It is difficult to conceive of a better introduction to the art of Jackson Pollock than the Museum of Modern Art's current "Jackson Pollock: Drawing into painting" on view here through March 16.
This is a major and highly informative show which should finally put to rest the notion that Pollock was capable of nothing more than dribbling huge quantities of paint onto canvas.
By tracing the evolution of his style from its roots in the romantically expressive rhythms of Albert Ryder, the American regionalists, and the Mexican muralists, to its culmination in the famous "drip" paintings of the late '40s and early '50s, this exhibition of 85 drawings and 5 paintings clearly established the derivations and the originality of Pollock's contribution to 20 th-century art.
Probably more than anyone else, Jackson Pollock altered the course of post-World War II painting. His willingness to follow the imperatives of his vision to its logical conclusions, and his ability to totally commit his creative identity to the act of painting itself, pushed his works beyond all previous frontiers of painterly commitment. He established new precedents by breaking the bounds of historical good taste, smashing through the conventions of the tidy frame and the neat image, and pouring pure creative energy onto the open fields of paper and canvas.
His influence was explosive, disruptive, and deep, although the initial reaction to his works was shocked disbelief that anything so obvious could be considered art. Thanks to a Life magazine article and tales about his wild and woolly ways of working, he quickly replaced Picasso as the laughing-stock of painting. Even when the public learned that he was not alone, that others like Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning were also producing works totally unfamiliar and unrelated to how paintings should look, he still remained the central clown, the main object of derision.
His main crime was that he made painting look too easy. Anyone could get several cans of paint and a roll of canvas, and splash and dribble away. Mary did, and before long art schools across the country and abroad were turning out young painters who felt that all they had to do to create art was to straddle canvas and to cover it with dribbles and blobs of paint.
But what these imitators failed to see was that Pollock was not so much painting pictures as trying to expand the perimeters of painting. That he was not so much fashioning objects as opening doors and windows. They saw only the splashy surface characteristics of his style and not the burning passions and the vision which animated and propelled it. To follow his development in this show is to watch him pounding away in drawing after drawing at the conventions of painting in order to break through and score. Nor for fame and fortune but to give form to what was inside him in the simplest and most direct way without the encumbrances of society's worn-out symbols and artifacts.
When he did score it was against all odds. In order for his art to be culturally relevant and not merely idiosyncratic doodling, it had to take into account the fullest and deepest realities of his time and place. It had to exist truly in a society fashioned by 20th-century events and experiences, and be capable of standing beside Picasso, Matisse, and Miro without appearing trivial or trite.
Before all else, he was answerable to the life force within him and to its need to find external form. That was more important than following the rules and fitting in. To fail to see that is to miss what he was trying to do. He was not an arrogant and angry artist tossing paint about in a fit of pique in order to achieve fame, but a man obsessed with a vision of painting which brooked no interference from convention or tradition. Like a bird trapped in a room, he sensed that there was a way out. And through his art he found it.
What comes across most vividly in this show is the clarity of his intentions even when they were momentarily entangled in the influences of others. Like a brilliant student questioning and challenging the best teachers of his time, he couldn't wait to assimilate whatever was crucial to his development and then to get on with it. One can easily spot Orozco and Picasso, even bits of Masson and Miro, in his earlier works, but only as temporary guides to be dropped once he had found his own way.
Driven by internal necessity and the persistence of his vision, he nevertheless steered his course with full awareness of all previous maps and charts. Only when they could no longer be of any help did he take the final plunge and extend his art beyond all previous checks and balances, beyond all previous notions of what was appropriate for a work of art.
This show documents how he did it. Beginning with the early drawings of the '30s and moving forward in time, we watch him stripping his art down to its bare essentials, but always without loss of passion or effectiveness. For everything tossed overboard, something else was given greater prominence, until, at the end , nothing was left but the paint itself. That and his creative energy and his passion for life.
That he was able to create an art of such grace and elegance out of such simple ingredients is the miracle of the man.