At the beginning of 1944, Jackson Pollock returned to New York City. He had promised to paint an enormous mural for Peggy Guggenheim. With only a week to go before the deadline, the canvas was still blank. Eventually, after ordering his partner Lee Krasner out of their apartment, in a creative frenzy he painted the whole huge surface in one. In the morning he phoned up Guggenheim, “quite hysterical.” The picture was taken round to her apartment but turned out to be slightly too large for the appointed spot, so — on the advice of Marcel Duchamp, who was on hand — eight inches were snipped off.
Unfortunately for lovers of artistic legend, almost none of the above is true. Rather than producing this masterpiece in a single, nocturnal burst, scholars have now established that Pollock spent months on it. Nor, according to technical evidence, were scissors ever applied (with or without Duchamp’s approval). What remains true is that this was the first monument of abstract expressionism. So it is highly fitting that the great “Mural” is currently on show in an exhibition at the museum founded by his patron: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.
This is a small display (until November 16) but it gives some illuminating clues as to what lay behind Pollock’s breakthrough, as does an excellent accompanying book by the curator, David Anfam, who en passant demolishes the legends narrated above.
In Venice “Mural,” on loan from its usual home at the University of Iowa, hangs beside a much later painting by Robert Motherwell, and two other Pollocks from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Motherwell, another leading abstract expressionist, believed that painting “Mural” was in which Pollock’s “catalytic moment.”
The two Pollocks chart his position before and afterwards. The first, “The Moon Woman” (1942) still belongs to the Surrealist world of Max Ernst and Miró. There is still, just discernibly, a person at the heart of the picture, though she is in the process of vanishing into a multitude of signs and symbols. “Alchemy” (1947) is a dense skein of dribbles and flying filaments of pigment that flicker across the canvas like electrical discharges or the network of neurons and synapses in the brain.
“Mural” (1943) stands in between. Pollock had not yet developed his “drip” technique of pouring and throwing paint, on the other hand, the figure has gone — from the painting if not from Pollock’s mind. Anfam analyses the various ingredients that may have contributed to the picture, concluding that “Mural” is — to use a Freudian term — “over-determined.” That is, there were more causes than were necessary to produce it.
This is sometimes the case with artists. Vincent van Gogh’s mind was buzzing with references and symbols when he painted “La Berceuse” around Christmas 1888 (mutilating his ear before finishing the picture). Few, if any, however are detectable in the actual work. It is rather similar with “Mural.” With this painting, Pollock finally digested his multitudinous influences — including Mexican painters such as Siqueiros, American Regionalism, Picasso, and the Surrealists — then moved up to a new, unexplored territory.
There may have been imagery in his mind; later he said that he had had a “vision” of a stampede of horses in the Western USA from which Pollock hailed (he was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912). But neither the herd of mustangs he described, nor the dancers other have discerned are truly there. What you can see is what Pollock’s own phrase — and the show’s title — proclaims: energy made visible. Or, to put it another way, movement separated from any specific moving person, animal or thing.
In the next room to Mural itself are shown contemporary photographs by Gjon Mili, Herbert Matter, Barbara Morgan, and others that used various techniques including strobe lighting and multiple exposures to register moving figures. Some such as Mili’s “Figure Skater Carol Lynne” (1945), which traces the twirling path the athlete took across the ice, do indeed look very much like Pollock’s flying strands of paint.
Concurrently, there is a retrospective devoted to the work of Pollock’s big brother, Charles (until Sept 14). A decade older than Jackson, Charles Pollock (1902-88) outlived him by over 30 years. In some ways his career was parallel. During the 1930s he worked in a figurative idiom, took the leap into abstraction in the 1940s, and continued to work in various abstract styles until the early 1980s. Some of these — particularly the monochrome works done in Italy in 1962-3 are impressive. But the elder Pollock sibling never quite attained the intensity that makes Jackson’s finest work so exhilarating, even uplifting.
Perhaps the tale of the painting of “Mural” in one frantic night’s activity, though mythical, points at a larger truth. To make paintings of that degree of novelty and power, possibly he needed to be in a state of extraordinary concentration, even frenzied. With Pollock, as with Van Gogh, one senses that the mental states that led to such creativity were also tormenting. But Anfam also puts to rest the legend that the car crash that killed him in 1956 was a kind of suicide. According to the painter Clyfford Still the car Pollock was driving — given to him by Peggy Guggenheim in exchange for a painting, “wasn’t balanced right,” it couldn’t handle bends.
First published by Blouin Artinfo