Pollock's Powerful Black Paintings


JACKSON POLLOCK'S Black Enamel Paintings of 1951-52 are difficult for many art lovers to accept. They are as splashingly executed as any of his canvases, yet they lack the saving grace of color and design that make his other works acceptable as high-class decoration to many who would otherwise reject it. In short, the argument goes, these paintings are too blunt, crude, and aggressive; they represent Pollock at his most disturbed and problematical.

But is that true? Or is it just that the art world hasn't examined them in an ideal situation - without the distraction of his larger, more colorful creations?

To find the answer, the Gagosian Gallery here has assembled eight of the best of these canvases in one large gallery, and 18 related works on paper in a smaller room. Together, they provide convincing proof not only of Pollock's power and formal inventiveness but his endless search for the best way to give form to his creative forces.

In his catalog essay, Ben Heller, one of Pollock's strongest champions, explains that the exhibition ``seeks to demonstrate that the Black Paintings are major works in their own right, that they are an essential part of the totality of Pollock's oeuvre, flowing naturally and necessarily from his earlier work....''

He goes on to say, ``The three groups of drawings reflect the cohesiveness of Pollock's creativity: In the first, dating from about 1933 to 1942, prior to his mature works, the roots of his Black Paintings are clearly visible; a smaller group, from 1943 to 1946, brings us forward to the moment just before the creation of the poured (or drip) paintings; and the third contains several that represent both a unique graphic experience and an achievement parallel to the Black Paintings.''

One's first impression of the paintings themselves is that they are oversize drawings: Paintings simply aren't that graphic, that uninhibitedly black-and-white. And besides, one occasionally catches sight of configurations that register as figures and faces, much like an artists' sketches produced for reference and never intended for exhibition.

Coming shortly after what many thought was Pollock's peak period - which produced such open and expansive works as ``Autumn Rhythm'' and ``One, Number 32'' - these paintings hit the art world like a slap in the face. People were jolted, appalled by their bluntness and their apparent return to representationalism - which was the worst possible heresy at that time. Pollock, however, soon moved on to produce the thoroughly abstract paintings that topped his career - ``Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952'' and ``White Light.''

But for a time, these Black Paintings were the talk of the art world. Was Pollock ``over the hill''? Was he floundering in his attempts to move beyond his ``dribbling'' technique? Or did these paintings represent a regenerating phase of the sort most artists go through at one time or another to get back on track?

For most of his contemporaries, the third interpretation seemed the most likely. And indeed, that may have been at least partly the case, for these canvases exude a sense of power and energy that appears both seminal and primal, and that could well have served as a ``power-source'' for the works still to come.

There's more to it, however. These paintings - executed with sticks and basting syringes (which he manipulated like oversize fountain-pens and used up by the dozens) - were not merely transitional pieces. Walking among them, one is struck by the fierceness with which they were willed into existence and by the blatancy of their imagery.

They are not easy to absorb. But then, they weren't intended as neatly packaged statements, ready to be framed and hung in homes. They are bold bundles of raw energy, writhing, gliding, seeking form and meaning. Studying them, I felt for a split second as if I were confronting eight large water tanks filled with agitated eels and dolphins. But then these paintings are containers of sorts, though the agitated forms are manifestations of the submerged and only half-known denizens of Pollock's interior life.

Some have said that these paintings merely display Pollock's ``dirty laundry,'' that the images were dredged up to rid himself of things he feared, loathed, or wanted to transform.


Yet, here again there's more. What he produced in the Black Paintings is not only raw and occasionally unpalatable; it is also powerful and effective. Not perhaps as great art - one need only compare them to Goya's ``Black Paintings'' to note the difference - but certainly as something challenging and provocative to confront and to be confronted by.

At the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., through June 2.

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