Why Jackson Pollock gave up painting
With their sooty pools and block structures, the ‘black pour’ paintings of Pollock’s late period mark his rejection of sex and the erotic aspects of his drip techniques. A new exhibition shows how the artist formerly known as ‘Jack the Dripper’ reached the end of the line
Friday 19 June 2015 11.30 BST
Friday 19 June 2015 11.30 BST
Matisse, Late Rembrandt and Late Turner comes Late Pollock, the most daring late show of all. Jackson Pollock (1912-56), the great leaky Prometheus of American art, is always assumed to have peaked around 1950, thereafter succumbing to the demons of drink, depression, adultery and cack-handed and colourless quasi-figuration, followed by (in 1953) painter’s block. Pollock’s descent into hell ended horrifyingly and murderously when, in an alcohol-fuelled rage, he drove his convertible Oldsmobile into a tree at 80mph, decapitating himself and killing a female passenger – and nearly killing his young mistress – in the process. No wonder Pollock has been the textbook example of Scott Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives.fter Late
Tate Liverpool’s show flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and looks set to be one of the most provocative and absorbing shows of the year. It centres on the so-called “black pour” paintings, made from 1951-3 using black enamel paint on unprimed canvas, which is often left bare. The enamel is iridescent and tar-like when it pools; sooty when it soaks directly into the linen fabric. These were Pollock’s attempts to move on from the expansive, multilayered drip paintings that had made him the most famous artist in the US, Jack the Dripper. His ascetic diet of black, bulked up with enigmatic biomorphic bits and pieces, seems to have been an attempt to counter claims that his “all-over” pictures were facile, flimsy, hedonistic and decorative. As early as 1948, Leigh Ashton, director of the V&A, had said that Pollock’s Cathedral (exhibited here as a contextual piece) “would make a most enchanting printed silk”, and in March 1951, American Vogue staged a photoshoot with a model in silk evening gown before Lavender Mist. Pollock wrote to a friend three months later: “I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas in black – with some of my early images coming thru – think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing – and the kids who think it’s simple to splash a Pollock out.” No one would want to buy a “black pour” fabric, or use one as a backdrop for a selfie, though as Aubrey Beardsley demonstrated with his ink drawings, black lines can be very sexy.
A number of New York artists – including the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning – had recently tried painting in a restricted palette of black and white, but Pollock’s black pours are especially distinctive because of their drily rebarbative, block-like structures. They don’t feel as if they have been effortlessly “splashed out” (code for “ecstatically ejaculated”) so much as strenuously carved and kneaded. Rather than being “all-over”, with the potential for limitless lateral spread, they often have a tight internal frame that seems to compress the contents. This is most apparent in Untitled (Black and White Polyptych) (1951), which comprises four discrete components of blockish shape lined up horizontally. Each section was turned into individual screenprints that stop well short of the edges of the paper.
The catalyst for this shift was a resurgence, in the late 1940s, of Pollock’s long-standing interest in sculpture. Writing to his father as a 20-year-old in 1932, he had expressed a preference for the form: “I’ll never be satisfied until I’m able to mould a mountain of stone, with the aid of a jack hammer, to fit my will.” Gutzon Borglum was then dynamiting and jackhammering presidential heads into the granite cliffs of Mount Rushmore. At this time Pollock carved a small black basalt head, a death mask with closed eyes. His painting teacher, the muralist Thomas Hart Benton, got his students to make small plasticine versions of the figures in their paintings. Most of Pollock’s subsequent sculptures (about 12 are known, with five exhibited here) are like miniaturised 3D incarnations of his drip pictures, made from bent wire, plaster and papier mache. The spirit of sculpture even informs his intensely physical painting methods. He worked in a barn, with a vast canvas laid unstretched on the floor, crouching over it, approaching from all angles: it echoes traditional images of the sculptor crouching over a lump of stone, carving “in the round”. One impetus for his late experiments with sculpture may have come from the publication of the first book about Picasso’s scarcely known sculptures in 1949, which created a buzz around the idea of the “painter-sculptor”.
Most of Pollock’s late imagery is suggestively and surreally figurative rather than clearly narrative – except in the case of what has been called his last major work,Portrait and a Dream (1953). Featured in the Tate exhibition, this comprises two distinct parts, like a diptych. The left half – the “dream” – is a squarish skein of poured, squirted and blotched black lines within which we can discern the fragmented lineaments of a reclining female nude, with a multilayered spiky head at top right. Pollock’s long-suffering wife, the artist Lee Krasner, recalled him saying that the top right part was the “dark side of the moon”: traditionally the moon is a female element and visible at night, the time for sex and dreaming. Pollock was fascinated by psychoanalytic readings of symbols, and had several courses of therapy.
The “portrait” side is usually interpreted as a self-portrait, and the frontal format is similar to that of an earlier self-portrait with staring bug eyes, painted in the 1930s using a fiery palette of oranges, reds and browns. The 1953 self-portrait is lacerated with patches of whisky-orange and yellow, suggesting smouldering passions, barely held in check. Here, however, the side of the face and eye nearest the moon woman is covered by a bulbous Picassoid growth that completely masks it – and which prevents him from seeing her.
Portrait and a Dream addresses an issue that had been of obsessive interest to artists and thinkers for at least a century: the relationship between sex and genius. Should male artists be having sex, or should they be channelling their sexual energy into their work? The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that great male artists were physically strong with lots of surplus sexual energy, and prone to intoxication – “how wise it is at times to be a little tipsy!” But much of the time the male genius was chaste (and sober), refusing “to expend himself in any casual way”. In Henrik Ibsen’s When We Dead Wake (1899), the sculptor hero (based on Rodin) believes his artistic vision will be lost if he so much as touches or desires his female model. Pollock would have known Picasso’s Vollard Suite of the 1930s, a series of prints in which a sculptor does his best not to look at his naked models, and, in some, fixates instead on his own self-portrait bust, almost as if he were Narcissus staring at his own reflection after rejecting the advances of the nymph Echo.
In what should more accurately be called Masked Self-Portrait and a Wet Dream, Pollock (left) seems to be repudiating not just sex and sexual desire, but the uninhibitedly erotic aspects of his drip technique. No wonder he stopped painting. Without ecstasy, without an art of feeling and sublimated sexual energy, he had reached the end of the road.
• James Hall is the author of The Self-Portrait: a Cultural History (Thames & Hudson). Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots takes place at Tate Liverpool, 30 June - 18 October. tate.org.uk.