Pollock and the Drip
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.
On the other hand, the forms themselves seem made for the technique: It would be monstrous were Pollock to attempt something like the Mona Lisa by manipulating swift streams of liquid paint! His are the kinds of forms paint used this way would spontaneously achieve, once one had learned how to do it. They look, in fact, like brilliant doodles, to borrow from Robert Motherwell the expression he liked to use in describing the initial address to the blank canvas or empty sheet of paper. When one studies the hundreds of small spontaneous drawings Motherwell made in 1965, to which he gave the name Lyric Suite, one cannot but notice that his and Pollock's forms are entirely cognate. Both subscribed to the Surrealist concept of "psychic automatism," which they had learned from Matta and which Motherwell often spoke of as "the original creative principle." The problem for the artist was to find a technique that enabled the creative unconscious to express itself on a surface. But for just this reason the paint had to be disciplined. A drip refers to a disposition of undisciplined paint rather than an active artistic power. That is why controlling paint was a defining value for Pollock: It enabled him to yield to the unconscious and to bring up from its depth the forms that were its gift to consciousness.
Let us return to Ladybug: Two truths can be inferred from the density of its drips, apart from the symbolism the drip had acquired in Abstract Expressionist discourse. First, since the existence of drips entails verticality, the painting had to have been executed in a vertical position, on an easel or against a wall. (That would have been simply taken for granted before Pollock's decision to paint on unstretched pieces of canvases laid flat on the floor.) Second, the drip is the product of gravity overcoming surface tension. So the drip defines the bottom and top of a painting by its direction. But top and bottom imply verticality as well--a canvas on a floor will yield no physical clue as to what is "up" and what is "down." In fact, I think that Pollock's paintings do have tops and bottoms, which means that they were ultimately to be seen as vertical. This came to me when I noticed the reproduction of Number 32, 1950, on the back cover of the catalogue MoMA has produced for the show. The image seemed upside down, and though there were any number of visual clues as to which way was right-side-up, based on the way books are put together--in our culture, always opening from the right rather than the left, for instance--the painting looks wrong seen in any way other than the one Pollock himself intended, obvious from the placement of his signature in the lower right corner. The painting, then, internally determines which edge is top and which is bottom. (Try rotating it, and see if you agree.) Allowing paint to drip removes that ambiguity. To be sure, Mitchell could have mocked gravity by so hanging her painting that the drips went up! But that would be an impudence entirely inconsistent with the seriousness with which she took the act of painting and the importance she so clearly attached to the physics of dripping paint.
Mural, as its name implies, refers to a wall. Guggenheim originally wanted it painted on her wall, like a proper mural, but instead it was painted on canvas mounted on a wall in Pollock's studio: He even broke down a dividing wall so that he would have an uninterrupted vertical expanse on which to execute a painting nineteen feet long. Mural is exceedingly rhythmic, but it is a rhythm of forms with a definite upward vector, like that which flowers or trees possess. I once saw a photograph someone compared to Mural, in which a row of leather straps hangs from nails along a wall. Yet the forms in Mural cannot be thought of as hanging down. Mural is about growth, and it marks where the sky should be as definitively as clouds do in conventional landscapes. The presence of the drips in the lower right corner serves as external evidence of the painting's vertical orientation, but someone with the kind of control Pollock insisted he possessed would want the orientation of the painting to come entirely from within. Namuth's film does not show how the doodles were connected up and overlaid by lashes of spun paint, but to judge from the paintings from that period that are on view, one imagines that each move suggested the next, and bit by bit some form began to emerge, perhaps evoked by the doodles, perhaps not. It would have been inconsistent with the methodology of creative automatism to prepare sketches or studies, as Pollock acknowledges in his speech at the beginning of the film.