Mumbo Jumbo


Mud Pies

Jackson Pollock

Museum of Modern Art

November 1, 1998 to February 2, 1999

The Tate Gallery, London
March 11 to June 6, 1999

"Blue Poles, Number 11, 1952," oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 7/8 inches by 15 feet 11 5/8 inches, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra

By Carter B. Horsley

Jackson Pollock is the most provocative and legendary, though perhaps not the greatest, American artist of the 20th Century.

In his excellent, fascinating and interesting essay, "Comet: Jackson Pollock's Life and Work," in the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Kirk Varnedoe writes that "hard-drinking tough guy though he was, Pollock harbored - in addition to genuine psychological difficulties - a soft spot for mumbo jumbo."

In the years before he reached his "signature" style, Pollock, Varnedoe continued, "the would-be sculptor seems to have found himself (in the literal and corny sense) around 1940 in the material life of his surfaces and his oils, and in the basic making mud-pies sense of being a painter. But it was not, at first, a pretty sight. He used a lot of color without any eye for common interactions and balances, so that the palette, careening from dead grays and gloomy blacks to sickeningly pretty pinks was consistently crude without ever becoming effectively expressive. Brushwork, too, had no 'touch.'"

For some, attempts to explain Pollock's swirling drips often seems like so much "mumbo jumbo" and his enormous paintings merely messy "mud-pies."

Varnedoe's essay and more importantly this retrospective on Pollock, the first in three decades, go a long way to quieting the demurrers and making a strong case for Pollock's stature as a fine and probably very important artist.

"Jackson Pollock is one of the prime generative forces in modern art of the last half-century. With the 'drip' or 'poured' paintings he made from 1947 through 1950, he ruptured traditions of art-making, giving new permissions to subsequent generations of artists in all mediums and gaining international notoriety. These radically innovative pictures and his troubled life - marked by alcoholism and emotional turmoil and cut short by a violent death in an automobile accident at the age of forty-four - have made Pollock a figure of myth," Varnedoe proclaimed in a wall panel at the exhibition.

The exhibition affords a great opportunity to put Pollock in perspective and the verdict is clear that his uneven oeuvre did include some masterpieces that are very impressive but that their influence and importance have been hugely blown out of proportion. The fiction that they are revolutionary and greatly significant, however, has a real life of its own and Pollock's rank among the world's greatest artists of all time is likely to be debated for a long time. His influence was substantial, not in terms of style and the content of his work, but in terms of its debate and posturing. His oeuvre, indeed, is post-Modern and one can argue that Post-Modernism begins if not with him, then with his aura, the anthology of aesthetic criticism that inflated him to mythic proportions, which is OK, but more importantly made the attribution of a STATEMENT more important than the art itself. The problem with most Post-Modern critics is that they believe they are more important than the artists themselves, which is, of course, nonsense.

For those new to art, Picasso and Jackson Pollock are probably the two toughest and most notorious nuts to crack.

Picasso, in retrospect, is much easier to grasp and unquestionably is the greater artist, and not because he is "easier to grasp."

Pollock is widely perceived as a "romantic," "action" hero, but his merits as an artist have not been always clear-cut.

The fall of 1998 in New York City was been a remarkable one for fabulous museum shows. Simultaneously, while Pollock is on display at MOMA, the Whitney has a major Mark Rothko Exhibition (see The City Review article), the Metropolitan has a fabulous survey of early Renaissance paintings from the Netherlands, and the Jewish Museum has an important show on Ben Shahn. One wishes it would possible to combine all these shows into one gigantic exhibition with all these works dramatically juxtaposed as it would not only be jarring, but startling.

The great religious, portrait and genre paintings by such masters as Hugo Van der Goes, Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck at the Met are riveting, intense, jewel-like and memorable. Ben Shahn’s dashing illustrations are the epitome of style, reverberant compositions with bold linearity and a limited palette: succinct, sometimes searing, sometimes sweet, always unambiguous.

The Renaissance paintings and Shahn’s focus on reality.

Rothko’s and Pollock’s, on the other hand, do not, although their mature works were preceded by voyages through surrealism and mythology. Their works are emotional abstractions. In Rothko’s case, they are evanescent, but compartmentalized. In Pollock’s case, they are energetic, but often chaotic and fractal-like whirlpools.

