Essential MoMA exhibit highlights Pollock’s brilliant career

The economically titled “Jackson Pollock,” showing through February 2 at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art), comes with a minimum of manufactured pomp and circumstance, and that’s a good thing. Due to his tempestuous life, Pollock has been viewed as an iconic maverick, modern art’s rebel without a cause; this is a dangerous attitude at best, a destructive one at worst. Pollock’s fame was important in its time – it was a major cultural moment when, in 1949, Life asked on its cover, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” – but his posthumous notoriety, buoyed in no small part by his death in a drunk driving incident -has often clouded the impact of his bold, viscerally entrancing art.

The curators of the exhibit have done the art community an important service by refusing to harp on Pollock the myth. They’ve simply focused his enduring statement, his body of work, and the result is not only the best concentrated examination of Pollock, but one of the most comprehensive and probing looks at any artistic figure of the past century.

And an impressive look it is. Early Pollock is relatively undistinguished by its own merits. By and large, it’s heavily derivative of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro, often to such an extent that it comes across as mere facsimile (Some slightly earlier, but no more consequential works, are influenced more by Pollock’s mentor, Thomas Hart Benton and Mexican mural painters). By the early 1940s, he had carved a niche that led him to produce a handful of works of minor importance. In Birth and Guardians of the Secret, Pollock balances Miro’s colorful palette and long, almost stringy figures against a distinctly Native American mysticism. The works aren’t awe-inspiring, but they are strong; the former was enough to secure Pollock a contract with heiress Peggy Guggenheim.

It was Guggenheim for whom Pollock painted his first masterpiece. Mural, created for Guggenheim’s apartment, is a strikingly huge work. It’s also Pollock’s first real venture toward the utter abstraction he would soon hit upon: though figural, it gains its power not from representation but from unbridled energy.

After a brief detour (a series of paintings of his Accabonac Creek environs), Pollock took this energy to new extremes, essentially creating an entirely new style of painting – “drip painting.” Splattering paint all over the campus in variations that allude to randomness without actually being random, Pollock revolutionized painting and emerged as a major figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement. In tempestuous works such as Full Fathom Five and Galaxy and less frenetic pieces such as Phosphorescence, the artist began to fully realize his formal revolution in thoroughly compelling content.

It was shortly after the Life cover story when Pollock completed what many consider his most accomplished paintings. Number 32, 1950, One: Number 31, 1950 and Autumn Rhythms: Number 30, 1950, painted, curiously enough, in a chronology opposite the numbers of the works themselves, are giant and brilliant. By this time he had worked out all of the difficulties inherent in his unique genre – what to do with the edges, how to calibrate the balance between colors – and produced works of stunning quality and subtle difference. While One seems almost to sink in itself, for example, Autumn Rhythms is a sharply directed work.

After this astonishing troika, Pollock struggled to recapture his direction: a 1951 series returns to figures, painted in black enamel, reminiscent in mood if not in form of Goya’s brutally dark works. A brief return to brilliance was realized in the following year’s Blue Poles, which tethers his drip abstraction with eight of the diagonally vertical strokes mentioned in the title. But from there it was all downhill: paintings such as Search and The Deep are striking but anomalous.

What amazes is the versatility of Pollock’s drip technique: the artist is no one-trick pony. His Ab Ex greats consist of the horizontal (the bulk of the collection) and the distinctly vertical (Cathedral); the nearly dichromatic (One) and the wildly colorful (Blue Poles), the clogged (Galaxy) and the stroke-oriented (Arabesque), the active (Mural, Autumn Rhythms) and the relatively static (Lavender Mist). On some paintings – especially Full Fathom Five, in which he incorporates thumbtacks, and Galaxy, in which he uses sand – leap out of the canvas with heavy impasto; others sink within.

This is Pollock’s greatest legacy: more than any other American artist of the 20th century, he takes equal interest in form and content. Rauschenberg and Twombly focused ingeniously on process, Rothko on broad vision, but Pollock realized each through the other. The methodology is fascinating and important, and the resulting images are diverse and fully realized.

And at the MoMA show, the myth and the images are separated. We can view the contradictions ourselves: the hard-drinker who died in an alcohol-related accident was fond of giving his paintings names (Night Visions, Autumn Rhythms) that sound like Massengill products; the student who renounced his teacher, Benton, eventually returned to him in the stern centering strokes of Blue Poles. Most important of all, that a man who even MoMA admitted “showed little talent” for painting wound up being, as Life suggested, not just America’s greatest painter in the 1940s, but in all of the 20th century as well.