Jackson Pollack



So I don’t remember the exact details, but this is Jackson Pollack.  I decided to write about it because, well, obviously, it poses a challenge.   The first idea I had was – a work like this asks you much more to react to it than to understand it.

And my first reaction is that whatever’s going on here, it’s striking.  This iPhone photo doesn’t do it justice – the original is huge, and its colors much more vivid.  I wanted to sit in front of it and write, but there’s no bench in that gallery.  I suppose I could sit on the floor, but I’m like 15 years too old for that, and obviously not in art school.  The guard would probably ask me to leave, or at least demand that I put on more black and lose a few pounds before attempting such a maneuver.  Anyway it’s late in the day and I might not be able to get back up, so this photo will have to do.

What strikes me most about this canvass is the huge amount of energy that must have gone into the spattering.  Of course, if you stand around this canvass for long enough, you can overhear snippets like “I mean I respect it but like, I don’t care for it” or the ever-so-insightful “I mean I could do that, is it art?”  No real reason to respond to that, but the idea that “I could do that” actually makes it work.  There is so much chaos and confusion evidenced here – a lot of art might represent that chaos and confusion, but this just presents it, or enacts it, or expresses it.  HAven’t we all wanted to spatter paint on a canvass, or wanted to do the equivalent in our preferred medium?

But just to name chaos isn’t to say all that much either.  There’s actually also a warmth and a glow to it.  The interplay between the colors suggests more coordination once you spend a longer time gazing into it.  The blacks, whites, reds and yellows are all textured – it you stand up close it’s quite three-dimensional in fact.  Something else that comes to mind is those computer-generated maps of the universe, where you see more and less populated regions of space, which show the distribution of galaxies in irregular patches.

There is also an interaction between angularity and curvature.    Sometimes arcs of paint form into swirls, and sometimes they are streaks.  The erratic interplay between curve and straight brings a sense of intermittent order.

Last thought – consider this screenshot of a page of a book I’ve written a bunch about recently:

Upon first glance, I’m not really sure you get all that much more than a sense of scattering and chaos.  Even though there are words, and recognizable forms – footnotes, marginlia, music notes, a page number (this is a page from Finnegans Wake‘s most notoriously dense chapter, II.2), there’s really not so much more to go on than with the Pollack.

What’s interesting to me about the contrast between the Pollack canvass and the Joyce page is with the Joyce, words bring us towards assuming a representative relationship between those words and other ideas; with the Pollack, the spatters of paint create no such expectation – or do they?

Does this tell us anything about words, painting, their similarities or their differences?  These two artifacts were made within 20 years of one another.  These art threads haven’t generated much (well, any) comment yet, maybe this question will?

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4 Responses to Jackson Pollack

  1. Nates says:

    Well, there are an unusual number of Pollock forgeries, so I guess there’s at least some truth in the “I could’ve painted it” comments. But I still think people are vastly underrating the difficulty involved. The drip technique obviously introduces an element of randomness, but they’re clearly still carefully crafted works. Plus there’s all sorts of interesting staining going on. I’m quite sure I couldn’t do it!

    The comparison with Joyce is interesting. It’s tempting to say he’s stripping away the representational content of words, but that doesn’t seem quite right. After all, the etymological word play seems essential, and that’s still representational. (Just in a very different way.) But perhaps there’s still a sort of parallel here between Joyce’s obscurely organized, vaguely elemental linguistic forms and Pollock’s obscurely organized, vaguely elemental linear forms. It feels like there is an interesting connection here, but I don’t feel like I have a good grip on it.

  2. Josh says:

    Okay working with that idea of stripping away the representational quality of words not seeming quite right, how’s this (though it may just turn out to be a facile comparison):

    Somewhere in Finnegans Wake Joyce uses the phrase “splitting the etym.” The atom/etymology pun suggests that perhaps a premise of this work is that words can be broken into smaller, less distinguishable (even unconsciously operative) components, and re-integrated in a revelatory way. What’s neat about that is Joyce announces this “splitting of the etym” in the form of a pun – and of course puns are the main way that he accomplishes that very goal.

    Anyway, is there a meaningful sense in which an artist like Pollack is “splitting the atom” of painting – i.e., breaking it into less consciously understood components and then recombining them in ways that are unanticipated? In that sense, is Pollack’s canvass the visual equivalent of a pun?

    This suggests a disanalogy too: the building blocks of language still feel representational (etym- from etymology for example) , whereas the building blocks of painting don’t. Perhaps red and black could have been used to paint a house, and that house-image would represent a house, but “house-image” –> red and black seems to cross a threshold of meaning in a way that “etymology” –> “etym” doesn’t. Even “etymology” –> “etym” –> “e” still hasn’t crossed that threshold.

    Another comparison – the way Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake is a lot like the image I have of Pollack at his canvas (our Maude Lebowski perhaps). Joyce would start with one paragraph, in whatever condition, and often have a checklist next to it. He’d then work in the items on the checklist, often using puns, and cross them out when he had accomplished this – something like this:

    Version 1: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” CHECKLIST: Eva Braun, false, French

    Version 2: “The quick braun faux jumped over the lazy dog” (all 3 items would now be crossed off)

    That’s a huge reduction in complexity (and creativity) from the layering Joyce achieves in the final text, but the point is it has something in common with the way Pollack used multiple layers of paint being applied at different stages. I know all painters (and all authors) do this, but in both these texts, the layering works in indirect and “etyn-splitting” ways perhaps. It’s a layering that works on a scale beneath the accustomed unit of meaning in both cases.

  3. Nates says:

    I like all of this, and the Maude Lebowski reference is great too.

    Does linguistic form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?
    Uh, is that what this painting is about?
    In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly etymological, which bothers some theorists. The word itself makes them uncomfortable. Etymology.
    Oh yeah?
    Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a scholar will refer to a painting’s representational content or its linear form or its aesthetic expressiveness.

  4. Josh says:

    The bar’s over there.

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