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Critical Eye
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Live to Paint, Paint to Live
For Jackson Pollock, living and painting could not be separated -- the famous lines of his art helped hold his life in place

by Lee Siegel


February 17, 1999

Baudelaire defined genius as a child's innocent receptivity combined with the rational will of an adult. If you think of color as innocence and line as experience, then you might say that painting enacts a primal struggle for creative harmony. The formulation might sound simplistic and abstract, but I think it helps in understanding the work of Jackson Pollock, the subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is now moving on to London's Tate Gallery.

The mainstream development of Western painting, beginning in the Renaissance, tended toward forms that slowly became simpler and more abstract. By the late 1940s in the United States, in certain studios scattered around New York, painting had become absolutely simplistic -- simplistic seeming, anyway -- and abstract. Jackson Pollock's art represents, to my mind, the consummation of this trend, but not only that. His painting and his way of painting (not his tragic life!) represent an ideal way of living. And this has its roots in surrealist art.
Previously in Critical Eye:

"The Art of Overcoming," by Sheila Farr (November 1998)
For many artists creativity is rooted in problem solving. For some -- like Chuck Close and Ginny Ruffner -- this includes overcoming their own bodies' misfortunes.

"Subtle Mechanisms," by Harvey Blume (August 1998)
For Arthur Ganson, an artist whose ingenious contraptions tell stories, meaning and motion are all but inseparable.

"Truth and Consequences," by Lee Siegel (May 1998)
The films of Luis Buñuel reveal a vision of human violence that is complicated, unsentimental, and always honest.

"Posing for Egon Schiele," by Lee Siegel (February 1998)
The artist, the critics, and the importance of being jaded.


More writing on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.




Related links:

The Art Masterpiece Collection

More than seventy-five images from all different periods of Jackson Pollock's career.

The National Gallery of Art: In-Depth Study
A feature on Jackson Pollock including information on his life, paintings, and artistic process.

André Breton, the progenitor of surrealism, defined the movement in his Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Though Breton had in mind mostly poetry and theater, along with fiction, his ideas greatly influenced the visual arts. He characterized the surrealist style as "pure psychic automatism through which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true functioning of thought." Surrealism, he wrote, "is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association neglected heretofore, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought."

But notice something odd: the phrase "the true functioning of thought" is a disproportionate vehicle for "the omnipotence of the dream." A dream mediated by thought is not a dream. Breton's formulation begins as a spasm of the subconscious and ends as the portrait of a coherent occasion. What the surrealists considered anti-reason was often just a radical version of reason.

In other words, for all its talk about automatism, surrealism produced an aggressively purposeful art. Finding its sources in the subconscious, surrealism wanted to depict art-making as an activity symbolic of the buried potential of human existence. In surrealist painting, the struggle for harmony between the analytical will and childlike receptivity appears as a subterranean staple of every human personality -- every man or woman a potential genius by virtue of the miracle of consciousness.

pol1thm picture
Full Fathom Five, 1947
(Click the image for a larger version.)

Jackson Pollock drew richly from the surrealists -- and from the Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, both of whom he watched work when he was employed by the WPA in New York. But he rang a profound change on surrealism. He turned it inside out. In doing so, he made art-making not a symbol for the repressed energies of the human personality but rather an actual, attainable mode of living.

In his late, so-called "all-over" abstractions -- beginning in the 1940s with the masterpieces Full Fathom Five (1947) and Cathedral (1947) -- Pollock caught the "psychic automatism" of everyday life, the way in which libidinal forces float on the surface of modern urban existence. Pollock's surging, floating, shooting, melting, yielding, charging, attacking, embracing, merging colors are emblems of the way modern people perceive. They compose the same landscape one encounters in a seventeenth-century Dutch painting, or in an eighteenth-century French painting, or in a twentieth-century painting of a city -- but as seen from, say, a speeding car, or from a life lived at top speed. Modern emotions, panting after modern perceptions, also go this fast. And Pollock's colorscapes are loaded with emotion. Looking at his paintings, your senses grasp abstractions that elude your mind. That is to say, you cannot articulate Pollock's abstractions. You can only allude to them. And this experience of not being able mentally to comprehend forms that the senses innocently apprehend is an emotional experience.

