A characteristically handsome painting by Joan Mitchell is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition American Art: 1940-1970. I think of it as a kind of footnote to the retrospective exhibition of Jackson Pollock on the museum’s third floor (until February 2). Mitchell was one of the strongest painters in the so-called second generation of Abstract Expressionists, and she painted Ladybug, as it is titled, in 1957–the year after Pollock was killed. There was not to be a third generation, as things turned out: The movement came to an end in 1962, giving way to forms of art, like Pop Art and Minimalism, that could not have been more alien to Abstract Expressionism’s founding vision. Ladybug is a little lexicon of Abstract Expressionist devices: the smear, the swipe, the drop, the drip. It is the drip, however, to which I mean to call attention, since it played so great a role in the artistic metaphysics of the movement and in the perception of Jackson Pollock as the master of the drip: Whole cascades of them course down Mitchell’s canvas. Whatever else she was bent on achieving in Ladybug, it seems clear that Mitchell was laying on paint for the sake of the drips and going on from there.
Drips are generally a kind of incontinence, a mark of control betrayed by the treacheries of fluid, whether allowed to happen by house painters or by artists. The masters of subway graffiti recruited apprentices to wipe away the drips, regarded by them as inconsistent with their claim to mastery. Abstract Expressionism made wiping drips away obsolete. The drips affirmed that paint has an expressive life of its own, that it is not a passive paste to be moved where the artist wants it to be moved but possesses a fluid energy over which the painter endeavors to exercise control. The act of painting then is like a match between two opposed wills, like the act of taming tigers. The internal drama of Mitchell’s painting derives from the way she uses paint’s propensity to drip to her own advantage by taming it with over-strokes of pigment through which she displays her own discipline and power. It was in just these terms that Harold Rosenberg, with Pollock especially in mind, wrote of the artist as agon and coined the expression “Action Painting.” In any case, Ladybug shows how the drip had become so theatricalized in late Abstract Expressionism that paintings could consist almost entirely of them.
Against both the mythology of his having discovered the drip and the way dripping had become a mark of Abstract Expressionist identity, it is somewhat remarkable that there are very few drips to be encountered in Pollock’s show upstairs, at least of the kind Mitchell made her own. The first paint drips I encountered were in the lower right corner of his Mural, commissioned in 1943 by Peggy Guggenheim for her East Side town house. For several years thereafter there are no drips at all, most particularly not in the sublime canvases of 1950. It might even be said that Pollock’s project was to keep drips from happening! Placing the canvas on the floor would be a means to thwart paint’s disposition to dribble. The species of drip so central to Ladybug‘s structure is mostly seen on the sides of gallon paint cans, after the painter has wiped excess fluid from the brush. After the marginal drips in Mural, ones like those used by Mitchell appear in Pollock’s work for the first time in his 1952 Blue Poles. In my view, this represents a fundamental change in direction, however that is to be accounted for.
A film of Pollock painting, made by Hans Namuth in 1950, begins with the artist describing his approach to painting, emphasizing his complete control, which he goes on to demonstrate by putting paint on a canvas on the ground. That was doubtless intended as a riposte to criticisms that his work was chaotic, lacking structure and organization, and that it exhibited a total absence of technique, that he was what Time once called–and The New Yorker still does –“Jack the Dripper.” Against the evidence of Pollock’s surfaces–clotted, curdled and whipped in ways that could not have been planned–this must have seemed an empty boast by the artist. But when Pollock demonstrates the way he paints, we see that he has discovered how to draw with streams of enamel, which he whips off the end of a stick to create spontaneous calligraphic forms–pearlike, leaf-shaped, organic, lobed. These look almost Japanese. The paint does not drip off the end of the stick–it is like a liquid lash the artist snaps with the exactitude of a circus performer taking the cigarette out of a partner’s mouth with a bullwhip. It is breathlessly fascinating to see how an abrupt turn of the wrist alters a line’s direction and thickness, virtually the way a fine brush in the hand of a master would do.