While it is de rigueur to concentrate on the "signature" works that define an artist’s "style," it is very important to understand its evolution and both the Rothko and Pollock shows are excellent and very revealing in this regard. As contemporaries, both artists came under the strong European influence of Surrealism and both produced exemplary works before arriving at their formulaic "signatures."

The Pollock show is accompanied by a voluptuously illustrated catalogue, funded by the David Geffen Foundation, which owns several of the works in the show. Many of the fine color illustrations unfortunately are fold-outs as Pollock frequently resorted to huge, panoramic, horizontal canvases. Fortunately, they are many full-page, and very sumptuous, details.

The catalogue also includes many photographs taken from a famous movie made by Hans Namuth of Pollock painting. The movie, which is shown at the exhibition, documents the creation of a large painting by Pollock and helped greatly to fuel the controversies over the artist, whose methods of dripping, splashing and hurling paint at his canvases was both belittled as unstructured and sloppy and inspired for breaking the shackles of conventional techniques.

This exhibition, sponsored in large part by Nationsbank and BankAmerica with support also from The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., and its catalogue, "made possible through the generosity of The David Geffen Foundation," argue with considerable passion that Pollock was a truly monumental figure in 20th Century American art and certainly it contains many very strong works of great vigor that attest to Pollock's talents of rhythmic composition, painterliness, and dramatic flair. It has been hard for the public to assess his oeuvre because many important works are still in private hands and few institutions own more than one and seeing a less than stellar Pollock in isolation can lead to assumptioins that denigrate him.

In 1944, MOMA became the first museum to purchase a painting, "The She-Wolf," from Pollock and in 1967 held a Pollock retrospective. The current exhibition, which reproduces the interior of his barn in The Springs on Long Island where he painted many of his larger works, is the most complete show of his work in all media. A catalogue raisonné prepared by Eugene V. Thaw and Francis V. O'Connor was issued in 1978 and is now out of print.

Pollock often frequently the Cedar Tavern, a not terribly posh bar on University Place between Eighth and Ninth Streets that eventually moved many years after his death in a car crash while driving drunk in a Cadillac convertible in 1956 further north on University Place to a more handsome venue.

In the sumptous catalogue, Varnedoe gives a sweeping cultural history and review of Pollock's life:

"Despite steady dealer stipends, fervent critical support, and one-man exhibitions in midtown virtually every year since he was thirty, Pollock - easily the most famous artist of his generation - only got a step ahead of bare burgher solidity near the nend of his life....The span from Elvis Presley's first record in 1954 through Jasper Johns' first show in 1958 formed a key divide in American life, and Pollock's car crash (like the actor James Dean's the year before) was one of its benchmarks....Stopped short at forty-four, Pollock permanently straddles a cusp in cultural history. Though he epitomizes the moment passed, he has been a fever in art for decades after,and remains an unsettled issue today....From the moment of Pollock's first maturity, key critics and artists recognized that his work had a special power and authenticity. Fail as it might to conform to expectations or to standard criteria, clearly it mattered; and this basic consensus has only grown. But intense debate as to why it mattered has also never wanted. This is not because the work is especially 'difficult' in the way that, say Marcel Duchamp's is. There are no encrypted riddles or in-jokes to decipher, no programmatic texts to explain why it appears as it does....With no recognizable image or conventional composition, these 'allover' abstractions appear to fuse how and why, means and end, instrumental method and expressive message....The 'artless,' hand-off way Pollock deployed his medium was too uniquely a signature style for anyone to adopt directly' but the permissions it gave have percolated irrepressibly through painting, sculpture, installation and performance art, and hybrids of all of the above (not the mention the effect on musicians and writers). ...Pollock's best work is inhabited by opposites: lyrical and violent, anguished and ecstatic, cathartic and obsessive, tormented and liberating, ethereal and base."

It is interesting that Pollock not only could have been well portrayed by James Dean but also could now be portrayed by actors Mickey O'Rourke or Bruce Willis whose looks and screen temperaments are almost perfect matches. (Subsequently to the exhibition, Ed Harris portrayed Pollock in a major movie.)

