To look for the unseen

People not conversant with modern art have trouble understanding why so many 20th-century artists have striven to renounce skills they earlier strove to acquire. Jackson Pollock is one of the most celebrated exemplars of this attitude. He explained his motives for wanting to abandon traditional technique and form in psychoanalytic terms.

In those terms, one's ego, or conscious mentality, works constantly at civilizing, or rendering acceptable, the raw, lawless impulses and energies of the unconscious. Pollock subscribed to Freud's notion that art is one of the more highly developed forms of compromise between the proprieties of the ego (which are reflected in social mores) and the primal power of the unconscious. Since the unconscious, as Freud defined it, is the element of nature in human beings, Pollock saw the possibility of expressing nature through his art, without illustrating it. He could do this, he believed, if he could simply make manifest the force and indeterminacy of the unconscious energy animating his activity as an artist. Here is one of the ways he explained his movement from image-making to abstraction.

Pollock had enough drawing skill to be able to render whatever images he chose. His notion was that the act of conscious choice would break, or at least interrupt, the vital connection between his art and its unconscious sources. So he began painting and drawing by pouring and splashing paint or ink directly onto the working surface. This way of working actually required him to move at a pace that usually ruled out most conscious design decisions.

In the drawing shown here, Pollock used another technique intended to thwart his own temptation to control too much the work he was producing. In this case, he poured sepia ink on one side of a sheet of mulberry paper, a very absorbent handmade paper. (He actually stacked several sheets, so that the paint would bleed through all of them, the marks having less definition as they soaked through more layers of material.) He then turned the page over, reversing all the marks he had just made (since the medium bled right through to the reverse side), and applied black ink. The lighter marks that had bled through have a different visual quality from those on the ''front'' surface; they look ''slower'' and softer. The crisp liquidity of the marks in black sets up a visual spatial tension across the page, without any explicit illusion of space.

Pollock knew that he didn't really need to make images, because we would inevitably look for images in whatever he did on the page. If we believe we see images here, that would please the artist as well, because he would understand our ''recognition'' of images he had not intended as proof that the human unconscious operates in terms of a language of signs and emotions that our conscious intentions dare not employ. In abstract works, like the drawing reproduced here, the artist enables us to feel our own compulsion to look for something we can recognize. Once we acknowledge that impulse, we may wonder where it comes from, and why we haven't noticed it before. In going even that far, we are already on the path of thought Pollock would have us pursue.

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