enough, but our tribute, if it was that at all, was a limited one. It was
surely a manifest! y human reaction on the part of those of us who
were devoted to the most advanced artists around us and who felt the
shock of being thrown out on our OW!l. But it did not scem that
Pollock had indeed accomplishnl something, hoth by his attitude and
even those values
and acknowledged by sensitivc artists and critics. The act of painting,
the ncw space, the personal mark that builds its own form and mean
ing, the endless tangle, the scale, the new materials are by now
cliches of college art departments. The innovations are
arc becoming part of textbooks.
But some of the implications inherent in these new values are !lot
as futile as we all began to believe; this kind of painting need not be
called the tragic style. Not all the roads this modern art lead to ideas
of finality. r hazard the guess that Pollock may have vaguely sensed
this but was unable, because illness or for other reasons, to do
about it.
He created some magnificent paintings. But he also
painting. If we examine a few of the innovations mentioned above, it
may be possible to see why this is so.
For Instance, the act of pauning. In the last seventy-five years the
random play of the hand upon the canvas or paper has become in
creasingly important. Strokes, smears, lines, dots became less and less
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THE LLGi\CY OF lACK POLLOCK
Jackson Pollock HI hi, s(ue!.o, 1450, PholoJ!,l'llph by !lam Namulh,
attached to represented objects and existed more and more on their
own, self-sufficiently. But from Impressionism up to, say, Gorky, the
idea of an "order" to these markings was explicit enough. Even Dada,
which purported to be of such considerations as "composition,"
obeyed the Cubist esthetic. One colored shape balanced (or modified
others, and these in turn were played off against (or
the whole canvas, taking into account its size and shape for
the most part quite consciously. [n short, part-to-whole or
flO matter how strained, were a
of a picture (most of the time were a lot more,
With Pollock. however, the so-called dance of dripping,
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stretchers.) The
otl of the
Il1tcly. as
111 favor of a continuum going in all directlOllS si
the literal dimensions of any work.
of the attack as Pollock came to the
the best ones he compensatt'd ttl[
surface around the b:lck of hi,
" In
Elr morc preCIse caesura: here ended
the world of the spcct:!tor and
THF F'
squeezlI1g, (laut1Ing, and whatever else went into a work'
an almost absolute value upon a diaristic gesture, He was en
in this by the Surrc;llist painters ;md poets, but next to his
their work is consistently "artful," " and full of
aspects of outer control and training, With the huge canvas placed
upon the Roor, thus making it difficult for the artist to see the whole
or any extended section of "parts," Pollock could truthfully say that
he was ";n" his work. Here the direct application of an automatic
to the act t!lakes Il dear lhal nut unI: l' tim !Jut lLL ulJ CLl!t
but it is perhaps bordering on ritual itself, which
as one of its materials, (The European Surrealists may
but we can hardly say they
really practiced it wholeheartedly. In fact, only the wflter, among
them--and only in a few imtances--enjoyed any success in ttm way,
In retrospect, most of the Surrealist painters appear to have derived
from ,1 psychology book or from c;lch other: the empty vistas, the basic
naturalism, the sexual fanLlsies, the bleak so characteristic of
thIS period have
sllch real talents as Picasso,
and Mir6 belong to the stricter of Cubism; perhaps this IS
why their work appears to us, more free, Surrealism
alLr,lcted Pollock as an rather as ;] collectiol1 of artistic
u>ed the words "almost absolute" when I spoke of the dians
tic
before going into another
"ace" He knevv the difference between a good gesture and a bad one,
at work, and it mJkes him a part of
of paInters, Yet the distance between the
works of the EurotJCans and the
up at one moment a c1eIKlency in him and at another moment a lib
feature. I choose to consider the second element the important
one.)
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THE LEGACY J;\CKS():'>J POLLOCK
am convinced that to grasp a Pollock's impact propeny, we must
be acrobats, constantly shuttling between an identification with the
hands and body that Hun" the paint and stood "in" the canvas and
them to entangle and
is indeed far from the idea of a
The artist, the spectator, and the outer world are much too
involved here, (And if we object to the difficulty of
we arc asking too little of the
Then Furm. T" f()llow Il, it is ncc('ssary to get rid of th" l1S1!:l1 Hle;1
and end, or any
as fragmentation. We do not enter a
lock's in anyone (or hundred
and we dip in and out when and where we can. This
to remarks that his art the impression of going on
true insi"ht that suggests how Pollock ignored the conf1nes of the
We :1Ccept this innov,ltion as valid because the artist understood
with perfect naturalness "how to do it," Employing an iterative prin.
of a few highly charged elements comtantly undergoing variatiol1
as in much Asian music), Pollock gives us an all ovcr
the s:1fne time a means to
choice, But this form allows us In
a dC;JClen1l1g of the reasof1mg \aCUities, ;j
Western sense of the term, This str;mgt combi
nation of extreme individuality and selflessness makes the work re
potent but also indicates 3 probably larger frame of
reference. And for this reason any allusions to Pollock's
the maker of giant textures are completely incorrect. They miss the
point, and misunderstanding is bound to follow.