Varnedoe quotes critic Leo Steinberg's observation that "Questions as to the validy of Pollock's work, though they remain perfectly good in theory, are simply blasted out of revelance by these manifestations of Herculean effort, this evidence of mortal struggle between the man and his art." In recalling that Pollock's work was viewed by some contemporaries as barbaric and ferocious, Varnedoe notes that it does not now seem so "scandalous."

"Writers on Pollock ritually lament his myth, and with reason: puffery here has been hot and thick....Pollock often gets cast as the last action hero, a 'natural' beat bohemian and a bastion of tortured purity and authenticity. True to his cusp position, though, his story is actuallyless once-upon-a-time and more tainted with the now, specifically as regards media hype....Pollock was not simply a cheapened victim of philistine publicity, but instead (or also) its accomplice. Whatever self-recriminations he may have felt, a significant part of him wanted celebrity, and he collaborated with its seems clear that Pollock achieved what he did, not by any inborn gift of conventional facility or by fated destiny, but by a combination of strongly willed self-inventions and a small cohort's dedicated promotion. From his early fixation on being an artist through his experiments with spiritualism, politics, psychological and homeopathic therapies, and so on, Pollock - the Westerner, the drunk, the country boy, the tweedy man of the city - repeatedly tried to reinvent himself, and often with more than a little help from his friends."

In discussing Pollock's "soft spot for mumbo jumbo," Varnedoe maintained that "while he may well have talked up shamanism or alchemy, and even nurtured some superstitions about ritual and healing, he never once suggested that this kind of thing shaped the way his paintings were made or should be understood. (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and others of the New York School, on the other hand, constantly made a point of evoking the authority of spiritual content for their art.)...Autonomy and self-reliance were Pollock's Holy Grail, in his head and in his career. Since he experienced such misery trying to submit to disciplines of learning for which he had no aptitude, the godsend, liberating idea for him was the one he got simultaneously from looking at modern art and listening to his therapists: the principel that art could ultimately depend not on acquired talents but on inner resources, no matter how disturbed that inner life was."

Born in Wyoming, Pollock went to high school in Los Angeles and in 1930 decided to join his older brother, Charles, in New York where he studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League. Benton, according to Varnedoe, "was a swaggering blowhard who curried an image as a no-nonsense son of the soil, and under his aegis Pollock changed from longhair California swami into Manhattan cowboy, complete with boots and Stetson, conjuring roots that never were. More damagingly, the novice also tried to pace his elder's strut as a big drinker and a misogynist man's man....Benton's antielitism and suspicion of abstract art had given Benton tenuous bonds with the political left, but as the Depression deepened, and internationalism became more of a cause, his reactionary chauvinism isolated him from the New York community....He left his few remaining disciples at the League disastrously unarmed for cafeteria debates with painters like Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky, who had been keeping a close eye on Matisse, Picasso, Leger, et al....Pollock had become an admirer of the Mexican mural movement - dominated by Rivera, Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros - before he came to Benton. Friends of his youth, most notably...(...Philip Guston), actually worked on walls in Mexico City in the 1930s; and his brother Sande worked briefly with Siqueiros in Los Angeles. Like them, Pollock saw himself staunchly on the left, and was doubtless drawn to the promise of art as a reformer's tool, uncorrupted by the capitalist market for easel-sized work....Benton had refined the religious spectacles of Rubens, El Greco, and Tintoretto into a serpentine secular mannerism. But in picturing oppression and martyrdom the Mexicans had come closer to the heart of the Counter-Reformation, in their often brutish and sadomasochistic adaptations of Christian iconography as a vivid theater of sensual suffering. Like the Vatican before them, these Marxists understood that metaphysical ideas might best be grounded, for broadest effect, in indelibly physical expressions....Pollock saw Orozco's Prometheus (see a reproduction of a version of this painting in The City Review article on the Sotheby's Fall 2003 Latin American Art auction) in Pomona in June 1930...and for years after cited this grappling nude behemoth as the greatest painting in the country."

