Jack the Dripper Returns
By the time Jackson Pollock came along almost all the basic ways of putting paint on a picture had been discovered. The 19th century impressionists had pracfically exhausted stippling. Brushy expressionism had been pre-empted by some Germans just before World War 1. Kasimir Malevich trotted out a blank-looking, white-on-white canvas in Russia in 1918. The territory of neat, flat colored reetangles was claimed by Mondrian in the 1920s. And since the early '30s, Salvador Dali had enjoyed a virtual lock on smoothly detailed surrealism. Nevertheless, Pollok found an empty slot and set up shop: he dripped — or poured or splattered—his paint. True, a few artists had occasionally produced drip paintings before Pollock did. But Pollock was the first to make dripping his entire, ongoing method. His signature style became instantly recognizable (Life magazine famously asked in 1949, ,,Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?“), and Pollock spent the years 1947 to 1951 devoted to it.
Pollock, without doubt, was a man of stunninginnovation. But 5Oyears on, a question remains: is there enough visual pleasure in his best work to convince us that he was also a genuinely great artist who belongs in the same pantheon as, say, Rubens and Manet? Pollock painted at least a half-dozen large-scale masterpieces—“Number 32,“ ,,Lavender Mist“ and ,,Autumn Rhythm“ (all from 1950) among them—that you can admire whith your eye and heart as well as your brain. They're memorable compositions and profoundly gorgeous paintings The late dripper ,,Blue Poles“ (1952), on loan from Australia, is a knock - out. These pictures are what make Pollock‘s big retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (through Feb. 2) the most important show of the year. We confess we actually liked the Mark Rothko exhibition (which opened at the National Gallery in Washington earlier this year better. Whereas Pollock‘s creations leap farther forward, Rothko‘s meditative stiliness is more deeply soothing. But emphatically yes, Pollock does belong in the pantheon.
Of course, there‘s more to Pollock than simply his work. He was part of the heroic effort of the abstract expressionists to liberate American painting not only from the provincial, homespun realism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton (Pollock‘s mentor) but also from what they considered the effete, small-scale modernism of the school of Paris. lt‘s not much of an understatement to say that Pollock, more than any other painter, helped move the headquarters of modern art from Europe to America. Pollock‘s comet also arrived at a time when New York was unarguably the greatest city on earth, a place where the best of the best and most daring of the daring could really shine. ,,Death of a Salesman“ and ,,A Streetcar Named Desire“ helped create world-dass theater on Broadway. In Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson made baseball a game for everybody. Norman Mailer‘s first novel, ,,The Naked and the Dead,“ redefined American literature. And Charly Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis led a renaissance in jazz. Pollock himself may not have cared for be-bop, preferring swing instead, but his drip paintings fit right in with it. Half a century later, with the mounting of the most extensive Pollock show ever, a symmetry is apparent. New York is booming again. Although serious theater, complex jazz and cutting-edge art may not yet equal the brilliance of the late ,40s and early ,50s, the conditions for a major revival seem present. Crime is down, Wall Street is up, and some truly adventurous people think that teeming, immigrant-rich Gotham is once again the place to fly.
The problem is that Pollock the man — or, really, Pollock the myth — can cloud our appreciation of his work. His lifelong battle with booze and his history of sociopathic outbursts (peeing in Peggy Guggenheim‘s fireplace, overtuming a fully laden dinner table, various barroom punch-ups) give rise to the suspicion that bis achievement might have been a sort of desperate accident. And his sudden death — in a drunken car crash in 1956, at the age ofjust 44 — lends a James Dean-like aura to his life.
MoMA‘s answer to the question of greatness, in the show‘s catalog essays, is to carefully downplay Pollock‘s troubled soul. Because ,,Pollock often gets cast as the last action hero, a ,natural‘ beat bobemian and a bastion of tortured purity and authenticity,“ writes curator Kirk Varnedoe, ,,it gets hard to demarcate cause from effect, image from reality.“ Yet in spite of what the catalog says, the museum‘s marketing campaign sells Pollock the man. One ad shows a still from the famous 1951 Hans Namuth film, shot through a sheet ofglass on which Pollock's painting, bis brow furrowed with intense concentration. Another has him posed in a T shirt in front of a drip painting, like a Method actor about to emote. (The museum also wants to avoid the overly dry interpretation of Pollock, espoused by the late critic Clement Greenberg, that has him painting as if in a laboratory, trying to resolve spatial problems left over from cubism.) In fact, there‘s good reason to play up Pollock the moody man. His whole life was a catharsis; his art looks cathartic; it is cathartic.
In the generations since Pollock died, hordes of other artists have tried to invent, or reinvent, new ways of handling paint.They‘ve shot bullets into pods containing the stuff and let it bleed down the canvas. They‘ve sprayed it on with airbrushes, piled it on inches tbick with trowels, scraped it down and slashed the canvas. They‘ve sanded their way through dried layers of it, and smeared nude models with it and bad them squirm around on canvases on the floor. They‘ve even indulged in oversize spinpaintings, the kind your kidmakes at the grammar-school fair. But none of them has had the impact Pollock had. Part of that is due to Pollock‘s talent, but anotherpart is due to the cultural moment. When Pollock first dripped, the most outrageous cultural phenomena were Mailer‘s soldiers muttering ,,fug.“ Today we‘ve got everything from semen jokes in ,,There‘s Sometbing About Mary“ to performance artist Ron Athey‘s cutting anotber man onstage and making ,,prints“with the blood. These days you‘vegot to splatter body fluids, not just paint, to shock anyone.
In today‘s overpopulated, media-obsessed art world, tbe hottest new artists are slacker painters who crank out quick, vacuous portraits of supermodels, and photographers who tart up fashion shoots with bondage. Their ,,daring“ amounts to being merely trendy. As for the bohemian deprivation that Pollock suffered until fairly late in bis career, a recent Columbia University study of artists in four major American cities reveals that half have retirement plans, and 8O percent health insurance. And the famous ones appear in Gap ads and direct Hollywood movies. It‘s hard to imagine Pollock in this crowd. On the other hand, Pollock himself would likely be celebrated today for overcoming an absent father, struggling with alcoholism and laboring outside the modern art mainstream (that is, lOOmiles from Manhattan, in a glorified Hamptons shed). In the touchy - feely‘90s, he‘d be looked up to mostly for “addressing the issue of identity“ because, as the catalog notes, he “repeatedly tried to reinvent bimself.“
The black-tie dinner for the Pollock opening at MoMA in the fall was the most packed and excited in years. The likes of comic genius Steve Martin and real-estate baron Mortimer Zuckerman sbowed up to hobnob witb a mob of curators, trustees and other collectors. The congratulatory speeches had the euphoric ring of the pulpit, and the diners had the gospel bounce of a congregation at Easter. Pollock, of course, was present in spirit only. Were he alive, be might not have been invited, given bis tendency to get drunk and flip tables. And maybe he would have been too disturbed to behave well. He would have seen what inevitably happens to great modern art born from an artist‘s struggle with bis personal demons. It becomes trophies for the rich and then, after a decent interval, public attractions on the cultural tourism trail. But if that didn‘t happen, Pollock‘s paintings wouldn‘t be in public for us to applaud.And applause, as Aristophanes said, is what artists want. A little urine in tbe ashes aside, Pollock would have been delighted to take a well-deserved bow.
Artikel aus der WAZ vom 19.7.1999