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TlH, FiFTiES
But the proper exhibition space
with the walls totallv covered and
sense of his art
Then Scale. Pollock's choice of enormous canvases served many
purposes, chief of which for our discllssion 1S that his muralscale
ceased to become paintings and became environments. Be
Ollr size as spectators, in relation to the size of the
lnfluences how much we are willing to up
conSClOlIsness of our temfloral exi,lL:llLC wl,ik L,xl',nCl1Cillg ic Pol
lock's choice of great sizes resulted in our being confronted,
sucked in. Yet we must not confuse the effect of these with that of the
hundreds of large iJaintings done in the Renalssance, which
::m idealized everyday world familiar to the observer, often
the painting hy means of trompe l'oeil. Pollock
and our everyday world of convention
the one created by the artist. Reverslng the
ahove procedure, the painting is continued out into the room. And
this leads me to my final point: The space of these creations is
!lot clearly palpable as such. We can entangled in the web to
some extent and by moving in and out of the skein of lines and
ings can experience a kind of spatial extension. But eveII so, this space
is an allusion far more vague than even the few inches of
a Cuhist work affords. It may he that our need to .
process, the making of the whole arfan, prevents a concentration on
the specifics of before and behind so important in a more traditiollal
art. But what I believe is clearly discermble is that the entire
comes OLll at us (we ;Ire participants rather than
the room. It is possihle to sec in this connection how Pollock
tennlnal result of a trend that moved from the
the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the
of the Cubist collages. In the present case the
br out the canvas is no longer a reference
up on the wall, these marks surround us as
work, so strict is the correspondence achieved hetween his
the resultant art.
What we have, then, is art that tends to lose itself out of
tends to fill our world with itself, art that in
seems to break Lllfly sharply with the traditions of.
least the G reeks. Pollock's near destruction of this tradition may well
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THE LECi\CY OF j,,\CKSON POLLOCK
where art was more
involved in ritual.
we have known It in our recent past. If so, H 1S
step and in its superior way ofTers a solution
of those who would have us put a bit of life into art.
But what do we do now?
There arc two alternatives. (Jne is to continue in this vew. Prob,
ably many good
Pollock's without
up the making of p:lintings mean the single flat
or oval as we know it. It has been seen how Pollock carne pretty
close to doing so himself. In the process, he carne upon some newer
values that are exceedingly difficult to discuss yet bear upon our pres
ent alternative. To say that he discovered things like marks, gestures,
softness, Ilowing, stopping, space, the world,
sOllnd naive. Every artist worth his salt has "discov,
But Pollock's discovery seems to have a
and directness about it. He was, for me, :unaz
childlike, c:Jpable of becoming involved in the stuff or his art as
a group of concrete seen for the first time. There is, as I said
earlier, a certain hlindness, a mute belie! in c\'erythmg he docs, even
up to the end. I urge that this not be seen as a simple 1ssue. Few
individuals can be lucky enough to ]lossess the intensity of this kind
of knowlllg, and I hope that in the near future a careful study or tillS
Zen quality of Pollock's personality will be undertaken. AI
any rate, for now we may consider that, except for rare inst:Jnces,
Western art tends to need many more indirections in achieving itself,
more or less cqu:JI emphasis upon "things" and the relations
between them. The crudeness of Jackson Pollock is not,
uncouth; it is manifestly frank and uncultivated, ullsullied by
trade secrets, finesse- lhrectness that the European artists he liked
for and partially succeeded in hut that he never had to strive
after because he had it bv nature. This by itself would be to
as I sec him, left us at the point where we must
with and even dazzled by the space and
of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be,
the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the
through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific sub
stances of silIht, sound, movements, people, odors, tOllch. Objects of
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Pig. Allan Kaprow in The Apple Shrine, 1960. Plwloglaph by Rob,.,./ McElroy.
THE Ll:.GACY OF J KSON POLLOCK
every sort are materials for the new an: paim, chairs, food, electric and
neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other
that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. NO[
only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time. the world
had about us but ignored, but
and events, found in cans,
seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in
dreams and
horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a
C'[ from a friend, or ;] billh():ml selling IILlno; rhrC'c t;1ps on the
front door, ;] scratch, a sigh, or a voice
succato
;] bowler hat-all will bccome materi;]I, for this new
concrete art.
;1r11StS of today need no longer say, .. I am a palI1ter or a
or ";] dancer." They are simply "artists." All of life will be open
to them. They will discover out of ordinary thin!!s the
ordirlariness. They will not try to make them
state their re;1!
aIle! then
critiCS wil! be confused or amllsed, but these, I
am certain, will he the alchemies of the 19605.
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