With the coming of war in Europe, "a lot of formerly ardent leftists cooled on the prospects for mechanistic social engineering" and their faith "was displaced by a chastened respect for the irrational component in human nature, and for the potency of mental states over material facts. In that climate, the jargon of psychology infiltrated the spaces left by a waning infatuation with Marxist accounts of art and culture," Varnedoe wrote. Pollock, whom Varnedoe suggests may have had an affair with Benton's wife, would begin Jungian psychotherapy in 1937 and get a mental-illness deferment from military service in 1941, the year he met Lee Krasner, the artist who would become his wife (see The City Review article on a Krasner exhibition). In 1939, Pollock would be impressed with Picasso's Guernica, shown at MOMA, and began to be influenced by John Graham, another artist. "From Russian origins and a military background kept exotically murky, Graham had apparently passed through all the right cafés and studios in Paris, and he brought with him an intimidatingly idiosyncratic vision of modern art, ballasted on the one side by arcane theoretical systems and on the other by anecdotal familiarity with the players. He also offered Pollock a new and highly instructive model of the artist's life in New York, involving circulation in high society and an adviser's role with rich collectors, far from the world of grimy garrets and the WPA," Varnedoe wrote.

In 1941, Pollock also went several times to a MOMA show on Indian Art of the United States and Varnedoe points out that in the exhibition "Native Americans created an image on the ground by 'painting' with colored sands dropped from their fists. Krasner, whose own art is similar but more disciplined than Pollock's, was four years his senior. "At the expense of her own work, Krasner, who had been a student of Hans Hofmann, poured her energy and intelligence into furthering Pollock's efforts," Varnedoe wrote. Varnedoe recounts the story that in reply to a query from Hofmann why he did not work more from nature, Pollock is said to have replied, "I am nature."

In 1943, Robert Motherwell introduced Pollock to Peggy Guggenheim, the collector and heiress who was about to open her gallery called Art of This Century. Pollock's work began to change and Varnedoe theorized that perhaps more important than the Native American show was a Joan Miró retrospective at MOMA: "his phantasms offered an imagery of the erotic and the grotesque that was bizarrely removed from the hearty corporeality of Picasso's anatomies, with a freedom of shape and a wiry linear component that appealed. For Guggenheim's spring show, Pollock submitted Stenographic Figure, show below. "Banishing any thickened surface paste, Stenographic Figure shows different ways of working overlaid one on the other, as if the picture were built up from off-register gels. A flat lay-in of shapes, angular and curved, has superimposed on it a bold alphabet of broad lines that either follow existing edges or create their own forms. Then the whole surface is covered with a teeming swarm of fine-line calligraphy in yellow, black, white, and orange, sometimes picking up existing vectors, sometimes detailing fingers or the back of a head, often suggesting writing or numerology, and generally setting the picture abuzz with a frantic, infestation of spidery tics disconnected from the heavings underneath....The willed confusions of this eccentric, ugly-pretty, picture introduce ways of visual thinking that will reappear, in different guises, for years to come...."

Stenographic Figure, c. 1942

"Stenographic Figure," oil on linen, 40 by 60 inches, c. 1942, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Bareiss Fund

This picture "launched" his career and the following November he had his own exhibition at Guggenheim's gallery. Pollock, according to Varnedoe, "had already returned to the experiments with pouring, dripping, and spattering to which he had been exposed at the time of Siqueiros's workshop....By 1943, the concept of making art by 'automatic' gestures - trying to abandon conscious control in order to allow unconscious areas of the mind to guide the hand - was very much in the air in New York. 'Pure psychic automatism' was the royal road to fresh creativity espoused by André Breton and his Surrealist followers beginning in the 1920s....In the circle of new acquaintances that Pollock and Krasner were meeting in the early 1940s, it was principally Motherwell and the Chilean artist Robert Matta who espoused such contact, and proselytized for Surrealist ideas....At the point where it would be most relevant to his use of fluid paint, Surrealist automatism involved the idea of 'discovering' a figure in tangles of random, 'mindless' doodling; but Pollock's first poured works seem to have been applied over existing figures, in elaboration or partial camouflage."

Pollock, who greatly admired the great American mystic painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder, was also interested, Varnedoe wrote, "in the kind of liquefied figuration employed by the Frenchman André Masson, partially through 'automatic' techniques of spilling ink and sand."

But the many influences on the artist were, in Varnedoe's words, "slow burns":

"The somber mien, the conjuring of atavistic myths, and the intimations of unknowable hieroglyphs all belonged to the climate of a period shadowed by war, and to an artistic milieu searching for an 'abstract' subject matter evoicative of matters of universal importance. totems, lost languages, secret runes - all forms of cultural marking that 'spoke' without naturalistic representation, and that appeared elementally chose to ultimate human mysteries - wee in favor with artists of the day who were looking for a way into an abstraction that seemed to keep a grip on significant content, as a hedge against accusations of arbitrary solipism," Varnedoe wrote, brilliantly.

