Pollock and the Drip

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.


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.

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.

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