Pollock and the Drip
It is unrealistic to suppose, in a work so driven by energy and passion as Mural, that Pollock should have noticed the drips in the lower right corner. They would, if anything, have been beneath notice, but in no sense out of place given the changes that were taking place in the concept of painting in those years (think of what drips would mean in one of Mondrian's severely rectitudinal masterpieces). But it is not unrealistic to suppose that however it occurred to him, Pollock recognized that laying the canvas flat would enhance his control over the paint. He was still thinking in vertical terms when he painted The Key in 1946: The canvas, which he laid on a bedroom floor, was fastened to a curtain stretcher. The stretcher implies an up, a down, a right and a left, and a face. But so does the painting's image, which is like that of an abstractly rendered landscape, with mountainy forms at the horizon. I mean that it was conceived as vertical from the beginning. When Pollock moved his studio to the barn made legendary by Namuth's films, by contrast, verticality was something that had to be allowed to emerge in the course of painting. Pollock did not begin with anything in mind. In principle, any edge could become top or bottom, depending on the way the painting went. He controlled the paint but in some way the painting controlled him.
The floor enabled Pollock to control paint as fluid--imagine what a mess it would be were he to have attempted to paint a vertical canvas in the same way he did a horizontal one! What is impressive about the paint is its velocity, as if it left the brush at the speed of sound and lay on the canvas in slender threads of pure directedness. Painting on a wall would have excluded walking around the canvas as well, seeking an entrance with no idea which edge was to be up and which down, the doodles serving as forays into the blankness, Pollock, at least in the film, working from the outside in. Critics--beginning with Clement Greenberg, who so championed the artist--have described the paintings as "all-over," which seems to me to imply the absence of direction, like a scribble or a grid, and suggests a kind of pattern rather than a reality constituted out of paint jet-streamed across space. A square sheet divided into even squares cannot have a top or a bottom--it is the same whichever way it is rotated. I surmise that the sense of all-overness was prompted by the fact that so many of the photographs we have of Pollock show him hovering over works in progress that have not yet found their direction. The critics did not think of the finished painting, viewed vertically, with a clear and vivid sense of balance and even a certain wild symmetry. The paintings relate to the canvas in much the same way that a drawing does to a sheet of paper. It does not claim the corners, it barely touches the edges. The magnificent Autumn Rhythm of 1950 has the presence of a great drawing. There is not a drip in it, but dashes and spatters as evidence of the intense energy with which the paint is cast.
The floor, meanwhile, enabled a whole complex of other changes. Paint as paste usually implies the paint tube, to be purchased in the artist's supply store. Paint as fluid implies the quart or gallon can of proletarian enamel, purchased where house painters buy dropcloths, heavy brushes, spackle, rollers and the like--the kind of supply store that could have existed out on the end of Long Island in Pollock's day, whereas art-supply stores there were probably for amateurs and china painters. Paint as paste implies brushes made of the finest hair. Paint as liquid goes with the coarsest house-painter brushes or, as Pollock's conception of painting evolved, sticks.
I have often appealed to one of Heidegger's most remarkable ideas--that of a system of interrelated tools, which he called a Zeugganz. The components of a Zeugganz are what they are by virtue of the other elements to which they refer and which in turn refer to them: The head of the nail refers to the hammer, the point to the board, the hammer's claw to the head again, but for pulling out rather than pounding in. In order to paint as he did, Pollock had to create an entirely new Zeugganz, in which casting paint was only one component. He re-created the way his body had to act in order to direct the urgent whips of pigment. The hand--which Aristotle designates the tool of tools--was part of the whole. Only with the paint dry could the canvas be lifted into a vertical position--or gravity would work against what Pollock required of his medium. It would drip or smear, neither of which has anything to do with the Original Creative Principle. A painting is not, after all, a dropcloth--or at least Pollock's paintings are not.
If I am right about the drips in Blue Poles, Pollock must have painted it on a vertical canvas, using runny paint, at least in part, the way Mitchell was to do. Why then this return to verticality? On this I have nothing to offer, other than the thought that he must have felt he had gone as far as he could within the Zeugganz of the canvas on the floor. There are other regressions evident as well. The figure begins to come back, for example. So it may have been a case of taking a backward step in order to advance. To an artist committed as Pollock was to the Original Creative Principle, the faith would have been that sooner or later a set of forms would well up from the unconscious--and indeed in one case they did. There is a powerful late painting of 1953 called The Deep, as vaginal as Courbet's Origin of the World, in which the female opening is monumentalized and detached from the woman's body, like something with a life of its own. The orifice--see if The Deep means something else to you--is a dark cleft in a field of white paint seemingly scrubbed on. There is a minimal use of interlacing strings of white paint across the orifice, which conveys a kind of wetness. There are no drips, but there are some fierce dashes of yellow in the surrounding white.
Pollock did very little painting after that. Who knows--maybe he had found what the unconscious was trying to tell him. Greenberg meanly said Jackson had lost his stuff, but perhaps instead he had found what he wanted to say. The vocabulary of the unconscious consists in the most primitive of human ideas. What retrospective light does The Deep throw on the great climactic works of 1950? Can any meaning justify the intensity of their embodiment in the biomass of whipped lines? Could any motif explain why someone would expend that degree of fury in seeking it? Pollock has suffered through the fact that his life is so much easier to write about than his work, that the work itself has scarcely been addressed. What was it about? How was its meaning embodied in the thickets of spun paint? Every interpretation seems puny alongside the material truth of the art.
Pollock was a great painter before he discovered the drip. The She-Wolf (1943) is as daunting in its wildness as the tremendous dog painted against a Dutch sky by Paulus Potter. That same year he painted Guardians of the Secret, with two gnomic figures standing on either side of something cryptic. The great works of 1950 are guardians of their own secret. Better to let it go at that than surrender to glibness.