Pollock received an important commission to do a mural for Guggenheim's apartment and the huge work was painted very rapidly with scrolling arabesques. Varnedoe likes the work. "It is one of the least known of the artist's greatest works, and is insufficiently recognized for its extreme audacity and originality. It should properly stand with de Kooning's Excavation of 1950 as one of the most salient works of fusion between the figure and abstraction in American painting; its uncoiling, leaping relentlessness rivals and complements the densely packed angularity of that picture. Telling in terms of their future work, de Kooning compresses a Picassoid vocubulary of the body down to a humid flesh-pit of volumes and joints, while Pollock agitates a less heatedly carnal tarantella of stick-figure vectors."

It's a terrible, unattractive picture of lurid colors. It is, however, large.

From 1947 to 1950, Pollock blossomed, producing a very impressive number of large "drip" paintings that would be heralded by critics such as Clement Greenberg and would propel the artist to great heights of celebrity including a large feature in Life magazine. Greenberg once wrote that "For all its Gothic quality, Pollock's art is still an attempt to cope with urban life; it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulse, and notions, therefore is positivist, concrete." Greenberg also observed that Pollock and artists such as Mark Tobey and Jean Dubuffet explored "all-over" compositions: "This very uniformity, this dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility."

Pollock, Varnedoe, argued, "had profoundly altered or even obliterated the concept of painting handed down within the Western tradition, reinvented it as a different kind of activity and object...From the first display of the new paintings, in January, 1948, a sense of the unorthodox way in which they were made - the apparent lack of 'touch,' the entertainment of chance, the spatter that seemed to indicate recklessness - captured the public imagination. And after 1950, when photographs and films of Pollock painting were widely disseminated, imagery and process became inseparable from considerations of the final product."

The drips were not original with Pollock. "Max Ernst [the great painter who was a husband for a while of Peggy Guggenheim], thought Pollock had stolen it from him, and, as [William] Rubin has detailed, poured paintings by a host of major and minor atists associated with Surrealism could claim priority....In any event, the plethora of possible sources makes any one of them less critical, and the particular ways Pollock used fluid paint - the orchestrations of quanitities, speeds, rhythms, and densities that constitute everything in his expression - look like nothing second-hand."

Pollock was known to have urinated on some his works and Varnedoe notes that Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Pollock biographers, "amassing anecdotal evidence that Pollock was prone to make an issue of urination, argue that the drip method essentially formalized what would be called in vernacular a 'pissing contest' with the memory of his father, LeRoy, who had shown his young son how to draw designs in urine on a rock."

In 1949, Pollock worked on an unrealized project with architect Peter Blake to create a museum of his work without walls where the "drip" paintings would be the wall dividers.

After 1950, Pollock's output declined sharply, although he would create some quite interesting works later.

There are many surprises in the exhibition including some pencil drawings, particularly an untitled one form 1939-41 of two people in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was a gift of his widow in 1982, and a fabulous small bone sculpture from 1940-3 in the collection of the Museum of Fine Ats in Houston.

After Stenographic Figure, the first major paintings of merit are The Moon Woman, in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and Male and Female, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both works date from 1942 and are very strong, bold and dynamic. These are fine preludes to the very striking Guardians of the Secret, a 1943 work, in the Albert M. Bender Collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

He experimented with a variety of different styles for a while and then in 1946 created Croaking Movement (Sounds in the Grass Series), a marvelously rich canvas of white, angular delineations against a red, yellow and green background. This painting is also in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

He then switched to a more curvilinear and calligraphic mode, perhaps best represented by Number 14, 1948, shown below, a wonderfully virtuosic dance with double-loaded paints.