Above, across, through, over, around this near-anarchy are Pollock's lines. But they are not just lines; they are "world-lines." In modern physics, the world-line is a concept that signifies the path a physical object follows during its existence. Yet it does not just travel through space. To calculate a world-line, you need to factor in a fourth dimension: time. This binds together far-flung elements with startling events. Time makes space meaningful.

Pollock's late style resembles this complicated modern physics. Think of his famous lines from this period: dripped, poured, lavished, whipped down onto the canvas in shooting streaks, gossamer skeins, leaping grands jetés and arabesques. They are world-lines because they impose a fourth dimension -- the artist's purposive will on the content of his journey and the chaos of his sensations and perceptions. In art, a purposive will makes emotion meaningful. And such an unaided contest between discipline and freedom is really the essential task of making a modern life.

This is very different from the art critic Harold Rosenberg's famous definition of abstract expressionism as "action painting," as a heroic act of existential authenticity. Rosenberg cut painting off from daily existence. Pollock knitted painting into the fabric of daily existence. Samuel Butler once said that life is like learning how to play the violin and having to give concerts at the same time. That is how Pollock painted, as if living and painting were identical. And so he either hit the nail on the head, or missed it completely, losing himself in monotonous self-indulgence the way John Coltrane -- a favorite of Pollock's -- vanished into the self-besotted folds of his twilight style.

More than any artist I know of, Pollock tried to bring the rhythms of life into the rhythms of art. That is why consideration of his life is essential to grasping his work. Some astute critics blanched at the way the MoMA retrospective placed an almost equal stress on Pollock's life as on his work. I understand their reaction. As a rule, I dislike the mingling of what a person creates with how he or she lives. But Pollock defies my aversion.

You cannot, for example, understand his obsession with retaining the fluidity of paint on the canvas without thinking about his alcoholism. Except for intermittent dry spells, Pollock was drunk almost every day and night of his life. There is nothing reductive about making this connection. Fluidity as daily labor, as a made thing, gave Pollock a solid barrier against his gradual liquescence. His drinking made him fatally receptive to his impulses, much in the way his paintings sprang from an absolute vulnerability to sensation. And his paintings rescued order from his drinking the way his world-lines battled chaos and achieved order inside his paintings.

pol2thm picture
Lavender Mist, Number 1, 1950 (Click the image for a larger version.)


Pollock hit his stride in postwar America when, for more and more lucky people, the struggle to preserve freedom relaxed into the problem of what to do with it. The relationship between work and creativity became a social question. In the sixties, this evolved into the question of the relationship between discipline and freedom, which became a social crisis. The Pollock who, in the famous film by Hans Namuth that was shown continuously at MoMA during the exhibition, jumped around the canvas he characteristically had laid down on the floor, lunged at it, stepped into it, circled and swooped around it -- this Pollock seemed to attain the modern dream of work as an expression of human freedom. And this ideal, contrary to popular notions of Pollock's visual violence, is why all the activity in his finest canvases is so serene -- as in the sublime Lavender Mist, Number 1, 1950. This is how Pollock's method of working -- innocent play versus experienced purpose -- echoed and nourished his paintings' mode of harmony.

After Namuth's short black-and-white film ended, the museum showed some color outtakes that Namuth had not included. You saw Pollock working outside his studio in The Springs, Long Island. He had, of course, placed his canvas on the ground. You watched him doing his dance, dripping, pouring, flinging, carefully bestowing. Behind him lay fields and meadows and hills and a cerulean sky. Unlike the film there was no sound. Pollock worked in absolute silence. He was just a man living his life, which happened also to be his work, which was how he spent the best of his days on earth. The fateful motion of a natural piety. It was indescribably beautiful and moving. And then, for some mysterious reason, the film speeded up, Pollock moved like a puppet, and the sky grew absurd and implacable. The film came to its abrupt end, and you joined the line, the impatient worldly line, of people waiting to leave the galleries.


Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More writing on arts and culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Lee Siegel is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and writes for several other publications including Doubletake and The New York Times Book Review. He has written for The Atlantic on
Jane Austen and contemporary women novelists, and for Atlantic Unbound on Luis Buñuel and Egon Schiele.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Full Fathom Five from the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Miss Peggy Guggenheim. Photo credit: Mali Olatunji.
Lavender Mist, Number 1, 1950 from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. Photo credit: Richard Carafelli.
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