"Numbre 14, 1948"

"Number 14, 1948," 22 3/4 inches by 31 inches, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., The Katherine Ordway Collection

By now, Pollock was beginning to hit his stride and produced many dazzling works including: White Cockatoo: Number 24a, 1948, private collection; Number 13A, 1948, Arabesque, Yale University Art Gallery; Summertime: Number 9A, 1948, one of the greatest drips, Tate Gallery; TheWooden Horse: Number 10A, 1948, which has a wood hobbyhorse head on the canvas, Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Untitled (Cut-Out Figure), 1948, private collection in Canada; Untitled (Shadows: Number 2, 1948), private collection; Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, one of his great masterpieces that uses cut-out sections; Number 2, 1949, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of At in Utica, New York, one of his supremely poetic works; Number 7, 1950, MOMA, an important work almost as good as Number 2, 1949, but with a less vibrant palette; Number 1, 1952, private collection, a very powerful and effective work; Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, shown at the top of the article, one of the best masterworks; Unformed Figure, 1953, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, shown below, a startling work for its bold pinks; and Ritual, 1953, Collection Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, Phoenix, Maryland, a very fine non-drip work.

"Unformed Figure, 1953"

"Unformed Figure," oil and enamel on canvas, 52 inches by 6 feet 5 inches, 1953, Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Unfortunately many of these, the best works, are simply too wide to reproduce meaningful on the World Wide Web, but they are reproduced magnificently in the catalogue, many with fold-out pages.

In comparing, first, Pollock with American artists, whose careers begin in the 20th Century, we must consider such artists as Georgia O'Keefe, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Milton Avery, Hans Hofmann, Joseph Stella, Mark Rothko (see The City Review article), Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning (see The City Review article), Richard Diebenkorn (see The City Review article), Andy Warhol and Ben Shahn. One could also consider Charles Sheeler, Edwin Hopper, Robert Rauschenberg, which we shall not do here, and Thomas Hart Benton, which we shall later because he was Pollock's teacher.

In sorting out the pantheon of artists, one is often prompted by emotional sympathies with underdogs and fatigue with exaggerated hype. Of course, "the test of time" is supposed to sort out such concerns, but really relies more on forgetfulness and obituaries.

(My bias is an initial rapture with Italian Renaissance painters and the fairly clearcut notion of ideal, Platonic beauty and a secondary love for much 19th Century American painters where the focus was not so much on innovation but on perfecture of composition and technique and temperament. A third fascination is with Van Gogh, the Fauves and the German Expressionists for their boldness and color. I do not have a specific theory or set of standards against which I test aesthetic opinions, but I like lists. I am often awed by an individual work by some "obscure" master, but I am more deeply admirative of an artist who has not only created an interesting style but executed in myriad compositions that leave the viewer still curious to see more variations, or interpretations. I have a conservative bent against Johnny One-Notes - I wish them well and want to hear/see more, but it is the mature artist that I return to again and again - mature not in age, or established acceptance, but in the authority of the personal vision/style/voice. One cannot convincingly say, though tempted in bouts of inebriation, that, for example, any particular Nolde, or Derain, or Vermeer, or El Greco, or Giorgione, or Crivelli, or Verrochio, or Daumier, or Quidor, or Ryder, or Rubens, or Monet, is better than every other painting. You can reasonably place it within the artist's oeuvre, and within the artist's creative milieu. Similarly, it can be misleading to take an individual work out of the context of an artist's career. The juvenalia can be revelatory and the diversions and experiments tantalizing. Pollock's oeuvre, in fact, is a good illustration of this as we shall see. These obvious digressions are needed because Pollock arrives with too much baggage at the end of the 20th Century and to reassess him one should peel the critical onion to get back to basics and try to consider his creations on their merits, shorn of hyperbole and fads and marketing.)

O'Keefe 's blown-up macro-studies and Matisse-like flat landscapes are terrific abstractions that were very original, not derivative and tremendously important in establishing an exaggerated sense of scale. More importantly, they were, despite their often lack of painterliness, beautiful and her oeuvre enormous and pretty untiring.

Influenced by Cubism, Davis opened up his composition with a wide sense of space and wonderfully incorporated two great American cultural institutions, advertising and jazz, into his work which has superb dynamics.

While uneven and often bordering on the drab in terms of palette, Gorky's work represents the best American renditions of the "automatic," Surrealist scriblings that are other-wordly and fascinating, but derivative from the European innovators such as Joan Miro, Andre Masson, Dali, and others. The alien environments of Yves Tanguy are also influential.

Milton Avery takes Matisse's flat diminensionality but gives it strange palettes and interesting visual textures. While derivative, his oeuvre is large, non-formulaic, effective, interesting and impressive.

Hans Hofmann's work is bold and extremely influential, especially in his role as a teacher, even if rarely beautiful. While his oeuvre is difficult and not always appealing, his influence was enormous.

Joseph Stella was a very fine artist whose work is consistently overlooked, perhaps because he was so versatile in different media and because his subject matter varied. His great series of the Brooklyn Bridge is monumental and memorable.

Like Stella, Warhol did not stand still or get stuck in a groove and while his work never ascends to greatness, his persistent productivity and experimentation made him a much more genuine cultural hero of his age than Pollock. Neither, of course, had the intellectuality of John Cage and, later, Brian Eno, musicians whose emphasis on chance is far more important

In many ways, Rothko is the opposite of Pollock. His work is lean and focused and pure in contrast with Pollock's overflowing, diffuse and "messy" work. Their early work, however, shares many affinities for the mythic and the surreal. Rothko was more grandiose and pretentious while Pollock can be excused his arrogance because of his adulation. Rothko produced far more "good" art, but, earlier comments notwithstanding, quantity is not what counts, and "bad" art, per se, is not necessarily bad in the end. What the Pollock exhibition demonstrates is that Pollock was much more uneven in his great period than Rothko, whose consistency should give him the edge.

Richard Diebenkorn takes off from Rothko's simplicity and sharpens his blurry edges to create more more complex compositions. His paintings are considerably more satisfying than Rothko's, but both are, at the best, dreamy worlds of much beauty.

Willem de Kooning, a contemporary of Pollock's, on the other hand, did not care much about conventional beauty and his demonic paintings of women owe much to the slapdash of Hofmann. de Kooning shares abundant energy with Pollock and his early work is not dominated by abstraction and his late and quite beautiful linear paintings are formal enough to stop short of pure abstraction.

Clyfford Still is resolutely non-representational and his work is much deeper, and better, than Pollock's. To enter a Still is to fall into a liquid space of great, dark mystery where shreds of illuminating hope are tattered splotches. Still gives us drama. Rothko gives us equilibrium. Pollock takes us to chaos.

Benton, wrongly dismissed by some critics as a minor Regionalist painter, developed a very vigorous and sinuous signature style that animated all his work. His oeuvre is astoundingly consistent in its creativity of composition and conformity to his vision, one that was Populist and American. One can imagine that he was infused with the majesty of great Renaissance muralists and the forcefulness of the Mexican muralists of his own time. His style is manipulative and his subject matter simplistic, but the message was never unambiguous.

Shahn, of course, takes the prosaic and the political, not always the same, to poetic heights. His oeuvre often strikes one as merely the fine work of an excellent, facile illustrator, but his works are very painterly, his palette intensely limited and his obliqueness powerful. Shahn's paintings are often polemnical, but the notion of using art for social purposes is fine when the art is so good.

One would be tempted then to rank O'Keefe, Still, and Shahn, at least, above Pollock and possibly Rothko, Stella and Diebenkorn.

With the exception of O'Keefe, none of these artists are quite as brilliant as their European counterparts such as Picasso, Braque, Klee, Miro, Matisse and Kandinsky, and O'Keefe is still a level or two below them.

Pollock's best totemic paintings deserve more exposure as they are excellent. The best drip paintings, those mentioned above, are quite thrilling regardless of theory, but too many are extravagant exercises that fail to inspire. Had this been a smaller show consisting only of the above mentioned works, one could not quarrel with greatness and lust to see more. He did produce some great paintings, and probably would have produced more if he had lived longer. His oeuvre does not measure up with the titans of the past, but his cultural importance, both during his lifetime and afterwards, does.

His aggressive, excessive energy was powerful and palpable, even if only rarely poetic.

Andy Warhol would probably have said "POW!"

Click here to see reproduction of one of Pollock's "Black" paintings in The City Review article on the May 15, 2001 Contemporary Art evening auction at Sotheby's

Click here to see reproduction of an exquisite Pollock in The City Review article on the Twentieth Century Art evening auction May 9, 2000 at Christie's

Click here to go to The Museum of Modern Art's Jackson Pollock website,

which includes video clips

Click here or on the picture below to order the fine hard-cover catalogue

at 30 percent off its $75 list price from

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